Intercultural Competence

In a society that is increasingly globalist, people of all races, religions, and nations need to develop “intercultural competence” in order to assure the harmonious development of humanity. The question is: What is the least expensive and, yet, perhaps the most effective and expeditious way to teach cultural competence to global citizens of all ages and educational levels? The answer is: through autobiographies, “teaching stories,” mass marketed in the form of books, audio recordings, and films.

The purpose of autobiographical writing is to record self-descriptive material for the purpose of increasing self-awareness and making an effective self-evaluation. This awareness may then be shared with others for the purpose of helping them to expand their self-awareness and encourage self-evaluation, toward enhancing their development in a particular area. A story that is powerful enough might even facilitate transformation to a whole new perspective.

For example, two essays, “The Fender Bender,” by Ramon “Tianguis” Perez and “Shooting an Elephant,” by George Orwell, have multiple themes related to enculturation, but they are both, first of all, autobiographical, classified as such in Mark Connelly’s anthology, The Sundance Reader. As autobiographies, both essays share firsthand experiences that serve the purpose of expanding the reader’s self-awareness. Both essays also provide teachings related to this matter of “intercultural competence,” the ability to develop self-awareness sufficiently to evaluate the self in an intercultural context and adjust the self to communicate and perform in a manner that is effective and harmonious.

Creating intercultural competence involves: immersing oneself in the less familiar culture, gaining the knowledge of the expectations prevalent in that culture, and adjusting one’s attitudes and behavior in order to interact effectively. Those are the basic ingredients, and they are present in the essays by Perez and Orwell.

Immersing one’s self in a culture is most effective when it occurs through direct interaction. However, a well crafted autobiography can provide a meaningful vicarious experience while introducing information about the values, beliefs, and norms—the expectations of that culture.

Both essays under examination are written by authors immersed directly in the culture that challenges them to know, and attempt to understand the views, values, and norms that are foreign to their primary cultural orientation. Perez is perhaps more challenged than Orwell because Orwell has been born into his intercultural challenge in Burma, whereas Perez appears to have chosen to enter the United States illegally after growing up in Mexico. In both cases, the authors are confronting racial as well as interrelated cultural differences, but in Orwell’s situation, his race is the one in authority. Yet, Orwell’s challenge to exercise intercultural competence as he deals with legally and intentionally shooting the Burman’s elephant is no less daunting than that of Perez who must deal with driving illegally and accidentally damaging the property of an indigenous white-skinned citizen. These essays underscore the fact that the need to develop intercultural competence is not merely a burden on people who represent an underclass minority attempting to “fit in;” in a multi-racial global society, everyone is challenged to fit in (Orwell; Perez).

Adjusting the self to function in the culture means satisfying that culture’s expectations. This requires having the ability to sense and interpret one’s surroundings in “real time,” taking the actions that will be perceived as “responsible.” By being self-aware and developing intercultural competence, one is better able to meet his or her personal needs in the process. Such learning usually begins by imitating the behaviors of people who are long-term members of the culture, by emulating people who have mastered the art of intercultural competence. Developing higher levels of competence is the ongoing result of formally and informally gathering and following a combination of advice, instructions, or directives of role-models and authority figures such as parents, teachers, employers, and law enforcers. This learning process requires critical thinking, releasing thoughtless biases, and becoming more empathetic.

In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell is well schooled in both the British and Burman cultures and trained to perform duties intended to serve the perceived needs of Burmese citizens as well as the British government. He has many years of experience in the Burmese culture and has processed input from countless sources in developing his intercultural competence to that point when he is forced to make the difficult decision to take the action required. In the end of the story, Orwell says that he had “…done it solely to avoid looking the fool” (Orwell 95). An objective observer would more likely say that Orwell acted in a manner that displayed intercultural competence, despite the unpleasantness of his task.

Perez, in “The Fender Bender,” is less well schooled in the views, values, and norms of the North American culture in which he is immersed. He displays a level of intercultural competence that shows a lower-level of development in this regard. For example, he has no driver’s license, photo-identification card, or other document to verify his identify, in violation of the law and a cultural norm. His failure to understand the other driver’s need to prove that the damage was not his fault, while also failing to understand the serious dilemma he is creating for the Chicano policeman, who is not unsympathetic, is well evidenced by Perez when he says, “I ask myself why the Chicano is determined to harm me” (Perez 73, 75).

The process through which a native of another country becomes a United States citizen involves educating immigrants about many matters. This requirement to become a citizen helps the immigrant gain at least a working level of intercultural competence, which benefits everyone.

Obviously, intercultural competence is a dynamic, open-ended, and ongoing process. There is always more to learn and the benefits to be derived from successful communications and other interactions with others are countless. Through each world citizen’s effort to become more self-aware and more adept at self-evaluation and adjustment, achieving a harmonious global society is an attainable vision. The mass-marketing of select autobiographies, translated into all major languages, would greatly contribute to this goal.     

Works Cited 

Connelly, Mark, ed. The Sundance Reader. 4th ed., Boston: Thomson, 2006.

Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” Connelly 89-95.

Perez, Ramon “Tianguis.” “The Fender Bender.” Connelly 73-76.


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