More and more American students are opting to go abroad, either for a gap year, an alternative spring break trip, an international internship, a service-learning course, or a volunteer abroad experience. These kinds of experiences are rich in what they offer to people of all ages – especially for students. They help prepare you for that often overwhelming “next step” in your academic or professional life by giving you abilities for problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership.
Skill development is a critical focus for any abroad journey, and one of the most significant skills to know about is intercultural competency. Intercultural competency is being able to effectively communicate and appropriately behave in host countries. It is actively re-positioning your own attitudes within the larger context of the country you are visiting, which then enhances your perspective of the world.
Further Reading: 6 Ways To Deepen Your Travel Experiences
This skill will provide you with the ability to navigate different places, cultural interactions, and challenging situations both domestic and abroad. It is a kind of cultural self-awareness that can ultimately facilitate your development as a global citizen. You can make sure you are developing intercultural competency during your travel experiences with the following five actions.
1) Try new things
You don’t have to go too crazy (unless you want to)! Branch out though, and tap in to what the locals do, eat, where they pray, what kinds of activities or hobbies they do, etc. Try new foods, new sports, new dance-moves, anything that gets you outside of your normal comfort zone. Get involved with culturally-specific activities, even if that means just making your own walking (or jogging or biking) tour of a neighborhood or district. This will make you a more flexible and adaptable learner, which will contribute to your future success in either the workplace or in school.
2) Treat the locals as your teachers
The country you are visiting is full of experts! Approach each person as a teacher, and learn from every conversation, every person, in whatever way is presented to you. Every person (in general) has their own unique perspective to offer, but this is especially the case when you are traveling abroad. The more you talk with the locals, and the more you really listen to their stories, the deeper your understanding of their culture, their history, and their perspectives will become.
3) Have real dialogues
There are hundreds of different cultures in the world, which means there are hundreds of different customs, ideas, perspectives, and ways of being. This is a wonderful, and challenging reality. When you are traveling in a new country, this can potentially create moments of tension and frustration. Try to use some of that to channel your own growth. One way of doing this is having conversations with people you may disagree with on a number of topics: politics, religion, social norms, etc. Some cultures may enforce different degrees of appropriateness for certain topics, so also make sure you practice cultural sensitivity, empathy, and respect during such conversations. Be open-minded, and give yourself plenty of space to digest these conversations and how they can potentially help shape your own global perspective.
For example, if you are interested in working with a community development project in Cape Town, you will have ample opportunity to learn about the socio-cultural history of South Africa, and to immerse yourself in conversations about politics, social norms, and community development in the area.
4) Learn the language
Ideally you learn how to speak to the local people in their own language. This may be somewhat difficult to do if you are a beginner, and if you are also participating in other activities (like classes, or an internship). Even if it’s only a few phrases though, try and communicate in the native tongue. Most cultures will appreciate the effort. Learning the local language will give you a richer way of engaging with your host culture. Some countries offer a 1-1 tutoring exchange where you can practice speaking the language and teach your partner some basic English phrases.
One way you can practice this specific point of intercultural competency is by teaching English to Buddhist novice monks in Laos. This project provides volunteers with the opportunity to integrate in the Laotian culture through various forms of language and cultural exchange.
Further Reading: 10 Tips to Make Language Learning More Fun
5) Practice gratitude
This can apply to how you connect with people in general, but especially with your host culture, it will help you to connect with sometimes foreign or potentially alienating ideas or moments. Thank your host mom (if you’re staying with a host family) for meals or for doing your laundry. Thank your teachers, public transportation operators, street food workers, everyone. Then more appreciation you show towards this new, unfamiliar place, the more people will want to connect with you, teach you. And, it will in turn make your experience much more positive and enjoyable.
Intercultural competence is a skill that we can all constantly improve upon, even (if not especially) global leaders. The more countries we visit using these points as our guide, the stronger our capacity for cultural understanding will be. It’s like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it will become!
Feel ready to start making a difference? Find out more about GVI’s international, award-winning volunteering programs and internships, and choose from community development, animal care, teaching, women’s empowerment, and conservation projects worldwide.