We use the word „culture“ in different context and according to cultural affiliation; there is no generally accepted explanation of the term. Each one of us belongs to several small cultures / living environments (workplace, university, family, soccer club, friendship association, church, etc.) Intercultural competence helps to understand unfamiliar behavior in the host country or while communicating with business partners from other cultures, and to minimize conflict situations.
In German we use „culture“ (derived from the Latin „colere“: „to care for, cultivate, educate“) in the sense of inhabiting (living environment), cultivating (e.g. agriculture), ennobling, decorating (fine arts, opera, etc.), worshipping (cult).
A culture is not identical with a whole country and cannot be limited territorially or linguistically. Within a country / nation there are many different cultures whose individuals in turn belong to other small worlds. What characterizes all cultures are their routine actions, which their members find meaningful and normal. The patterns for this culturally determined behavior are learned in childhood.
Culture > folk dance + traditional costumes
This means for globetrotters that they should not only think of national dishes, folklore, etiquette, sights and language when it comes to „culture“. What they see and experience is only the tip of a „cultural iceberg“ that reaches far into the depths and whose meaningfulness is only revealed to an outsider after a long time or even never. Furthermore, travelers run the risk of judging the locals only by superficial impressions, „putting a label“ on them“, or using clichés. Because they miss the – not always easy – process of getting to know the cultures of the host country more intensively and gathering unforgettable impressions when meeting different people. Hidden from us are the norms, values, behavior and beliefs of a culture. It takes a very long time for a traveler to at least partially discover them.
Intercultural competence is therefore required if you do not only want to feel like a tourist but also want to learn more about the culture(s) of the host country. If you only orientate yourself abroad according to the value system of your culture, you will misunderstand certain behaviors, become insecure and in the worst case leave frustrated – with bad memories in your luggage. That is why it makes sense not only to acquire language skills, but also to take a closer look at the cultures of the destination country. This goes far beyond the „Dos and Don’ts“ that are often used with pleasure but mostly serve clichés. Anyway, at least in the first time in another country they can also be helpful.
Know your own value patterns
However, anyone who travels in countries with foreign cultures should also be aware of their own culture and know their own norms, values, behavior, routine, etc. This makes it easier to understand why foreign communication partners sometimes do not comprehend the „German mentality“, e.g. when a German starts a business meeting without having had any small talk first, or when a German relentlessly criticizes his/her employees. The Germans are aware of these behavior patterns and can live with them, but an American or Brazilian will find this „efficient behavior“ or „honesty“ highly impolite or even insulting. The personal level plays a major role in many cultures. Both in business and private life, these behavior patterns often decide on the progress of a relationship.