Crossing cultures to live in the U.S.  or abroad as an au pair, an international student, a businessman/woman ,or as a “trailing spouse” can often be a challenge.  Daily encounters with “unusual” behaviors can be daunting.  And when all of the challenges are faced in a new language, life can really get confusing!

Before going to a new culture, it’s important to assess your own level of cultural competence or ability to interact successfully with people from another country.  Where are you on the Ladder of Cultural Competence?

Level I-the lowest step on the ladder-this is a place of not knowing what you don’t know!  The person on this step assumes that everyone does things the same way-his way, and of course thinks that his way is the only way of behaving.  This is a dangerous place to be-it’s a place where people make other people “wrong,” where stereotypes are formed, where miscommunication is ever present. At this level, we’re Unconsciously Incompetent!

Level II-Fortunately, for many people, the lightbulb goes on and it occurs to us that there are differences in styles of communication, the way we interact with others, the way we view the world-we’re coming from different value systems.  We may still not know anything but we do know that we need to learn and that’s an important first step to becoming culturally competent.  At this step we are Consciously Incompetent.

Conscious competence occurs when we’ve learned the underlying value system of the other culture which allows us to better understand the style of communication and behavior.  We’re comfortable in the new culture though we often still need to think about what we and the other person are doing. This is a fine level of functioning.  Awareness, willingness to learn, understand and not stereotype go a long way!

Unconsciously competent-yea!  This person can move between cultures effortlessly and successfully!  I’ve watched my esteemed partner travel between Ireland (her original home) and the U.S. (her home for 30 years) and marvel at how her accent thickens when she hits Irish soil, she jumps into friendly banter with the locals and best of all, she drives on the “wrong” side of the road without hitting the curb and getting a flat (like her esteemed colleague does)!

Let’s throw aside judments and quick conclusions based on what we “think” is happening with a person from another culture.  Let’s take the time to learn so we can rise on the Ladder of Cultural Competence.