The following are three different ways to define cultural competence or competence in intercultural communication. In today’s environment diversity training is very common, and it is important to understand what aspects of this are relevant to interpreting. In this blog post, I will focus on aspects of cultural competence that lead to developing better communication between individuals.

The Interagency Language Round Table (ILR) has developed a scale to evaluate readiness for particular tasks. The ILR is a collaborative effort of Federal, academic and Non Government Organizations (NGO) specialists. They found that competence in intercultural communication was closely linked to language proficiency, since when we communicate a message in a particular language, it is almost always heard by a person who lives in a culture where that language is dominant. Because of this, in May of 2012, the ILR published the skill level descriptions for competence in intercultural communication.

“Competence in intercultural communication is the ability to take part effectively in a given social context by understanding what is being communicated and by employing appropriate language and behavior to convey an intended message.

Knowledge and understanding of some extralinguistic elements may be acquired through independent research, regional studies, or educational programs that include coursework in such disciplines as anthropology, history, religion, politics, psychology, sociology, sociolinguistics, economics, communication, literature, and the arts. However, control of a full range of nonverbal responses to social cues is typically unattainable without extended immersion in the culture.”

Note from Helen: The ILR skill level descriptions help us understand the limits of our cultural competence, so we can know what situations we should approach confidently. In a way, they even give us a list of things to learn, as we try to conquer one level at a time!

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is a framework for cross-cultural communication, developed by Geert Hofstede. It describes the effects of a society’s culture on the values of its members, and how these values relate to behavior, using a structure derived from factor analysis. The theory has been widely used in several fields as a paradigm for research, particularly in cross-cultural psychology, international management, and cross-cultural communication.

Note from Helen: In a session on Cultural dimensions theory, I noticed that the perception and the reality of a culture added up to zero. In other words, cultures that perceived themselves as egalitarian were generally not as egalitarian as they thought they were. As interpreters, if we were to explain another person’s culture, we are likely to commit one of two mistakes:

  • Explaining the reality, and offending the person from the culture.
  • Explaining the perception, and misleading the provider regarding the realities.

In Argentina, when I grew up, we would say, “Yo, argentino.” That meant, “Me? I have no opinion. I’m staying out of this.” I believe that is the best approach for an interpreter. When the parties communicate directly, they can explain things the way they find most appropriate.

Definition of culture from the CLAS standards (Culturally and Linguistic Appropriate Services):

The integrated pattern of thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions associated, wholly or partially, with racial, ethnic, or linguistic groups, as well as with religious, spiritual, biological or sociological characteristics. Culture is dynamic in nature, and individuals may identify with multiple cultures over the course of their lifetime.

Elements of culture include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Age
  • Cognitive ability or limitations
  • Country of origin
  • Degree of acculturation
  • Educational level attained
  • etc.

Note from Helen: The CLAS standards give us the official definition of culture for the medical field. If we were to try to think of each of these 24 elements of this incomplete list, we would never be successful. This kind of list may even include things that some would consider cultural and others would consider personal achievements (Educational level attained, for example).

Helen’s conclusion:

Cultures develop in a geographic area, where they have to respond to the needs of their physical environment, cultures they are in contact with, and other problems. Each culture has different resources and different problems to solve, and therefore will develop different customs to some degree.

There are may ways to think of culture. Having lived with people from 40 countries (and even more cultures) for over a year, while I visited over 20 countries, I found that even in situations where people make “cultural blunders”, if the people perceive that the person had a kind attitude and good intentions, these issues are forgiven. Approaching people of other cultures with respect and humility is key to cross-cultural relationships. I remember spending four hours sitting on the floor with a Korean friend learning how to say her name! We developed a good friendship based on that. As I learned how to say her name, we talked about how our parents said good night, and lots of other interesting things. Our families had remarkably different customs!

I think it is important to consider that even within a culture, each person adjusts to the local environment and customs in different ways. As interpreters, we would be misguided if we were to even dream of explaining another person’s perception of their own culture. Therefore, the best option is to have open conversations about things we have misunderstandings about. Some of those misunderstandings may be due to cultural issues, and others may have other causes. In Spanish there is a saying: “Hablando, la gente se entiende.” When people speak to each other, they understand each other.

People who don’t understand each other need to speak to each other, not to a third party. As interpreters, we give people that possibility. Then, understanding can be a two-way street and we can all be enriched. As interpreters, when we interpret these conversations, we will be enriched as well!