Spending time abroad – Does it get us ready for working across cultures?


Spending time abroad – Does it make us interculturally competent?

A key goal of study abroad programs is to enable students to develop their intercultural competences. Global organizations likewise assume that international experience predicts intercultural effectiveness and expatriate success – which is why they are so keenly interested in hiring graduates who studied abroad. But how much does Time Spent Abroad actually contribute to intercultural competence development? Our data show that its importance is overstated and its effects still ill understood.

Our research draws on data from 40,000 respondents who completed the Intercultural Readiness Check (www.interculturalreadiness.com ©Intercultural Business Improvement BV), a valid and reliable questionnaire assessing four intercultural competences. Respondents come from 180 countries, all major industries and professions; they differ in seniority, management level, and international experience. From the start of using the Intercultural Readiness Check some 15 years ago, we’ve always asked respondents to also tell us how many friends from other cultures they had. By now, our database is probably the largest source of information on intercultural friendship – a topic of growing interest to research on intercultural development.

So what matters most – Spending time abroad or Having friends from other cultures? The answer is clear and simple: Intercultural friendship is far more important to intercultural competence development than Experience of living and working abroad. People with many friends from other cultures have vastly better scores on Intercultural Readiness than those with few friends from other cultures. Importantly, if people stay abroad for more than one year and still have not found a way of making friends across cultures, their competences shrink back to the level at which they started before they went abroad (Brinkmann & van Weerdenburg, 2014 Intercultural Readiness).

We cannot, then, simply assume that students return home from their study abroad as interculturally competent citizens of the world. Nor can companies assume that expatriates who have worked abroad before will do a better job than those who have not. What organizations can do, however, is assess intercultural readiness before the move, coupled with level-specific coaching and guidance before, during and after the move. For more information on how we support universities and companies, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at info@ibinet.nl.

About the author:

Psychologist Ursula Brinkmann has over 15 years of experience in the intercultural management field. She conducted her doctoral research on First Language Acquisition at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and worked as intercultural management consultant with the internationally renowned Professor Fons Trompenaars at the Center for International Business Studies.

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