Why Intercultural Competence Matters in Short-term Assignments

What kind of cultural preparation do staff, volunteers, and donors really need before embarking on a short assignment overseas? Here, I argue that it is more critical to provide cultural preparation for short-term assignments than it is for long-term ones.

While much attention has been paid to the role of intercultural competence in long-term international placements, such consideration is seldom given any room on the agenda of short-term assignment.

For long-term placements, Peace Corps is perhaps one of the best examples of an organization that is committed to instilling intercultural competence in its volunteers, and has a robust training program for those who are placed in remote outposts all over the world for two-year contracts. It is understood that much preparation is needed if one is to be living and working in an environment for months or years. Most of the preparation is around coping with that environment—things like dealing with culture shock or managing logistical elements to ease life transitions, like where to buy groceries or how to seek health care.

For a short-term placements, lasting from a few days to a few weeks, this level of preparation is almost always overlooked. If you are only overseas for one to two weeks, it is assumed that all you need to know is how to get from the airport to your place of work and then do your job. Intercultural training—if and when it is even offered—focuses on the technical aspect of your work. You don’t have to buy groceries or speak the local language or adapt your lifestyle. It seems unnecessary to discuss culture.

But this is a huge mistake. One to two weeks is plenty of time for cultural mishaps to take place and undermine the success of a project. Plenty of examples involving staff and travelers are documented in my articles.

For short-term assignments, there is no time to get a lay of the land, to build relationships, to make mistakes and learn from them and then bounce back and do it all over again, only better. These are benefits you only get when you have time on your side, when you have weeks and months and years to learn and adapt. When you have merely days, you need to be effective and competent from the moment you land.

To hammer this point home, I use an analogy familiar to many job seekers in North America. Consider this question: you’ve just been offered a new job—how much time do you spend preparing for the first day of work?

Do you mine your future coworkers’ LinkedIn profiles so that you know everyone’s backgrounds? Maybe not. Do you read up on the company in media outlets to learn about every noteworthy event? Probably not. Do you study the floorplan of the office so you will already know where the bathrooms and break rooms are? Definitely not. And why? Because you have a long time to get to know your colleagues, the company history, and the building. Apart from picking out your clothes or checking your commute, you probably spend no time at all preparing for your first day of work.

Now consider this question: before you got offered the job, how much time did you spend preparing for that first thirty-minute phone interview?

I’m willing to bet the answer is “a lot.” You probably spent time reading interview questions, practicing your answers, researching the company, looking up your interviewer on LinkedIn. All this likely took hours. And why? Because every minute of that thirty-minute phone call counted. You didn’t have time to ruminate silently over your answers or banter with the interviewer in friendly conversation. You had to be sharp and articulate from that first minute.

It’s like this in short-term international assignments—every hour counts. There is no time to get used to this new environment; there is no time to watch and learn.

So, what kind of preparation is needed?

Surely you can’t know everything about the local culture, even if you devoted your entire life to studying it. And while it’s important to have a sense of both culture (communication styles, beliefs, values) and customs (greetings, dress, procedures), I argue that—as with the job-seeker analogy—the most important preparation you need is enhanced self-awareness.

When preparing for a first job interview, knowing about the company and the position is important, but the majority of preparation involves knowing more about yourself.

Before you go into that interview you have to have a clear sense of your values, how others perceive you, specific stories illustrating your qualities and skills, examples of things you’ve learned when you’ve made a mistake. You have to analyze and interpret your professional past and be able to articulate how it has affected you in the present.

I’m suggesting this same kind of preparation is essential to successful intercultural encounters in the short term. Knowing about the other country and culture is important, but knowing about yourself is even more critical.

So, where do you start? Broadly, I suggest you focus your training programs on four areas: communication styles, increasing travelers’ tolerance of ambiguity, helping travelers identity triggers for discomfort, and exploring the ways their own identities inform their judgements.