• Volunteer and Adventure

Five actions you can take to gain intercultural competence

Posted: May 25, 2022

International travel has become a norm for many people, but not every opportunity offers a chance to learn about other cultures in a meaningful way. 

More and more travellers are deciding to pack their bags and participate in an internship or volunteer abroad. Many people choose to travel for educational purposes, to make a start on a career change, for adventure or a mixture of the three. 

Whatever your aim, you’ll get to interact with local people and learn from the culture of the country you’re in.  Meaningful intercultural interactions will provide you with an opportunity to grow personally and professionally. 

Wondering how to get in on the types of opportunities that’ll get you meaningfully immersed in culture and build on your career at the same time? Read on to find out.


Why does having a meaningful travel experience matter?



A meaningful travel experience is one where you gain an appreciation for both the community and place you’ve travelled to. 

It also means contributing towards building on the community you’re in, and not having a negative impact during your stay. This could mean opting for a homestay –living with a host family – instead of staying in a hotel, or choosing a locally-owned hotel over an international chain. 

It could also include making a positive impact by volunteering in wildlife conservation with a local organisation. Or even committing to using refillable water bottles over disposable ones. 

One thing that all of these opportunities have in common is that they offer you the chance to develop personal and professional skills while travelling abroad responsibly.

This means travelling in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on the social, economic or environmental well-being of the places you visit.


How can responsible travel add to my development?


On a responsible travel experience, like a GVI volunteer program, your day-to-day activities are centred on learning and practising specific skills. 

These skills will make it easier for you to be a responsible traveller, as well as your personal and professional development. 

Some of the skills you’ll learn on a volunteer program include:

  • communication
  • flexibility
  • networking
  • teamwork.

One of the most important skills you’ll learn is intercultural competence. But what exactly is intercultural competence?

Intercultural competence is the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds – at home or abroad.

As a volunteer, gaining intercultural competence means acknowledging your own perceptions and cultural background, and becoming aware of how you interact with other people.

After that, it’s all about figuring out how best you can interact with fellow volunteers and local people in a way that fits within the larger cultural context of the country you’re visiting.

And it’s this type of effort that’ll assist in broadening your perspective of the world. You can make sure you are developing intercultural skills by following the five actions below. 


How to develop intercultural competence while travelling abroad


1) Learn from local people


One of the best ways to learn about another culture is to get a first-hand account from people who live it.  This is because our perceptions of somewhere we’ve never been to can be shaped by movies, music or even the news.  But these perceptions aren’t always accurate representations of the culture in another country, and the best way to figure it out is to experience it for yourself.

Whether at home or abroad, take every opportunity you can to talk to local people, observe local traditions and get involved in cultural events where appropriate and done in a respectful way. This could mean striking up a conversation with the cashier at a grocery store while running errands during your volunteering in Mexico program. 


2) Actively appreciate your experiences



Research has shown that being grateful is good for your health. Practise active appreciation by thanking the people who let you experience their cultures during your volunteer program, but be mindful to not overstep cultural norms. Even if you’re a hugger, first consider if hugging is culturally acceptable and ask whether the person would be comfortable with a hug. 

Show your appreciation for your  teachers and supervisors for their assistance every day. Thank your host for cooking you supper. Thank the street vendor whose food cart you frequent. This will go a long way in helping you build relationships with local people, and acknowledge the positive experiences you have on a day-to-day basis. 

Finding something positive in every interaction you have can set you up with wonderful memories of your time abroad.


3) Immerse yourself in your surroundings



This could mean trying local dishes that you’ve never heard of before that are either sold by local markets, vendors or restaurants, or  offered to you by your host family. Or venturing out on local transport and trying things that might not be part of your everyday volunteer activities. 

For instance, if you’re volunteering in Cambodia, take a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled taxi) to the Siem Reap night market during your free time. There you will be immersed in the local culture and have plenty of opportunities to practise your language skills and try local foods. This way you can work on growing your intercultural competence independently.

This will make you a more flexible and adaptable learner, both of which will contribute to your future as a successful professional.



Some other ways you can become immersed in culture include: 

  • visiting local museums
  • joining a dancing, cooking or arts-and-crafts class
  • taking a walking tour of the city or neighbourhood your visiting
  • learning the local language.


4) Learn to speak the local language


A key part of intercultural competence is communicating with people from different cultures. Showing that you want to communicate with the local people in their language shows respect for their culture.

On a GVI volunteering program, you’ll have opportunities to talk to local people every day. This is because people from the local community participate in all  of our projects. 

Learning the local language will equip you with a more meaningful way to engage with your host community while travelling, working or studying abroad. 

Many of our volunteer destinations – such as Fiji, Peru, Thailand and Madagascar – offer one-on-one tutoring, where you’ll learn the language from a native speaker while providing local people with English lessons..


5) Talk about your own culture too

Cultural diversity is a good thing, because it offers a wealth of information that we can all draw from in order to understand each other better. 

And, while being immersed in the culture of another country can teach you a lot, remember that telling people about your own culture can be a learning experience too – for yourself and your host community. 

In the right kinds of settings, you can even have conversations about differing cultural viewpoints. These types of interactions are a great way to start thinking about global concerns in a way you never have before. By the end of the talk, you may have a completely different perspective to what you started out with. 

Be sure to give yourself space and time to digest these encounters, and to reflect on how they could potentially shape your worldview.

We understand that you may have questions about how COVID-19 will affect your travel plans. Visit our FAQs page which explains our latest safety protocols in response to COVID-19.

Disclaimer: The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.





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