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Engaging effectively with different cultures

carolee coulter different culturesWhat is intercultural competence? And why should a manager or owner of a natural health retailer seek to build this skill?


What is intercultural competence? And why should a manager or owner of a natural health retailer seek to build this skill?

My colleague Darin Short consults for educational institutions, municipalities, global corporations and community-oriented non-profits, providing intercultural assessments, training, coaching and team building. He also serves on the board of Maple City Market, a food co-op in Goshen, Indiana. 

Short defines intercultural competence as the ability to relate and interact effectively with a variety of cultural differences from one’s own. It’s not so much about knowledge of other cultures, but about adaptability, open-mindedness and “going with the flow.”

“The world has changed in the last 20 years,” Short says. “We’re so much more globally mobile and connected. It’s rare to be in a situation where there is just one cultural group represented. Intercultural competence is good business. It brings in more customers and results in a more engaged staff.

“There are cultural differences,” Short continues. “If we’re willing to acknowledge and learn about them, we create a more inviting environment to groups from non-dominant cultures.”

How do you build your intercultural competence? Short recommends starting with some form of assessment such as the Intercultural Development Inventory, a tool that helps us understand how we engage with people of different cultural backgrounds and how to develop our competency.

You can start practicing right in your own workplace by inviting staff of different cultural backgrounds to talk about theirs and how their values are important to them in a work setting. It’s easy to never talk about this at all at work, so it takes conscious effort to make these conversations happen.

Short gives an example of recognizing cultural differences in performance evaluations. Instead of, or in addition to, individual reviews, he suggests group evaluations once or twice a year when small groups talk about how they work together. This could be more motivating to people from cultures that are more group-oriented than individualistic. 

When it comes to policies, you can show appreciation for diversity by going beyond the standard language of, “We do not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, etc.” to say more affirmatively, “We value and respect diversity in our workforce.” (Note: always have policies in your employee handbook reviewed by an attorney to avoid legal pitfalls.)

How about intercultural competence with customers? Short maintains that it’s all about building relationships, and that takes time. “A smile goes a long way, but that’s not the end point. Be friendly. Don’t ask, ‘Where are you from?’ until you’ve established a bit of a relationship. Instead ask, ‘Are you finding everything you need? Is there anything we don’t carry that you’d like?’ Of course, these are good questions to ask all customers.”

But the most critical piece of creating an interculturally welcoming store is staff representation of the constituency you are trying to attract. And that’s why intercultural competence is so important in staff relations.

As for the wider community, say you’re putting on a health fair at your store. Short recommends publicizing it in the languages of groups in your town who don’t speak the dominant language. If no one on staff speaks the languages of the groups you’re trying to reach, consider hiring someone for the day who does. 

Building a bridge

Donations to charities in your community can start the process of building a bridge to another culture but volunteering and interacting in person will do far more to increase your intercultural competence and enhance the reputation of your store.

 “It’s a multi-tier effort to be more inclusive,” Short concludes. “Staff relations, customer relations, community relations, it’s all about relationships.”  

To learn more about intercultural development inventory, contact Darin at


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