• Volunteer and Adventure

Five actions you can take to gain intercultural competence

Posted: August 11, 2021

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

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 experience 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. 

And you’ll want to take advantage of every opportunity for intercultural interaction if you’re looking to grow personally and professionally. 

But this type of growth doesn’t just come from flying overseas once travel opens up again. You’ll need to plan for a meaningful experience abroad if you expect to gain the benefits.

A meaningful experience abroad is also one of the best ways to prepare for the next step in your academic or professional career.

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

Why having a meaningful travel experience matters


A meaningful travel experience is one where you gain an appreciation for the people 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.

Further reading: How to be a responsible traveller

This could mean opting for a homestay – living with a host family – instead of staying in a hotel. 

It could also include making a positive impact by volunteering in wildlife conservation with a local organisation. And, even commiting to recycling for the duration of your stay can make for a more meaningful experience. 

And, there are many names you can call this type of experience abroad: a gap year, semester abroad, study opportunity abroad, travel adventure, and the list goes on. 

But, 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 service-learning 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 tourist, and also add to your personal and professional development. 

Some of the skills you’ll learn on a service-learning program abroad include:

  • communication
  • flexibility
  • networking
  • teamwork.

These skills will also come in handy after your volunteer program abroad. 

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

Intercultural competence is being able to effectively communicate with local community members. This refers to being able to speak with local people in an effective way, but also includes being sensitive to and considerate of their culture. 

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

The best way to learn about another culture is to get a first-hand account from people who live it. 

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. 

It might also mean learning more about the country’s sports from schoolchildren while volunteering in India

Or, perhaps your intercultural experiences will start off with you taking part in an almsgiving ceremony during your free time while volunteering in Laos.

Further reading: Ten awesome things to do in Luang Prabang

Learning from local people is a good rule of thumb even if you want to learn more about people from different backgrounds to your own in your hometown. 

But it’s especially important while travelling abroad. 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. 

Find out more about the best way to learn about cultures in this article: How travelling to India taught me the best way to learn about other cultures.

2) Actively appreciate your experiences


Research has shown that being grateful is good for your health. But did you know that it’s also good for your professional development? 

And this applies while you’re travelling abroad too.

Practise active appreciation by thanking the people who let you experience their cultures during your volunteer program, without overstepping cultural norms. So, even if you’re a hugger, first consider if hugging is culturally acceptable. 

If you’re able to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is another thing to be grateful for as not many people will have this opportunity. So be sure to factor this into your everyday thankfulness checklist. 

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. 

Thank 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. Even thank your roommate for enduring your musical preferences! 

And besides just lifting your mood, finding something positive that you can take away from every interaction you have can set you up with wonderful memories of your time abroad.

Of course, some experiences may be easier to be grateful for than others. But, learning from even your worst moments can make your experiences more meaningful.

Further reading: Service-learning: How to implement effective reflection

3) Immerse yourself in your surroundings


Yes, this means trying local dishes that you’ve never heard of before that are offered to you by your host family. 

And it also means venturing out and trying things that are not 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. This way you can work on growing your intercultural competence independently.

Further reading: The top four foods to taste at the Siem Reap night market

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 your neighbourhood
  • learning the local language.

Remember that some cultural immersion activities may not be up and running due to COVID-19. But don’t fret, you can still make the most of any available opportunities and build on your immersive travel experience in meaningful ways. 

And this brings us to tip number four.


4) Try to speak the local language

How much you get to practise and perfect the local language depends on how long you’re going abroad for. 

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 every one of our projects abroad. 

Further reading: Three of the best ways to experience total language immersion

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 offer one-on-one tutoring, where you’ll learn the language from a native speaker while providing local people with English lessons.

Further reading: Ten tips to make language learning fun

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. 

So don’t shy away from getting stuck in! 



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. 

Remember to always be respectful and empathetic during conversations like this. 

And who knows, 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.

It’s a constant work in progress, but every bit of practice helps.

And why wait for the perfect opportunity to grow your intercultural competence when you can benefit from one that’s already up and running? 

Take a look at GVI’s multi-award winning international service-learning programs and see how you can gain intercultural competence, and add to your development in a meaningful way.

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