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What is “intercultural”?

December 12, 2012

Mennonites have long-utilized relevant language that relates to the term intercultural (e.g., culture, anti-racist, cross-cultural, diversity, privilege, multi-cultural, etc.). As a relatively new term, however, it is important to be clear in regards to its meaning and impact. I run a consulting practice that counsels organizations involved in intercultural contexts, or involved in becoming more intercultural in the way that they pursue their mission and purpose. I’ve noticed that when I talk with some people about the work I do, they will almost withdraw from the conversation or develop a quizzical look. I suspect this has to do, in part, with confusion around the term and idea of intercultural.

Developing intercultural competence is a stated goal of IN-MI Conference, as adopted from Mennonite Church USA. Achieving this necessary goal is a daunting task. What exactly does “intercultural” mean? If we decide we know what it means, how do we go about developing competence? If we have intercultural competence, what are its manifestations? Indeed, being aware of a common understanding of the term, and a framework for understanding it, are essential in order for a congregation, conference, and denomination to achieve this intercultural goal.

As alluded to already, intercultural is an extremely difficult term to define. Academically, the field of intercultural communications is influenced and shaped by as many as five or more academic disciplines. This alone speaks to its complexity. Wikipedia, when searching for “intercultural,” skirts offering a definition of the word by instead defining intercultural communication. Merriam-Webster does not include the word in its online dictionary. Most telling is the fact that, in professional literature, even professionals prefer to define terms like intercultural communication or intercultural relations, but not the term intercultural. But what is it?

When working with individuals and organizations in contexts of cultural difference, I have found the following to be helpful, while also understanding its limitations, when I think about “what” intercultural is:

Intercultural is a way of being that transcends any one specific culture yet moves between and participates in a multiplicity of cultural ways of being.

I think Paul provides a notable example of being intercultural. To the Jews, he became like a Jew; to those under the law, he became like one under the law; to those not having the law, he became like one not having the law (I Cor. 9:19-23). There was something within the mind and heart of Paul that allowed him to transcend the collection of group identities yet participate as an individual within these specific groups. Of course, his religious conversion had a lot to do with this. But even within and beyond his conversion he was able to become something in addition to (i.e., different than) what he, at his core, was.

This was due, in part, to his experiences within or around each of these different groups. He knew the impact of culture. These experiences and contexts likely fostered within Paul an understanding of the need for something that transcended his knowledge of the specific ways of thinking and doing that each group utilized. He developed new ways of thinking, doing, and communicating that, while not specific to any one culture, allowed him to relate to these specific groups. This is intercultural.

To be clear, this description depicts the “pinnacle” of intercultural and may seem to suggest that any individual or organization that falls short of it is not intercultural. However, just like the pinnacle would not exist without multiple layers beneath it, intercultural, as described above, would not also exist without layers to support it.

In the future, we will look at the various layers of intercultural manifestations within congregations. I would encourage you to keep this concept of the term intercultural in mind as you seek to develop additional understanding.

By Darin Short, Berkey Avenue Mennonite