The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence

Robert Gibson (Dialogin Member, Germany and Britain)

Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal

ISSN: 1352-7606

Article publication date: 2 August 2011



Gibson, R. (2011), "The Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence", Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 384-388.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is a significant book. With its 560 pages and contributions from over 40 authors of individual chapters, as well as the stamp of approval of a leading publisher in the field, it is, in more senses than one, a weighty tome.

Putting together a book of this magnitude is an impressive achievement; the fact that it exists at all is a sign of how far the intercultural field has come over the past 30 years. On the back cover, there is even an endorsement by Desmond Tutu, who says, “This much needed handbook provides the latest scholarship and work on intercultural competence, which is so vitally necessary in pursuit of mutual understanding and peace in today's world.” Bearing this in mind, and especially as it is set to map the landscape for intercultural professionals for the years to come, this “handbook” deserves to be both taken seriously and looked at critically.

According to its publisher, it brings “together leading experts and scholars from around the world” and “provides a comprehensive overview of the latest theories and research on intercultural competence.” Its key features are that it “covers intercultural competence from a variety of cultural perspectives (including Arab, Chinese, and Indian)” and “applies intercultural competence to different fields, such as business, health care, and education.” Editor Darla K. Deardorff points out in the preface that it brings together “leading voices” in the field and:

[…] seeks to address cutting‐edge issues by providing a concrete resource for practical application and assessment of intercultural competence […] (and) as such, it can be of use not only to faculty and students but also to business professionals, senior‐level postsecondary administrators, study abroad advisers, second‐language acquisition instructors, public school teachers, and cross‐cultural trainers (p. xi).

The handbook is divided up into three parts with a total of 29 chapters. Part 1 on “Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence” looks at history, definitions, theories, models, and methodologies. Part 2 on “Applying Intercultural Competence” focuses on specific fields, such as business, teacher education, social work, health care, and engineering. Part 3 on “Research and Assessment in Intercultural Competence” deals with frameworks for research and assessment tools.

Before making some general comments, this review looks at three questions connected with the key features of the book. Although inevitably they are influenced by the background, experience, and cultural bias of the reviewer they seek to judge the book on its own terms:

  • How comprehensive is the handbook?

  • How far does the handbook include different cultural perspectives?

  • How useful is the handbook for practitioners in the field?

1 How comprehensive is the handbook?

Although there are contributions on such diverse areas, such as business, teacher education, foreign languages, international education, social work, engineering, religious organizations, and health care the handbook fails to cover other significant areas. The editor admits this herself in the preface when she notes the absence of topics, such as tourism, policing and the military (p. xii). This could be extended to include politics, marketing, diplomacy and international banking. These are all areas where intercultural competence has a major impact.

Maybe under the influence of the language educators, intercultural competence is frequently restricted to being understood as intercultural communicative competence rather than treating communication as only one element of intercultural competence. Not surprisingly, this is most extreme in Michael Byram's chapter on “Intercultural Competence in Foreign Languages”.

While the globalization of business is frequently mentioned as one of the drivers of research into intercultural competence, there is virtually no input from business. Hardly any companies are even mentioned. The few references to business that do occur are vague, for example, “Large companies such as Nike adopt cultural diversity as part of company policy, in a sense requiring employers to be culturally competent” (p. 4). What about the diversity initiatives of companies like IBM, Ford, Proctor and Gamble, BP and many others?

Chapter 16 on “Intercultural Competence in Business” is seriously underweight in terms of length and content. Out of the 560 pages of the book, 16 pages on business do not do justice to the importance of intercultural business competence. Robert Moran and his fellow authors restrict themselves to the topic of project management and again there are hardly any concrete examples. It verges on the trivial when the reader is informed of how to use post‐it stickers to develop a project vision statement (p. 294). Crass generalizations creep in like “Germans, Scandinavians and others are likely to be more punctual” (p. 298).

Chapter 15 on “Intercultural Competence in Training” fails to address the key issues of adapting training methods to different cultures and the measurability of the effectiveness of training. The sections on student exchange programs lack coverage of the European programs, such as Erasmus and Socrates which have influenced the lives of so many students in the region. In the field of research, the GLOBE project is only briefly mentioned. Chapter 20 on “Intercultural Competence in Social Work” would benefit from comparison with immigration issues in countries other than the USA.

When one bears in mind technological developments, the whole area of e‐learning and blended learning and the influence of virtual social networks in developing intercultural competence deserve to be given more space than the few paragraphs in Chapter 15 (pp. 283‐85). There is no serious examination of trends for the future of intercultural competence development.

Some significant names are missing amongst the contributors. While Janet Bennett is there, Milton Bennett is not. Where is Nancy Adler on intercultural competence in organizational development or Terence Brake on virtual global teams? While there is a contribution from Gert Jan Hofstede, there is not one from his much more influential father, Geert Hofstede. In fact, Geert Hofstede is not even mentioned in Chapter 1 on “Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence.” Although Hofstede junior has chosen to deal with the key topic of trust in different cultures he fails to acknowledge the complex relation between national cultural dimensions and non‐national aspects of culture taken together with the influence of context. This all points to the lack of critical reflection on the pioneering work of Geert Hofstede himself. It deserves more space in a handbook on a field which he did so much to shape.

2 How far does the handbook include different cultural perspectives?

Although the book seems, at first sight, to be international it has a clear US bias. Even if not all the contributors are US nationals most are based in the USA. The Editor, Darla K. Deardorff admits that the chapters in Part II are “written from a primarily U.S. perspective” (p. xii). She does not give a reason for this; in an era of global intercultural professional networks like SIETAR and virtual communication it is difficult to understand why this has to be the case. Very few non‐English sources are cited.

While the perspective from Africa is welcome, Chapter 8 on “Understanding Africans' Conceptualizations of Intercultural Competence” seems more concerned with defining “African culture” than dealing with intercultural competence from an African perspective. Similarly, Chapter 9 on “An Associative Approach to Intercultural Communication Competence in the Arab World” and Chapter 12 on “India: A Cross‐cultural Overview Of Intercultural Competence” while providing some fascinating reflections on Arab and Indian cultures, have little to offer on a distinctive Arab or Indian approach to intercultural competence.

That said, there are some highlights. Chapter 13 on “Interculturality Versus Intercultural Competencies in Latin America” comes closer to the goal of looking at intercultural competence from a specific national cultural perspective. Chapter 11 on “Intercultural Competence in German Discourse” is a useful and comprehensive survey of the development of the field in Germany with examples from different fields of practice from a German perspective.

While it is good to see contributions from Fons Trompenaars (The Netherlands), Michael Byram (the UK), and Alois Moosmüller (Germany) the European perspective is seriously underrepresented. Influential figures such as Alexander Thomas (Germany), Jürgen Bolten (Germany), and Richard Lewis (the UK) do not have their own contributions and are, at best, quoted a couple of times. European interculturalists with significant experience and extensive publications, such as Nigel Holden (the UK), Liisa Salo Lee (Finland), Marie‐Therese Claes (Belgium), Nigel Ewington (the UK), and Peter Franklin (Germany) are not even mentioned.

3 How useful is this handbook for practitioners in the field?

The handbook brings together a large number of contributors from the intercultural world and will no doubt be a useful reference work and provide stimulus for researchers and teachers.

As far as, business practitioners are concerned the usefulness will, however, be limited. Chapter 1, for instance, while containing an extensive collection of different models and graphic representations of intercultural competence fails to evaluate them or produce a practical model integrating the best features of all of them. It is not, as the authors suggest, that there is a need for still more research on the nature of intercultural competence; there is a need for help on applying the “dizzying” (S. Rathje quoted on p. 329) amount of research which already exists. The same could be said of the list of assessment tools in Chapter 27; a busy HR manager is given little guidance on which one to choose or even on how to go about selecting the right one.

The lack of grounding in concrete business experience will severely limit the usefulness of the book. While Chapter 10 on “A Chinese Model of Intercultural Leadership Competence” is interesting on a theoretical level it shows little evidence of experience of the reality of being a business leader in today's China. The same is true of Peggy Pusch's stimulating but largely theoretical chapter on “The interculturally competent global leader.” Symptomatically, the list of reviewers is restricted to academics; there is also no endorsement from a CEO or HR manager on the back cover.

4 General comments

A distinction needs to be made between differences in the style which are the inevitable and desirable result of the cultural differences of a diverse group of authors, and simply inadequate editing resulting in a lack of consistency. While the fact that Germans Alois Moosmüller and Michael Schönhuth include seven pages of references and some of the US contributors include less than one page may reflect different academic traditions, the range of styles from anecdotal to scientific simply suggests a lack of editorial guidance or intervention. While some contributors write in the third person others are much more informal with the personal “case illustrations” in Chapter 2, first person narrative (e.g. p. 90), quotations from Wikipedia (p. 87) and with the last chapter beginning almost in the style of a chatty self‐help manual (p. 492). Small irritations like the use of bold letters for the chapter headings of Part II but not for Parts I or III and inconsistent use of capital letters suggest a lack of rigorous copy editing.

There is unnecessary repetition of information about cultural models with, for instance, basic definitions of culture (pp. 298‐99) and Milton Bennett's model (p. 338) being explained in Part II after both of these topics had been dealt with extensively in Part I.

5 Conclusion

While at first glance this appears to be an impressive work which should be essential reading for intercultural professionals, on closer examination it turns out to be deeply flawed. There is a lack of authors from outside the academic world. Its coverage of topics and inclusion of leading experts is far from comprehensive and, although there are contributors from several countries, it has a strong US bias. There is little practical connection to the much cited business world. The quality of the contributions differs widely: it is more of a mixed bag or pot‐pourri than a treasure trove.

It is a worthy project which falls short of its ambitious goals. To become an essential handbook for interculturalists worldwide it needs to be more comprehensive, more international and more firmly based on practical experience, particularly from the business world which has done so much to drive the field of intercultural competence development.

Robert Gibson, originally from the UK, has been involved in international education and training in schools, universities and business for the past 28 years. Since 2000, he has been responsible for intercultural consulting and training at Siemens AG, based in Munich, Germany. He was a founding member of SIETAR Deutschland and former Vice President of SIETAR Europa. His publications include Intercultural Business Communication, Oxford University Press, 2002 and he has a regular column on intercultural communication in the magazine Business Spotlight.

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