Does Living Abroad Boost Intercultural Competence?

A new study finds that just 3 months abroad can produce beneficial effects.

Posted Jul 13, 2018

Intercultural competence—the ability to interact effectively with people who are culturally different—is a valuable skill, especially if you live in an immigrant-rich, culturally-diverse country like the United States. Educators and CEOs have long-assumed that living abroad is an excellent way to build intercultural competence. But is that really true?

Catie White, used with permission
Source: Catie White, used with permission

Researchers have investigated the impact of international experiences on intercultural competence (ICC) for nearly 20 years. Most studies have found a positive relationship between living abroad and ICC.

Unfortunately, many of the earlier studies were limited by methodological weaknesses. Some studies measured ICC at a single point in time—when sojourners returned home—instead of measuring ICC before and after an international experience and then comparing the difference. Other studies relied on self-report measures that were prone to response biases like wishful thinking and social desirability. Many studies had small sample sizes or examined American college students exclusively.

Enter Fabian Wolff and Christoph Borzikowsky, two psychologists at the University of Kiel in Germany. They recently published the findings of a study that remedied some of the methodological limitations found in earlier studies.

Wolff and Borzikowsky recruited 273 German adults to participate in a two-phase study. Most of the participants were young women who had never lived abroad and never received intercultural training.

The participants completed an online questionnaire at two points in time, first in June 2015 and again in January 2016. Some of the questionnaire items assessed ICC by asking the participants to agree or disagree with self-report statements like "When planning a trip abroad, I use various sources of information" and "I am good at mediating between people with conflicting interests."

Other items assessed ICC with a situational judgment task. Participants were asked to imagine six different scenarios and choose a way to respond to each scenario. One scenario, for example, concerned new working hours at a company based abroad. Would the participant simply accept the new work schedule, look for a way to get the working hours changed, or think about why the new schedule bothered her? (Choosing the last option is an indication of intercultural competence.)

Between Time 1 (June 2015) and Time 2 (January 2016), about 70 percent of the participants lived in another country for three months or more. The remaining 30 percent stayed at home in Germany.

The researchers compared the participants' ICC scores at Time 1 and Time 2 to see if an international experience boosted levels of intercultural competence. As expected, the two groups—those who lived abroad and those who stayed in Germany—didn't differ from each other initially in terms of their intercultural competence. As a group, those who who stayed in Germany saw no change in their ICC scores across time.

However, most of the participants who lived in a different country had higher ICC scores at Time 2, even if they had lived abroad for as little as three months. The boost to overall ICC scores from living abroad wasn't large, but it was significant.

The biggest improvement came in the area called cultural identity reflection, which the researchers defined as "intensively and constantly reflecting upon one's own cultural character." Living abroad prompts us to think about culture to an extent that rarely happens when we stay at home.

When we live and work in a different country, we see first-hand and everyday how others are shaped by their cultural upbringing, which causes us to reflect upon the ways in which our own thoughts and actions are shaped by culture. This kind of thinking is a valuable first step to becoming a more insightful, empathetic person in today's global society.


Wolff, F., & Borzikowsky, C. (2018). Intercultural competence by international experiences? An investigation of the impact of educational stays abroad on intercultural competence and its facets. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology49(3), 488-514.

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