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Why is intercultural awareness important?

Academics from the University of Leeds explore the concept of Intercultural Awareness.

In many if not most universities, students and staff come from different regions and countries. The campus is a place where people from many cultural and linguistic backgrounds come into contact and interact. 

According to information on the University of Leeds’ website, in 2020 the University had:

  • Over 39,000 students
  • 13,400 international students from 137 countries
  • 9,200 staff from over 100 countries

You will shortly listen to three members of University of Leeds staff talk about what intercultural awareness means for them.

Before you listen to what they have to say, consider the following: what is a culture?

To explore this question, lead educator Niamh Mullen explores her own:

I was born and raised in the south of Ireland and left Ireland when I was 21 years old. I am now 42. I usually visit my family in Ireland on average twice a year. I lived in Germany and Switzerland for a year when I was 21, then lived in South Korea for 5 years. I moved from South Korea to Leeds (England) to do my master’s degree in 2006 and have lived in Leeds since then, so for 16 years at the time of writing this.
I am a lecturer working in a university and am part of a strong community of educators. In my free time, I do yoga and have a strong community of friends who also do yoga – we spend a lot of time together. I have lots of very close friends outside of the yoga community and one thing that characterises this group of friends is that we are always extremely honest with each other. Sometimes this honesty can be quite blunt, but we all understand that this is not meant to hurt but help.
So, let’s go back to the initial question: ‘What is a culture?’. I have given you a lot of information about myself. Based on this, what culture do you think I belong to? Am I part of the Irish culture if I have not lived there for 21 years and only visit twice a year? What was my place in the Korean culture since I lived there for 5 years? What other cultures might I belong to? Am I part of one culture or many cultures?”
Now that we have thought about what a culture is, let’s consider what intercultural awareness is.

Intercultural awareness

In academia, the terms ‘intercultural awareness’ or ‘intercultural competence’ are contested by some and can be viewed from different perspectives. The intention here is not to delve deeply into this debate but to start thinking about this concept at a basic level. 
According to UNESCO (2013), the term intercultural ‘describes what occurs when members of two or more cultural groups (of whatever size, at whatever level) interact or influence one another in some fashion’ (p. 11), and the term competence ‘refers to having sufficient skill, ability, knowledge or training to permit appropriate behaviour, whether words or actions, in a particular context’ (p. 12). 

Academic views

We interviewed three members of staff who work in the University of Leeds and asked them what intercultural awareness means for them. Listen to their responses below. Transcripts are available in the Downloads section.
We can see from what Haynes, Rachel and Jenna have said, that views of intercultural awareness as relating only to communication between national cultures is problematic and that this view of intercultural awareness is limited. Instead, it is more about interactions between individuals or perhaps smaller groups of individuals, being understanding of and curious about difference and recognising that we are all individuals and are not all the same.

Have your say:

Having completed this step, consider the following questions:
  • Look back at step 1.16. Which of the scenarios could have had cultural elements to them? In which of the scenarios would having more awareness of other cultures and ways of thinking have helped us to understand the situation better? 
  • Why might intercultural awareness be an important factor in listening situations a) in a learning environment or b) in everyday life?
Share your views in the comment section below. Do other learners have similar opinions to yours?


UNESCO 2013. Intercultural Competences: Conceptual and Operational Framework. [Online] Paris: UNESCO. [Accessed 30 May 2022] Available from: 

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