Answering Behavioral Interview Questions: Intercultural Fluency
Part of our ongoing series to help you answer common behavioral interview questions.
For most jobs today, it is essential to be able to work well with diverse teams, including individuals from cultures very different from your own (aka “Intercultural Fluency”). Don’t be surprised if you get a question about this competency in your next interview.
Many companies rate global and cultural awareness as a key competency for all employees. They are looking for people who understand international and cultural differences and can interact respectfully with individuals from diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, religions, and sexual orientations.
Top organizations are also looking for people who value diversity and inclusive company culture.
This has led to the incorporation of behavioral interview questions designed to gauge a job candidate’s intercultural fluency and ability to adapt their communication style accordingly.
What Exactly Is Intercultural Fluency?
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to call this competency “intercultural fluency,” but you may see it called other things in job descriptions. Look for phrases including “international experience,” “intercultural awareness,” and “cultural sensitivity.”
Collins English Dictionary defines someone’s cultural awareness as “…their understanding of the differences between themselves and people from other countries or other backgrounds, especially differences in attitudes and values.”
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) calls it “global/intercultural fluency” and considers it one of seven competencies crucial to career readiness for new college graduates. NACE says that someone with this competency “demonstrates openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, and the ability to interact respectfully with all people and understand individuals’ differences.”
This competency is useful for most jobs, but in some cases, it is absolutely critical.
Even if you don’t see “intercultural fluency” or similar in the job description, it’s likely to be important at any organization that emphasizes diversity and inclusiveness when describing their culture.
How exactly does intercultural fluency come into play in a business setting? Beyond the basics of understanding and respecting differences, a lot of it comes down to communication styles. For example, in some cultures, directness is valued. In others, being too direct is considered rude.
Some cultures value formality more than others – something considered warm and friendly in one country may come across as inappropriate in another. Likewise, one culture’s professionalism can come across as coldness or lack of interest to someone else.
Behavioral Questions About Intercultural Fluency
To determine a candidate’s strength in this competency, interviewers typically rely on behavioral questions. How else can they know if a candidate’s definition of “culturally aware” aligns with the organization’s?
Here are some popular behavioral interview questions related to global and cultural awareness:
- Tell me about a time you worked on a team with individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
- Describe a time when you found it difficult to work with someone from a different background.
- Describe a situation that required you to consider a different perspective from your own when exploring an issue.
- Give me an example of a situation where you had to take into account the sensitivities of different parties.
- Tell me about a time you observed culturally insensitive behavior on the job.
- What experiences have you had with recruiting, hiring, training, and/or supervising a diverse workforce?
- Tell me about a time recently when you had to take someone’s cultural perspective into account in dealing with them.
You’ll hear other variations as well (please share your favorites and/or least favorites in the comments).
As regular Big Interview readers already know, behavioral interview questions are the ones that ask you for specific examples of past work experiences. The ones that start with “Tell me about a time when you…” or “Give me an example of…”
Behavioral questions help the hiring manager to understand a candidate’s past experience in order to predict how they might perform if hired.
You can use a similar approach to answering interview questions about intercultural fluency.
Before we tell you how to answer the question like a champ, here’s a little refresher on answering behavioral interview questions in general.
The Challenges of Answering Behavioral Questions About
As with any other behavioral interview question, the key to a good answer is to share an authentic example that demonstrates your experience and skills.
However, questions about global and cultural awareness can be extra challenging.
First of all, they ask for very specific examples. If you haven’t thought about it in advance, you may have trouble coming up with the perfect story about working with a global team, especially if your work experience is limited.
Second, these questions may raise sensitive topics. You always want to be careful about describing differences and challenges in a respectful way.
Your interviewer will be listening attentively to determine what your example says about your global and cultural awareness and your attitude about working with those from different backgrounds.
Why Interviewers Ask About
Companies today are looking for a global perspective. Most have employees and/or customers in countries around the world. There is also an increasing emphasis on the value of diversity in business.
As a result, hiring managers are looking for candidates who are aware of cultural differences and able to adapt accordingly.
This competency is more important for some jobs than for others. Many candidates don’t prepare for questions about cultural awareness because they’re so focused on technical skills and other competencies – and sometimes, intercultural fluency is not spelled out as a requirement in the job description. However, it is often a key component of being a good fit for the team and company culture.
A careful review of the job description, along with some research on the organization, will help you anticipate what aspects of global/cultural awareness are most important for a particular role.
For example, if you are interviewing for a position based in a different country, the focus may be on adapting to that new environment. If you are interviewing for a large global company, they may be most concerned about your ability to work with people from different backgrounds. If you are applying for a leadership role, they may be looking for evidence of your ability to build and lead a diverse team.
In addition to demonstrating your cultural awareness, a great example story can also show off other important competencies, including:
Team Orientation – You are willing to go the extra mile for the good of the team/company.
Communication Skills – You can adapt your communication style for different audiences.
Problem Solving – You take a proactive approach to mediating misunderstandings or differing opinions
Leadership – You step up to ensure all team members are treated fairly.
How to Answer
Behavioral Questions About Intercultural Fluency
The best approach is to prepare at least one interview story that highlights your ability to navigate cultural differences at work.
You may need to brainstorm to find an example that fits. Think about your team experiences and times when you’ve had to overcome differences with colleagues.
If you’re a student or recent grad, you can look to examples from academics (class projects), internships, or extracurricular activities if your job experience is limited.
As always, I highly recommend the STAR format as a framework for your story. The STAR format will help you focus on the key details so you can tell a story that’s authentic, memorable, and concise.
I’m not suggesting that you write and memorize a scripted story. With STAR, the idea is to jot down a few bullet points for each of the key aspects of your story (Situation/Task, Approach, and Results). This allows you to identify and remember your key themes while always delivering in a natural way.
Note: Big Interview has more information on structuring powerful STAR stories — and our Answer Builder tool will walk you through the process quickly and easily.
Inside Big Interview, our complete training system for job interviews, we give you video lessons, sample answers, and an interactive practice tool for all of these different versions of cultural awareness interview questions. Watch this brief video to learn a little more about Big Interview, and then take a quick look at the step-by-step system we’ve developed to get you ready for your interview.
To inspire your brainstorming, here’s an example of a good STAR answer to a behavioral interview question regarding global and cultural awareness.
Behavioral question: “Tell me about a time you worked on a team with individuals from different backgrounds.”
This section sets the context for the story. It should be concise and focus on the most important details to help the listener understand and appreciate what comes next.
Example Situation/Task Bullets
- Recently, I was the project manager for the rollout of the new release of our company’s software.
- It was a large team because we needed input from the business and technology teams and from our regional offices in London, Hong Kong, and Buenos Aires.
- We also had a number of senior-level managers on the team because this rollout was a major priority for the firm.
- During the early team calls, I noticed that our US-based senior managers were dominating the conversation and we weren’t getting much input from the regions.
Why This Works
This is a fairly concise project background that sets up the diversity of the team involved, the importance of the project, the storyteller’s role, and the issue that arose.
Once you’ve set up the situation, it’s important to walk through the actions taken and how you demonstrated the competency.
Example Approach Bullets
- We were on a tight deadline, so people were eager to keep things moving forward and make decisions quickly.
- However, I was concerned that we might be overlooking regional considerations.
- I decided to reach out to our team members in the regional offices to have one-on-one discussions.
- It turned out that several had major concerns about usability issues for international users.
- They had hesitated to speak up on the team calls because they didn’t want to be seen as contradicting the Senior VP, who was very vocal about his differing opinions.
- They didn’t feel comfortable shouting over him, while he just assumed that anyone who disagreed would speak up.
- I decided to form a smaller cross-regional team to review the usability concerns, come up with solutions, and report back to the larger group.
Why This Works
This shows that the candidate was observant enough to realize there was a potential problem, and then took the initiative to reach out to the regional colleagues and really listen to their concerns. This candidate also demonstrates respect for his colleagues, diplomacy, and problem-solving skills.
Finally, it’s essential for every STAR interview story to have a happy ending. The last part of the answer should highlight the positive outcome(s) of your approach. This could include concrete results (increased revenues by 20%, came in under budget, got promoted), but anecdotal outcomes (the client was happy, my manager praised me, etc.) can also be powerful
Example Results Bullets
- This approach was very effective because it allowed us to raise the issues in a neutral way and address them before the rollout.
- People felt more comfortable speaking up in a smaller team dedicated to issues for international users.
- Our senior managers were very receptive to the suggested changes and I got a lot of praise for my idea of forming the separate working group.
- This experience also helped me see how different communication styles can be and how important it is to create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable speaking up.
Why It Works
This is a happy ending in a couple of ways. First, the project was a big success, partially due to the candidate’s savvy project management and people skills.
Second, it was a valuable learning experience and shows that the candidate would be very comfortable working with team members with different communication styles.
You can expect intercultural fluency questions to come up more and more in the future, so the best advice is to prepare a few stories in advance (and not get caught by surprise). Good luck!