By Ursula Brinkmann, PhD


Spending time abroad – Does it make expatriates interculturally competent?

A key goal of study abroad programs is to enable students to develop their intercultural competences. Global organizations likewise assume that international experience predicts intercultural effectiveness and expatriate success – which is why they are so keenly interested in hiring graduates who studied abroad. But how much does Time Spent Abroad actually contribute to intercultural competence development? Our data show that its importance is over-rated, and its effects still ill understood.

Expatriates and students don’t just develop their intercultural competences by spending time abroad

Our research draws on data from 40,000 respondents who completed the Intercultural Readiness Check (©Intercultural Business Improvement), a valid and reliable questionnaire assessing four intercultural competences. Respondents come from 180 countries, all major industries and professions; they differ in seniority, management level, and international experience – which they gained as expatriates or as international students. From the start of using the Intercultural Readiness Check some 15 years ago, we’ve asked respondents to also tell us how many friends from other cultures they had. By now, our database is probably the largest source of information on intercultural friendship – a topic of growing interest to research on intercultural development.

Let’s talk about intercultural friendship

What, then, matters most – Spending time abroad or Having friends from other cultures? The answer is clear and simple: Intercultural friendship is far more important to intercultural competence development than Experience of living and working abroad. People with many friends from other cultures have vastly better scores on Intercultural Readiness than those with few friends from other cultures. Importantly, if people stay abroad for more than one year and still have not found a way of making friends across cultures, their competences shrink back to the level at which they started before they went abroad.[1] Expatriates who seek to connect and mingle only with their fellow nationals when relocating abroad are more likely to struggle with their intercultural development.

We cannot, then, simply assume that students return home from their study abroad as interculturally competent citizens of the world. Nor can companies assume that expatriates who have worked abroad before will do a better job than those who have not. What organizations can do, however, is assess intercultural readiness before the move, coupled with level-specific coaching and guidance before, during and after the move.

For more information on how we support universities and companies with Intercultural Readiness, please contact us at


[1] Ursula Brinkmann and Oscar van Weerdenburg (2014): Intercultural Readiness: Four competences for working across cultures. London: Palgrave.