In his 1982 work The Empathic Communicator, author William Howell established a helpful paradigm for understanding the process of learning a new skill. Howell’s paradigm has frequently been used to help describe the stages people typically go through on the path to developing intercultural competence.
According to Howell, the first stage, Unconscious Incompetence, is when people are not yet aware that they lack a particular skill. From an intercultural perspective, people at this level of competence tend to believe that their own way of doing things is the only way of doing things. They do not recognize the impact of cultural differences.
People who have reached Howell’s second stage, Conscious Incompetence, know that they want to learn how to do something, but are incompetent at doing it. In terms of intercultural experience, people at this level may have started to notice that significant cultural differences exist, but they do not yet understand those differences well enough to cope with them appropriately.
Howell’s third stage, Conscious Competence, is when people are able to perform a task competently, but not without being highly conscious of their own behavior. Culturally speaking, people at this level have made an effort to learn about cultural differences, and have started taking steps to adjust their behavior accordingly. However, they are usually hyper-aware of the need to be culturally appropriate, and often still worry about making mistakes.
People who reach Howell’s fourth stage, Unconscious Competence, have mastered a skill to the degree that they can perform it without even thinking–Howell likens it to riding a bicycle. In terms of cultural competence, people who achieve this level have grown so comfortable with and knowledgable about a new culture that they no longer have to think about whether or not they are behaving in a culturally appropriate manner, they just do it naturally.