Intercultural communication is the process by which meaning and messages are shared and interpreted between cultures. The study of intercultural communication is focused on how variance in cultural symbols, values, and behaviors affects communication interactions across cultures. It is a misnomer that intercultural communication means communication between different nations. While this is one type of cultural difference, it is important to recognize that individual nations are made up of co-cultures and there are many cases of intercultural communication that happen within a single nation and even within smaller, more local communities.

Defining Intercultural Communication

In order to define intercultural communication, it is important to first define culture and communication. Culture is how a group of people create a system of shared symbols, values, and behaviors over time in an effort to maintain social cohesion, survive, and instruct future generations. Communication is the process of sharing and interpreting meaning and information using symbols and behavior. Intercultural communication, then, involves understanding symbols, values, and behaviors as they vary by culture and how they impact communication interactions.

Historically, and especially in a generally ethnocentric American society, the need for intercultural understanding and intercultural communication had to be justified. However, in an increasingly globalized world, the study of intercultural communication by scholars, businesses, and individuals hardly requires justification — its need is nearly self-evident. Globalization makes competent intercultural communication an imperative for many individuals and businesses, resulting in an ever-growing demand for intercultural communication experts and the study of intercultural communication.

Outside this capitalistic view, the import of intercultural communication continues to be realized as well. The free exchange of ideas, concepts of liberty and human rights, and communicating our shared humanity ultimately relies upon the principles studied by scholars of intercultural communication. Additionally, with the Internet’s rise and the relative ease of travel, there is a desire to learn, to seek out information about other cultures.

It is important to note that intercultural communication is not necessarily international communication. Scholars find great interest in studying co-cultures that reside within national boundaries. For example, individuals living in the southern United States have a distinctly different culture from those living in New England. Likewise, individuals in the deaf community have a distinct culture from those who are part of hearing culture. As a final example, individuals living in rural and urban areas have noticeably different cultures. Clearly, intercultural communication applies when individuals in these examples communicate, regardless of their shared national borders and language.

As individuals study intercultural communication, the goal is to become a competent communicator in cross-cultural communication situations. This involves an understanding of each culture’s communication norms, and the ability to view the world with cultural relativism (i.e., evaluate others’ actions not by one’s own societal standards, but by the standards of that culture). To illustrate, review the following questions:

  • Imagine the first business meeting between two individuals. Should they ask each other about their families? Should they immediately discuss business? How would an age difference between each individual impact this meeting? Where should this meeting take place?
  • If Bob and John are friends, and Bob sees John’s wife out to dinner with a man other than John, is this something that Bob should mention to John?
  • How close should two people stand when having a conversation?
  • In the event of a marriage between two people who come from families with different ethnic, geographical, and/or political cultures, how are the inter-family dynamics and politics to be negotiated?

Regardless of how these questions are answered, the answers are heavily influenced by the norms of one’s own culture. In each situation, an intercultural expert is interested in the norms of each culture, where the interaction is taking place, how differences in cultural norms might affect the interaction, and much more.

Overarching Intercultural Communication Theories and Constructs

Scholars have built various theories to describe, explain, and predict intercultural communication. Over time, scholars continue to go through a process of theory building, which involves reevaluating, advancing, and refining existing theories while building new theories. The following list illustrates some of the most common theories or topics discussed in the area of intercultural communication.

Social Identity Theory: This theory is used to understand intercultural communication behaviors based on the perception of one’s membership status within a culture and the relative status of that cultural group. This theory is also used to understand the stability of one’s cultural group, cultural group status, and the ability to move between cultural groups.

Intercultural Workgroup Communication Theory: This theory discusses how cultural diversity influences workgroup communication and how that communication will affect the success of a group in achieving its goals. This theory states that factors like group composition (i.e., heterogeneous or homogeneous), cultural differences, and individual characteristics will ultimately affect the quality of the communication within the group. In turn, communication quality will impact the group’s outcome.

Cross-Cultural Adaptation Theory: As one might imagine, immigration offers a ripe opportunity for research and intercultural understanding. Cross-Cultural Adaptation Theory is used to describe, predict, and explain behaviors of immigrants as they adapt to their host culture. This theory is specifically interested in how individuals adapt to new cultures over time.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Nearly every student who takes a basic intercultural communication course will be introduced to Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions. Geert Hofstede developed six dimensions by which we can understand societal values. One of these dimensions is the power distance dimension. Power distance is the extent to which a member of a society expects that, within groups, there will be relative equality or inequality between more and less powerful members. For example, in some societies there is high power distance between a son and father, or a supervisor and supervisee. One might ask, “In my society, do I have the ability to suggest that my parent, teacher, or supervisor might be wrong?” If the answer is yes, that person is probably in a low power distance society. In a high power distance society, this would rarely be acceptable.

As a second example, another dimension is the individualism vs. collectivism dimension. This is the extent to which a society values the individual over the group or vice-versa. As one might imagine, the United States is a highly individualistic society where individual needs and achievement are often more important than the needs of the group. On the contrary, Japan is a highly collectivistic society in which the needs of the group and the achievement of the group is much more important than any individual’s needs or achievement.

Together, Hofstede’s six dimensions give some insight into how cultures work. It is important to note that Hofstede’s dimensions have been heavily criticized due to the fact that they were developed through studying participants who were mostly educated, mostly upper-class, and mostly men. Furthermore, there is some criticism that national cultures often have such important intracultural differences that Hofstede’s dimensions can hardly be applied with accuracy to individuals or subgroups. Regardless, these dimensions are commonly taught in intercultural communication courses and are regularly used in intercultural communication research.

Linguistic Relativity (The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis): Simply put, linguistic relativity states that the language an individual speaks affects their world view. Essentially, this theory suggests that one’s understanding of the world is socially constructed, in part, by the language that individual speaks. For example, research has supported the hypothesis that when someone speaks a language without a future tense, they are more likely to save money and take care of their health. The basis for this effect is that, without future tense, people begin to see the future and the present to have a much closer relationship, which motivates behavior in the present that will positively affect one’s future.

Approaching Intercultural Communication from a Critical Perspective

As mentioned above, intercultural communication also involves the study of cultures that exist within a larger culture and how that communication is managed, negotiated, and contested. Oftentimes, this facet of intercultural communication requires a critical lens in examining the power dynamics that exist between a culture that is reliant upon the hegemonic power structure and a culture that challenges that power structure.

In other words, scholars that employ a critical cultural perspective in intercultural communication bring to the fore the ways in which groups in power maintain a cultural hierarchy, thereby subjugating any that oppose it. Additionally, scholars also look at how marginalized groups challenge the hierarchy and maintain their culture through communication. Good examples of this perspective in action come from scholars examining white nationalist rhetoric, Black Lives Matter, the white backlash to Black Lives Matter, and the communicative practices of recent immigrant groups. The following are theories and concepts that stem from this critical perspective.

Critical Race Theory: Broadly speaking, Critical Race Theory relates to racism and how it functions in modern society. This theory posits that racism is an ordinary and common component of everyday life that is rarely overt, which makes it quite difficult to resolve or address. This theory also suggests that, because racism and racist policies support the dominant group’s advancement, few members of the dominant group are actually interested in eliminating racism and racist policies from a culture.

Co-Cultural Theory: As previously discussed, cultural groups are not always separated by national borders or languages. Co-cultural theory is used to understand conversations between members of marginalized groups and members of dominant social groups. For example, a researcher may be interested in how grade school age children who speak English as a second language navigate their relationships with teachers and fellow students who speak English as a primary language within the context of an English dominant society like the United States. Co-cultural theory could help to predict and explain the actions of this underrepresented group.

Studying Intercultural Communication

Students interested in studying intercultural communication should review individual programs to gain insight into how each program addresses the topic. In some cases, programs are highly theoretical, focusing on social-scientific research as it relates to intercultural communication. Students who graduate from a theoretical program in intercultural communication often advance to Ph.D. programs, during which time they develop social-scientific research and teach undergraduate students about the topic.

Other programs are more concerned with how intercultural communication skills can be developed for the workforce. In these programs, students will examine common business practices across cultures. It is not unusual for these programs to involve seminars abroad, which allow students to become immersed in a different culture or cultures. Intercultural communication is also an important component of both internal and external facing strategic communications for organizations, and is highly relevant to fields such as politics and diplomacy, marketing and public relations, and corporate communication/human resources. As a result, intercultural communication courses are often included in applied programs in strategic communication, global strategic communication, political communication, integrated marketing communications, and organizational communication.

Additional Resources

Prospective students who are interested in learning more about intercultural communication can review the following resources:

About the Author: Caleb Malik is a digital marketing strategist. He earned his Master's in Communication from Illinois State University, where he focused on organizational communication and quantitative research methods.

About the Author: Christopher Wernecke is a Ph.D. student and Graduate Instructor at Georgia State University, where he is currently studying collective memory and American cancer rhetoric in the Department of Communication. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from DePaul University, and a Master of Arts in Communication and Media Studies from Texas State University.