What is Intercultural Communication?

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Intercultural Communication: A Basic Overview
Annaliese M. Bratcher
Jason T. Childers
University of Kentucky
What is Intercultural Communication?
The study of intercultural communication is in many ways still a young area within the communication discipline. There are many subjects to be explored and explained.
In their influential textbook, Communicating with Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication, Gudykunst and Kim define intercultural communication as “a transactional, symbolic process involving the attribution of meaning between people from different cultures” (1992, p. 14). The authors point out the communication does not have to be effective to be called intercultural. They also note that we think of culture as a national distinction but cultures can cross national boundaries incorporating many nations, or can be smaller than the national boundaries.
Cross-cultural is a term that is often bundled with intercultural. Cross-cultural study indicates that two different cultures are being assessed and compared with emphasis on their similarities and dissimilarities. Other related terms are interracial communication (between members of different races), interethnic communication (between members of different ethnic groups), international communication (between people with different nationalities). The study of intercultural communication also addresses subcultures.
Why Study Intercultural Communication?
Due to advances in modern communication technology and the globalization of our economy, increasing our effectiveness in intercultural communication is becoming more frequently necessary in our personal and professional interactions. Research and anecdotal experiences have shown that great miscommunications and serious consequences can result when people from different cultures meet and communicate without comprehending the differences in their communication systems. Intercultural misunderstandings have led to wars. Individuals have also faced serious consequences including death. A recent headline news event tells the story of German military officer in jail facing a death sentence in the Middle East for having a sexual affair with a married woman. If the couple had had the same interpersonal “communication” in Germany, no one would face any sanction from the government.

The Early History of Intercultural Communication.

Edward T. Hall is the father of intercultural communication. He published his seminal work, The Silent Language, in 1959 as a handbook for training U.S. government employees for foreign service. Hall redirected the study of intercultural exchanges from an anthropological viewpoint to a communication perspective. Hall pioneered the study of proxemics (spatial communication), establishing four distances within communication. Intimate distance is 6 to 18 inches. Personal distance is 1 ½ to 4 feet. Social distance is 4 to 12 feet, and public distance is 12 to more than 25 feet. He also conducted our discipline’s first research on verbal and nonverbal expressiveness in intercultural communication. Other scholars have found these areas are still the most important components for intercultural communication research.

What Are Intercultural Communication's Most Important Theories?

Scholar Theory

Hall Proxemics, Emotions, High- and Low-Context Clutures, etc.

Sapir & Whorf Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (Linguistic Determinism & Relativity)

Ekman Neuro-Cultural Theory Of Facial Expressions Of Emotions

Berger Uncertainty Reduction Theory

Gudykunst Uncertainty/anxiety reduction theory (Gudykunst & Hammer)

Kelley Attribution Theory

Pearce & Cronen Coordinated Management of Meaning

Triandis Cross-cultural Differences (Individualism vs. Collectivism)

Rogers & Kincaid Convergence Theory

Kim Communication Acculturation & Cross-cultural Adaptation Theories

Ting-Toomey Culture and Face-Negotiation & Conflict and Culture Theories

See also Hofstede, Parson, and Kluckhohn & Strodbeck as listed in the variables section.

What Are the Major Variables for Research in Intercultural Communication?

To communicate effectively, people need to understand many things about each other, including norms, values, beliefs, traditions, contexts, and cognitive structures. To summarize this, Gudykunst and Kim (1992, p. 33) present a model of concentric circles with cultural, sociocultural, psychocultural influences from each person in the dyad, as well as environmental influences external to the persons. Each of these affects the effectiveness of communication.

Gudykunst and Kim list the following variables that are evaluated in intercultural communication research:

Hofstede’s Dimensions of Sociocultural Systems


low- and high-uncertainty avoidance

low- and high-power distance


Parson’s Pattern Variables

affectivity-affective neutrality





instrumental-expressive orientation

Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck’s Values Orientations

human nature orientation (good, evil, mutable, immutable)

person-nature orientation (subject to nature, subjugate nature)

time orientation (past, present future)

activity orientation (doing versus being)

relational orientation (individual, lineal or collateral)

Cognitive Styles:

field independence-field dependence

wide- and narrow-category width

low- and high-uncertainty orientation

complex cognitive-simple cognitive

Patterns of Thought

systems of logic

patterns of reasoning

Variables Associated with Hall

low- and high-context

low- and high-involvement

low- and high-interpersonal distance

low- and high-touch

Triandis’s Four Dimension of Social Relations





Value Systems Categories

Set 1: prosocial








Set 2 materialism


work and activity





Miscellaneous Variables

low- and high-ethnocentrism

in-group and out-group

Who Are the Major Researchers in Intercultural Communication?

Gudykunst is incredibly prolific in research and application, especially as a writer of publications and textbook. Triandis leading researcher and writer in intercultural and organizational communication. Kim and Ting-Toomey are probably the leading theory builders. Kim specializes in theories of acculturation and cross-cultural adaptation Ting-Toomey is a leading researcher and theory builder, specializing in culture and face-negotiation and conflict and culture studies.

In the University of Kentucky’s Communications Department, there is some pertinent research. Applegate has been working with a leading Russian educator on problems with Russia’s communication education. Knuf examines intercultural organizational communication problems. Rush who works from a feminist critical perspective is known for her work on the theory of global eco-communications.

What Methods Are Being Used in Intercultural Communication Research?

Probably any method for social science and humanities research is being, and has been used in intercultural communication research. Here is a short list of some of the methods used.

Quantitative: Experiment, survey, observation, measurement (such as in proxemics).

Qualititative: Content analysis, textual analysis, participant observation, long-form surveys, ethnography, artifact analysis.

International Communication: How Is the Information Being Applied?

Varner and Beamer state that changes in global technology and organizations are allowing intercultural communications to grow in new directions. They compiled a great amount of information about intercultural communication in their book, Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace. The purpose of their book is to help international corporations and other organizations improve their intercultural communications, thereby making them more productive and more efficient.

Gudykunst and Kim mention in their preface that their textbook is meant as a handbook, much in the tradition of Hall, and can be used to prepare people for intercultural communication situations in work and in the community.
To illustrate, Foreign Service Officers, Peace Corps volunteers, businesspersons in multinational or multiethnic corporations, social workers, teachers in integrated schools, staff members of hospitals in urban settings, and police officers dealing with ethnic communities, to name only a few groups, should find this book helpful in the performance of their work (Gudykunst & Kim, 1992, p. xi)
The principles of intercultural communication can be applied to the various contexts of international, interethnic, interracial, and other inter-group communication.

Intercultural Communication: Has the Study Made a Difference?

It is probably too early to tell how much of a difference this information has made in human communications. On the other hand, there seem to be sufficient indicators that training program for government officials, teachers, social service workers and employees of international companies have benefited from studying cultural differences in communication. Kim’s research shows that adaptation into a new culture can be eased and assisted by applying some of these research findings.

Professional Associations
National Communication Association

African American Communication and Culture Commission

Asian Pacific American Communication Studies Division

American Studies Commission

Communication and Aging Commission

Ethnography Division

Feminist and Women's Studies Division

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Studies Division

** International and Intercultural Communication Division

Language and Social Interaction Division

Latina/Latino Communication Division

International Discussion Debate Committee

Asian/Pacific American Caucus

Black Caucus

Caucus on Gay and Lesbian Concerns

La Raza Caucus

Women's Caucus

International Communication Association

Intercultural/Development Communication

Feminist Scholarship

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Division

Intercultural Communication: Future Projections

Intercultural communication is a field that appears to have endless possibilities. Building on past research, scholars will soon begin to fill the gaps with attention paid to the transmission of culture. There has been little research in intercultural communication regarding how multiple-cultures become a melting pot. Perhaps Kim’s new model of cross-cultural adaptation will shed light in this area. Other questions remain. Do different cultures join more easily after time? Do cultures within an intercultural organization join into another culture distinct from the two original ones? These and other challenging questions face scholars as they dive into the future of intercultural communication research.

From a critical perspective, questions from a different values system need to be pursued. How can we stop dominant cultures from obscuring valuable minority and indigenous cultures? The cultural imperialism of western civilization may wipe out the valuable diverseness among humankind, if communication research does not examine these and other critical questions.

Intercultural Communication: An Annotated Bibliography
Asante, M. K. & Gudykunst, W. B. (1989). Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
This book is a classic, often quoted reference in intercultural research. It contains a broad spectrum of essays from many of the leading intercultural communications researchers. One is an essay by Gudykunst himself. He is the most cited intercultural communication scholar. Scholars include Ting-Toomey, Kim, and the two editors, and more.
Gudykunst, W. B. & Kim, Y. Y. (1992). Communicating with Strangers. New York: McGraw Hill, Inc.
This book is both the most recommended intercultural communication textbook, and a most used handbook for foreign service and other workers such as international corporation's managers who need to cope with intercultural communication. It is often cited. The two authors/editors are among the top five living intercultural communication researchers.
Triandis, H. C. & Albert, R. D. (1987). Cross-cultural perspectives. In: F. M. Jablin, L. L. Putnam, K. H. Roberts & L. W. Porter (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational Communication: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 264-295.
Triandis and Albert create a chapter that outlines a picture of intercultural communication within an organization in simple terms. Believable definitions of organization and culture allow the reader to combine the two words and see relationships in an interpersonal and intercultural light. Dimensions of cultural variation, such as differences in ideas, value, and the way in which information is processed are addressed by example, allowing the reader to wholly understand the implications of differences in each category of variation. After finally presenting the information within the context of an organization the chapter has seemed to prepare the reader to dive into a more meaningful research of intercultural communication.

Varner, I. & Beamer, L. (1995). Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace. Chicago: Irwin.

Varner and Beamer lay out a tool of learning for any reader. By taking the book from a beginning filled with common cultural and communication study, to nonverbal language in intercultural communication, to a culmination of richness of communication and business judgement in intercultural communication, the reader is taken on an educational experience. Through visual aids along with script, intercultural communication is explored fully within the global workplace. For quick, easy, understandable charts and illustrations, this book is a valuable resource for anyone looking into intercultural communication for business purposes.

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