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Intercultural Communication

As English is now the global lingua franca (connecting language), it's possible that your English Language studies will land you in some intercultural communication situations. The way we communicate and the values we place on things like manners and etiquette can vary around the world; that's why intercultural communicative competence can be so important. But is it always possible or necessary to define people's behavior based on their cultural background?

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Intercultural Communication


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As English is now the global lingua franca (connecting language), it's possible that your English Language studies will land you in some intercultural communication situations. The way we communicate and the values we place on things like manners and etiquette can vary around the world; that's why intercultural communicative competence can be so important. But is it always possible or necessary to define people's behavior based on their cultural background?

Today we'll learn all about intercultural competence, including its importance, its main theorists, some examples, and its criticisms.

Intercultural Communication Definition

On a basic level, the definition of intercultural communication is the communication that takes place between people from different cultural backgrounds. It is an interdisciplinary concept that combines anthropology, sociology, psychology, and linguistics and encompasses all types of communication, including verbal (such as language) and non-verbal (such as hand gestures, body language, and facial expressions).

Consider how a Muslim man from Egypt might greet their friend compared to how an American woman would greet hers. Now consider how the two might greet each other.

The basic principle of intercultural communication is understanding and appreciating the differences that may occur in communication styles, such as in the example above. Achieving intercultural competence (we'll cover this term in more detail later) involves learning about cultural differences and being accepting and adaptable to them.

One of the biggest debates within the study of intercultural communication is how exactly we define the word culture, and whether it's possible or necessary to group people and their communicative styles based on their cultural background.

Intercultural Communication Skills

Successful intercultural communication involves gaining skills that can help you talk to, understand, and respect people from different cultural backgrounds than your own. Some of these skills include:

  • Education - Expand your horizons and learn about the world by reading books, watching documentaries, taking courses, or simply watching movies produced by directors from around the world.

  • Active listening - Sometimes, the best way to learn is to simply listen.
  • Keep an open mind - It can be tempting to judge things we don't know or understand. When learning new things, try to keep an open mind and be open to new ideas and outlooks on life.

  • Tolerance - Sometimes, we come across people who have views or beliefs that we struggle to understand or accept; it can often be best to put these differences aside.

Intercultural Communication, Image of students, StudySmarterFig 1. University can be a great place to meet people from different cultural backgrounds.

Intercultural Communication Example

Before we move into the more theoretical side of intercultural communication, let's look at some examples of intercultural communication to demonstrate what we're talking about.

Consider a global language classroom — perhaps it's an English as a foreign language class and the teacher is from a different cultural background from the students, or it's a class in an international school, and almost everyone is from a different culture.

How each student feels about completing a set task may differ depending on their cultural upbringing. For example, a student from a culture that places a lot of respect on teachers and elders may find a debating task uncomfortable. Alternatively, some students may feel a lot more comfortable sharing personal details, such as their parents' occupations, than others.

Imagine a British woman meeting a Saudi Arabian man for the first time. Instead of reaching out for a handshake, she places her hand over her heart and nods instead. This greeting may make the man feel more comfortable, as touching the opposite sex's hand is not commonplace in his culture.

Can you see any problems with these examples? Do you think that every Saudi Arabian man would feel discomfort by shaking a woman's hand?

Intercultural Communication Theory

Theory within the field of intercultural communication looks at how we as individuals accommodate, adapt, negotiate and manage our own communication and identities in intercultural settings.

We'll begin by looking at the works of Edward. T. Hall, the American anthropologist and cultural researcher that first coined the term intercultural communication in 1959 in his book The Silent Language. We'll then look at Gile's Accommodation Theory and Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions Theory before moving on to Byram's concept of intercultural communication competence.

Edward Hall

Edward. T. Hall (1914-2009) is widely considered the pioneer of intercultural communication. Hall's views of culture were revolutionary and changed the way we think about culture itself. Whereas culture was once believed to be a single preexisting entity that influenced the way people lived, Hall recognized that culture and human interactions were intertwined and dependent on each other.

Hall noted that humans influence culture and that each person can belong to many cultures that often overlap. Although this made discussions on culture infinitely more complex, his discussions provided a more realistic view of culture.

Today, academics tend to accredit Hall for the following contributions to the study of intercultural communication:

  • Comparisons between cultures should be focused on human interactions.

  • Try to take a local perspective on interactions rather than a global one.

  • We don't need to try and understand everything. For example, we can study greetings within a culture without fully understanding the influence of religion on that culture.

  • We can learn the norms and values of a culture/society.

  • Personal experiences are valid and should be included in discussions on culture alongside academic study.

  • We should take a descriptivist view of culture (i.e., describing what we see based on evidence.)

  • Culture and communication are intertwined and should not be viewed as separate entities.

Communication Accommodation Theory

Howard Giles' communication accommodation theory looks more at how we as individuals change and adapt our own language and communication style based on who we are talking to. The theory is often used as a framework for examining intercultural interactions.

Communication accommodation theory suggests that people will adjust their communication style to gain "control" over the social distance between them and the people they're talking to. According to the communication accommodation theory, there are two ways people adjust their speech when talking to others; convergence and divergence.

  • Convergence: when speakers adapt their communication style to be more like the person/people they're talking to. This reduces social distance.

  • Divergence: when speakers purposely emphasize communication differences. This typically increases social distance.

In intercultural communications, we often see people converging to reduce the impact of cultural differences.

Consider this: a family from China moves to a suburban neighborhood in the USA. Consider who might converge or diverge during the intercultural communications that will follow and why.

Intercultural communication, image of people talking, StudySmarterFig 2. People often converge their communication styles to reduce cultural differences.

Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions Theory

In 1980, the Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede created the cultural dimensions theory to provide a framework for understanding cultural differences across countries. His framework has been used within business, psychology, and sociology ever since.

After several adaptations, Hofstede's final cultural dimensions model comprised six value dimensions:

  • Power Distance Index: The idea that some cultures are more accepting or understanding of power imbalances. According to Hofstede, people in countries with a high power index (i.e., higher power imbalances between authority and the general public) are more likely to be accepting of authority, and children are less likely to argue. On the other hand, people from low power index countries are more likely to favor open communication and debates.

  • Collectivism vs. Individualism: According to Hofstede, most cultures can be divided into individualist or collectivist. Whereas individualist societies place emphasis on individual freedoms, collectivist societies highlight the importance of working together for the greater good.

  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index: This is the idea that some cultures are more accepting of the unknown than others.

  • Femininity vs. Masculinity (gender role differentiation): How much emphasis a culture places on traditional gender roles.

  • Short-Term vs. Long-Term Orientation: This refers to how long people within a culture are happy to wait for results. Long-term orientation societies may value things like saving, being thrifty, and long-term plans, whereas short-term orientated cultures typically want gratification in the present or near future.

  • Restraint vs. Indulgence: In many ways, this refers to how cultures spend money. Are they happy to splurge on expensive items, or do they save for a rainy day?

Intercultural Communication Competence

In 1997, the researcher Michael Byram created his Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) model to help people develop their intercultural competence.

Intercultural competence: The ability to communicate effectively and respectfully with people from multiple different cultures.

His model included five savoirs (French for know-hows), which are the skills and knowledge individuals should possess if they wish to communicate on a global scale. An overriding idea of Byram's ICC model is that individuals must develop a strong sense of self to become good communicators in general.

Despite Byram being British, the five savoirs are presented in French. They are:

  • Savoir comprend (understanding/interpreting): The ability to view something from another culture (e.g., literature, films, an event) and interpret it in such a way that you can relate it to your own culture.

  • Savoir être (attitudes): The attitudes and values we should possess as intercultural communicators. They are curiosity, openness, readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and beliefs about one’s own, and willingness not to assume own beliefs are the only correct ones.

  • Savoir apprendre (discovery and interaction): Ability and willingness to learn about new cultures and utilize that knowledge in real-time.

  • Savoir s’engager (critical awareness): Ability to be critical about one's own culture and of new information about other cultures.

  • Savoir (knowledge): Having knowledge about social interactions and sociology.1

Byram suggests that gaining intercultural competence requires the individual to develop all five savoirs.

Criticisms of Intercultural Communication

The concept of intercultural communication and the ability to develop intercultural competence has been met with several criticisms, especially in more recent years. Below we will outline some of the main criticisms:

  • How exactly do we define culture? We often use the term culture as an easy way of labeling complex and sometimes problematic ideas and practices. Some theorists argue (such as F. Dervin, 2016) that culture has become a lazy and overly simplified term.
  • The approach to culture that theorists such as Hofstede and Byram take often promotes an essentialist view of people. This means their theories suggest that all people from a certain geographical or sociological background must behave and think the same way as others in their community.

  • Discussions around intercultural communication are often differentialist, meaning they promote cultural differences rather than focussing on similarities.

  • Models such as Hofstede's cultural dimensions model can reinforce stereotypes.

  • The majority of influential theorists in the field of intercultural communication are Western males. This means the advice and suggestions on how to achieve successful intercultural competence could be considered ethnocentric.

Ethnocentric: Using your own cultural knowledge as a benchmark to judge other cultural behaviors.

Intercultural Communication - Key takeaways

  • Intercultural communication is the communication that takes place between people from different cultural backgrounds. It encompasses verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • The term intercultural communication was first coined in 1959 by the American anthropologist Edward. T. Hall.
  • Some intercultural communication skills include: active listening, education, having an open mind, and tolerance.
  • Key theorists in the field of intercultural communication include Hofstede, Giles, and Byram.
  • Some criticisms of the concept of intercultural communication include: how to define the term culture, its differentials and essentialist nature, its ability to reinforce stereotypes, and its arguably ethnocentric viewpoint.


  1. M. Byram. Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence. Multilingual Matters. (1997).

Frequently Asked Questions about Intercultural Communication

An example of intercultural communication could be a classroom in an international school. Many of the students and teachers may come from different cultural backgrounds and will be communicating with each other.

Intercultural communication is the communication that takes place between people from different cultural backgrounds, it includes verbal and non-verbal communication. It is important as we now live in a globalized world, and it's arguably important that we can understand and respect each other when we communicate.

Some intercultural communication skills include:

  • Active listening 
  • Keeping an open mind
  • Being tolerant and accepting 
  • A willingness to learn 

Some barriers to successful intercultural communication include:

  • Ethnocentrism - judging other cultures based on your own cultural background.
  • Stereotypes
  • Language and geographical barriers
  • Lack of tolerance 

One of the best ways to foster intercultural communication is to listen to others.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or false? Intercultural communication encompasses verbal and non-verbal communication.

Chose the best definition for intercultural communication.

Who first coined the term intercultural communication in 1959?


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