1 Chapter 1 – Introduction to Intercultural Communication

Introduction to Intercultural Communication

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech by Rep. John Lewis commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington D.C. (“I have a dream,” attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Lewis, 2013).

A Personal Note from Lori Halverson-Wente

Lori and Mark
Lori and Mark Halverson-Wente

Welcome to our free online Intercultural Communication Coursebook/reading materials. We found that by asking students to rent or purchase the most recent textbook or hoping they would buy less expensive versions online, students often ended up with the most costly book or went without a textbook. It occurred to us that a FREE Open Education Resource (OER) book would better meet the needs and pocketbooks of students.

On a practical level, over the years, intercultural friendships and experiences have enriched our personal and academic lives. Thus our goal for this book is to explain intercultural communication on a theoretical level while including practical skill-based applications to understand local Minnesota co-cultures better. To this end, we have directly incorporated works from other OER textbooks and video materials and attributed them both within the text and at the end of each chapter. Using an OER format allows our course materials to adapt, shift, and become updated with feedback from students each semester. Additionally, an OER allows for updates based on current events and local and national news. As noted throughout the book, a favorite professor of ours used to say, “Communication addresses three questions: who am I, who are you, and what are we doing together?” If we think about these questions, we find that these questions are a practical means to divide the course and examine the primary topics of Intercultural Communication.

Therefore, in this first chapter, we will put forth the book’s overall theoretical approach, the formation of cultural identities, and the basic outline of the primary topics of Intercultural Communication guided by Tucker’s three questions of communication.

Students will notice that this OER textbook will grow and adapt during the semester.  We worked to focus on Minnesota co-cultures and interviewed individuals who you might know or read about. This book is truly a surprise each semester as it keeps growing. At the same time, we want to stress that much of the scholarship in this OER book draws upon other OER books that are freely shared without copyright. We cite the sources and indent for block quotes to show you who authored the information.  You might hear a “shift of voice” in these sections. We want to attribute and thank the community of writers and scholars who have contributed to this book.

We can also provide students with PDFs for downloading and printing. There are study terms at the end of the chapters. PowerPoint presentations and key glossary terms are available – just email: lori.halverson-wente@rctc.edu if you are not in Lori Halverson-Wente’s Intercultural Communication class.

We are excited to learn with students as the semester progresses. Students are encouraged to ask questions and put forth their ideas about the course topics and concepts, theoretical and practical, to improve their understanding and contribute to the course itself.

Chapter One Overview

Photo Rochester, MN Diversity Council

This chapter reviews some of the primary terms and concepts related to intercultural communication. In general and, in particular, we will define and explore terms, concepts, and skills correlated to starting the semester off strong for students studying intercultural communication. In subsequent chapters, the concepts this chapter outlines are more thoroughly treated. The end of this chapter concludes with more information about identity and a preview of a discussion activity for online or classroom applications.

This course will include theoretical and skill-based activities; students will gradually become culturally curious, confident, and potentially competent communicators through various intercultural communication encounters as the course continues. Once gained, intercultural competencies may be deepened and tested through travel, perhaps contributing profoundly to an authentic sojourner experience discussed below. While necessary, it is not sufficient to learn with the substance or dep of various life skills required to function effectively in a different culture or navigate our globe’s diverse cultures. We hope that students will move beyond the necessary. Still, theoretical concepts in the book help to develop familiarity with local co-cultures (their history, basics of culture, reading about and watching cultural representatives speak of their co-cultures within the dominant culture, and getting to know someone from a different co-culture personally).

Now, the classroom cannot be the only path to progress in successfully navigating cultures, intercultural concepts, variety and personal connections, and the nuances of culture learned through travel that immerses one in a given culture. Over the past 50 years, new cultures have relocated to the United States due to economic globalization and migration due to war, drought, and other climate-related disasters, extreme poverty, failed states characterized by inter-gang war and its robbing and torture of civilians, civil war, and oppressive governments. Crises change cultures and forced migration, yet they have brought different cultures to Minnesota, allowing the culturally curious to learn about displaced cultures.

Many years ago, we signed up for a cruise ship that promised interaction with the cultures in ports of call. Unfortunately, the cruise ship experience proved very limited interculturally. First, the ship’s cruise director used strictly scripted activities that may bring one interaction with different mammalian “cultures,” such as swimming with dolphins or closely observing whales. Seriously, such cruises limit intercultural experiences and understanding by restricting passengers to luxurious beach hotels and the cheap goods and trinkets set up by locals to sell to tourists on the beach. Instead, the authentic and fun culture exists over the hill from the beaches. Taking a local taxi instead and asking the driver for a short trip to learn about their town, heritage, family, children, and where to shop, eat, or walk is an easy way to take part in authentic local culture. The valuable intercultural action is a few miles away from the Disney floating behemoths that travel to foreign ports of call, such as the Bahamas and Jamaica.

One concept/term is vital to this course – globalization. How has globalization impacted you? Has your or your parent’s job been lost to other countries with lower production costs? Where are your clothes made? Are your groceries locally grown or from another state or country? Consider globalization from a cultural perspective – a crucial concept that both adversely dilutes cultures, destroys local traditions, and produces a homogenized world culture yet allows for efficient intercultural communication:

Globalization, as a concept, refers both to the ‘shrinking’ of the world and the increased consciousness of the world as a whole. It is a term used to describe the changes in societies and the world economy that are the result of dramatically increased cross-border trade, investment, and cultural exchange. The processes and actions to which the concept of globalization now refers have been proceeding, with some interruptions, for many centuries, but only in relatively recent times has globalization become a main focus of discussion. The current or recently-past epoch of globalization has been dominated by the nation-state, national economies, and national cultural identities. The new form of globalization is an interconnected world and global mass culture, often referred to as a ‘global village’ (New World Encyclopedia, 2022).

Section One: Communication, Culture & Intercultural Communication Defined

Section One Learning Outcomes

  • Define communication, nonverbal communication, and verbal communication.
  • Define symbol.
  • Understand the definitions of culture, dominant culture, and co-culture.
  • Define intercultural communication.

Communication Defined

woman writing on paper with a laptop nearby
photo – burst.shopify.com

Communication loosely means “sharing and understanding meaning” or “making common” (Pearson & Nelson, 2000). Community and communication share the same root word, and in “making common,” we find a means to use verbal (words) and nonverbal (non-words) symbols to reduce uncertainty.

Defining communication is challenging; however, the goal of human communication is to share and understand the same meaning. Professor Schultze straightforwardly: “If you do not understand what I intend to say, we failed to communicate. Such lack of shared understanding is miscommunication, not communication” (Schultze, n.d.). Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy (2017) posit that “…human communication is a dynamic process in which people attempt to share their thoughts with other people through the use of symbols in particular settings…In communication, a symbol is an expression that stands for something else and the act of assigning meaning to symbols is at the core of human communication” (pp. 28-31).

In intercultural settings, the communicators might not share the same language or verbal communication. Verbal communication is defined as an agreed-upon and rule-governed system of symbols used to share meaning (Introduction to Communication, 2022). 

Nonverbal communication takes on an additional emphasis in intercultural communication contexts. “Nonverbal communication is a process of generating meaning using behavior other than words. Rather than thinking of nonverbal communication as the opposite of or as separate from verbal communication, it’s more accurate to view them as operating side by side—as part of nonverbal communication of the same system” (“Communication in the Real World,” 2016, p. 165). Communication is dynamic, symbolic, contextual, learned, and has a consequence (Samovar, 2021).

All communication happens within a context or communication situation. When the context includes individuals from different cultures, there is a unique potential for both uncertainty and room for growth as the communicators learn from one another—examining the definition of culture assists in this growth.

ancient Egyptian-like symbols
photo – pexel.com

Communication is Symbolic


Deeper Dive into Symbols

Communication for the Real World (2016) helps clarify what is meant by communication is symbolic:

Most people are born with the capacity and ability to communicate, but everyone communicates differently. This is because communication is learned rather than innate. As we have already seen, communication patterns are relative to the context and culture in which one is communicating, and many cultures have distinct languages consisting of symbols.

A key principle of communication is that it is symbolic. Communication is symbolic in that the words that make up our language systems do not directly correspond to something in reality. Instead, they stand in for or symbolize something. The fact that communication varies so much among people, contexts, and cultures illustrates the principle that meaning is not inherent in the words we use. For example, let’s say you go to France on vacation and see the word poisson on the menu. Unless you know how to read French, you will not know that the symbol is the same as the English symbol fish. Those two words don’t look the same at all, yet they symbolize the same object. If you went by how the word looks alone, you might think that the French word for fish is more like the English word poison and avoid choosing that for your dinner. Putting a picture of a fish on a menu would definitely help a foreign tourist understand what they are ordering, since the picture is an actual representation of the object rather than a symbol for it.

All symbolic communication is learned, negotiated, and dynamic. We know that the letters b-o-o-k refer to a bound object with multiple written pages. We also know that the letters t-r-u-c-k refer to a vehicle with a bed in the back for hauling things. But if we learned in school that the letters t-r-u-c-k referred to a bound object with written pages and b-o-o-k referred to a vehicle with a bed in the back, then that would make just as much sense, because the letters don’t actually refer to the object and the word itself only has the meaning that we assign to it. We will learn more about how language works, but communication is more than the words we use.

We are all socialized into different languages, but we also speak different ‘languages’ based on the situation we are in. For example, in some cultures it is considered inappropriate to talk about family or health issues in public, but it wouldn’t be odd to overhear people in a small town grocery store in the United States talking about their children or their upcoming surgery. There are some communication patterns shared by very large numbers of people and some that are particular to a dyad—best friends, for example, who have their own inside terminology and expressions that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. These examples aren’t on the same scale as differing languages, but they still indicate that communication is learned. They also illustrate how rules and norms influence how we communicate.

Attribution for this Section Above:


Russian soldiers
photo – pexel.com

Russian President Putin promoted the memory of the World War II victory of the Russians over the Germans to bring back cohesion among the Russian people. His use of the nonverbal symbol of the Russian flag. His words speak of Russian pride in their country. Whether this embodies the whole truth or not, it is an important cultural symbol that guides who the Russians are asked to believe who they are as a culture. Intentionally or unintentionally, symbols can be used to manipulate and form perceptions, this is why understanding the core nature of how communication is based upon symbol use is essential for critical thinkers. We wonder, how could someone “blindly follow” Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, or Valdimar Putin. Simply put: symbols are powerful and culturally bound. Advocates for Human Rights are jailed or killed in Russia – or they have left the country due to being in danger when they question the symbols and fight for reform.

When you consider the power of symbols when emersed in the culture, the question becomes more difficult to answer and the need to study intercultural communication more crucial for today’s world.

Read more here: Nexus of Patriotism and Militarism in Russia: A Quest for Internal Cohesion


Culture Defined

“Culture is communication, and communication is culture.” ~ E. T. Hall (1959)

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

Defining culture is imprecise; hundreds of academic definitions highlight different employ nuances to suit their particular approach. As Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy (2017) explain, “Culture is a set of human-made objective and subjective elements that in the past have increased the probability of survival and resulted in satisfaction for the participants in an ecological niche, and thus became shared among those who could communicate with each other because they had a common language and lived in the same time and place” (p. 39).

Another definition from Lustig & Koester (2005) in their book, Among Us, explains that culture is a learned set of shared interpretations of beliefs, values, norms, and social practices that includes the behaviors of a  large group of people. In so doing, culture links to human symbolic processes (p. 13).

Finally, a more straightforward definition comes from Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016): “Culture is an ongoing negotiation of learned patterns of beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors” (p. 377).

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

In their book Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy (2017) stress family, worldview, religion, history, values, social organizations, all[ considering language as vital elements of culture. These elements of culture might help one better understand how intercultural communicators both share and differ in various ways. Now, “Worldview is how people interpret reality and events, including their images of themselves and how they relate to the world around them” (p. 57). When one explores another’s culture, often one finds they are doing likewise.

This sense of definitional ambiguity is evident in the Open Education Resource (OER) Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016), quoted below:

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

Culture is a complicated word to define, as there are at least six comon ways that culture is used in the United States. For the purposes of exploring the communicative aspects of culture, we will define culture as the ongoing negotiation of learned and patterned beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors. When unpacking this definition, note that culture shouldn’t be conceptualized as stable and unchanging. Culture is “negotiated,” and…is dynamic….The definition also points out that culture is learned, which accounts for the importance of socializing institutions like family, school, peers, and the media. Culture is patterned in that there are recognizable widespread similarities among people within a cultural group. There is also deviation from and resistance to those patterns by individuals and subgroups within a culture, which is why cultural patterns change over time. Last, the definition acknowledges that culture influences our beliefs about what is true and false, our attitudes including our likes and dislikes, our values regarding what is right and wrong, and our behaviors. It is from these cultural influences that our defining identities are formed (p. 377).

Regardless of the definition of culture used, individuals experiencing a new culture or witnessing a foreign newcomer to their area, especially outside their language, know the frustrations of learning. Reducing frustrations and developing a variety of intercultural communication skills are helpful.

Dominant Culture and Co-Culture

crashing wave on a rock
photo – pexel.com

Lustig & Koester (2010) note, “Not all groups within a nation or region have equal access to sources of institutional and economic power. When cultures share the same political, geographic, and economic landscapes, some form of a status hierarchy often develops. Groups of people who are distinguished by their religions, political, cultural, or ethnic identity often struggle among themselves for dominance and control of the available economic and political resources. The cultural group that has primary access to institutional and economic power is often characterized as the dominant culture” (p. 214).

photo – pexel.com

Samovar, et. al, (2009), best describe how co-cultures develop within a dominant culture:

{W]ithin each society you will find a dominant culture, but this culture is not monolithic. That is to say, within the dominant culture you will find numerous co-cultures and specialized cultures.

As Victor suggests, ‘A national culture is never a homogeneous thing of one piece. In every culture, there are internal contradictions or polarities. U.S. culture is no exception.’  We believe that the best way to identify these groups is by using the term co-cultures, because it calls attention to the idea of dual membership. We will, therefore, use the word co-culture when discussing groups or social communities exhibiting communication characteristics, perceptions, values, beliefs, and practices that are sufficiently different to distinguish them from other groups and communities and from the dominant culture.

Some co-cultures share many of the patterns and perceptions found within the larger, dominant culture, but their members also have distinct and unique patterns of communication that they have learned as part of their membership in the co-culture. As you will see…, most of the co-cultures in the United States meet many of the criteria and characteristics that we will apply to describe culture. These co-cultural affiliations can be based on race, ethnic bacground, gender, age, sexual preference, or other factors.  What is important about all co-cultures is that being gay, disabled, Latino, African American, Asian American, American Indian, or female, for example, exposes a person to a specialized set of messages that help determine how he or she perceives some aspects of the external world. It also signifi cantly influences how members of that co-culture communicate those perceptions (p. 13).

Culture is learned, transmitted from generation to generation, based on symbols, and is a dynamic and integrated system (Samovar, 2011, p. 17). These characteristics of culture are demonstrated in the video at the end of the chapter and are discussed in more detail later in this chapter.

Defining Intercultural Communication

Photo submitted by Lori Halverson-Wente, used with permission

Having reviewed the definitions of culture and communication, looking more carefully at the defining characteristics of intercultural communication is essential to this unit. If the purpose of intercultural communication is a straightforward proposition–the requirement of personal interaction with someone of a different culture, be that an intercultural interview or something else. If sharing and understanding meaning is our goal,  intercultural communication is to do so in diverse settings with individuals from cultures different from our own. Lustig and Koester (2011), in their textbook, Intercultural Competence, briefly define intercultural communication as follows: “Intercultural communication occurs when large and important cultural differences create dissimilar interpretations and expectations about how to communicate competently” (p. 52).

Intercultural communication happens in all communication contexts: intrapersonal, interpersonal, small group/team, public, and mass communication. Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016) shares:

It is through intercultural communication that we come to create, understand, and transform culture and identity. Intercultural communication is communication between people with differing cultural identities. One reason we should study intercultural communication is to foster greater self-awareness (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Our thought process regarding culture is often ‘other focused,’ meaning that the culture of the other person or group is what stands out in our perception. However, the adage ‘know thyself’ is appropriate, as we become more aware of our own culture by better understanding other cultures and perspectives. Intercultural communication can allow us to step outside of our comfortable, usual frame of reference and see our culture through a different lens. Additionally, as we become more self-aware, we may also become more ethical communicators as we challenge our ethnocentrism, or our tendency to view our own culture as superior to other cultures (Communication, 2016, p. 404).

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

When using intercultural communication, remember these five thoughts when completing the intercultural interview:  after all, [e]ngaging in intercultural communication is a complex activity. It will help to understand: (1) the uniqueness of each individual, (2) the hazards of over-generalizing, (3) the need to be objective, (4) the necessity for compromise, and (5) the myth of believing that communication is a cure-all” (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017, p. 17). The ultimate goal is to develop one’s intercultural communication competency and integrate this into their own life. Objectivity is a goal, defined as Judgement based upon observable data and uninfluenced by emotions and personal prejudices,; it is a goal that can be hard to achieve. It is still important to cultivate this sense of self-awareness in perception formation.

While studying Intercultural Communication, it is helpful to avoid cultural generalizations or approximations since they are based on limited data and are only a way to “approximately” know more about a larger population. In this course, we will work to create more complex perceptions and test out inferences. In the video at the end of the chapter, you’ll hear more about the cultural generations made of the speaker. A goal of intercultural communication courses is to cultivate an attitude of cultural curiosity. This means you will be asked to seek out new experiences and learn more about how we often view the world from our own worldview. Don’t be worried if you are uneasy about “stepping outside of your comfort zone.” Everyone experiences this course uniquely and it is the hope you will have more questions when you leave the course than when you began the course.

Cultural Characteristics

Culture is learned, transmitted from generation to generation, based on symbols, and is a dynamic and integrated system (Samovar, et. al, 2011, p. 79): 

Culture is transmitted from Generation to Generation

The American philosopher Thoreau once wrote,All the past is here.’ As it applies to culture, Thoreau is correct. For a culture to endure it must make certain that its crucial messages and elements are not only shared, but are passed to future generations. In this way the past becomes the present and helps create the future. As Brislin notes,If there are values considered central to a society that have existed for many years, these must be transmitted from one generation to another.’  This process of transmitting culture can be seen as a kind ofsocial inheritance.’ Charon elaborates on this idea when he writes: ‘Culture is a social inheritance; it consists of ideas that may have developed long before we were born. Our society, for example, has a history reaching beyond any individuals life, the ideas developed over time are taught to each generation and truth is anchored in interaction by people long before dead.’  It is communication that makes culture a continuous process, for once cultural habits, principles, values, and attitudes are formulated, they are communicated to each member of the culture. While the immediate family begins theeducation’ process, you need to remember that most of the cruciallessons’ of a culture continue to be emphasized throughout the persons life. Infants, held and touched by parents, do not consciously know they are learning about family and touch, but they are. The essential cultural values continue to be reinforced as children share holidays, both religious and secular, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives. So strong is the need for a culture to bind each generation to past and future generations, it is often asserted that a fracture in the transmission process would contribute to a cultures extinction (Samovar, pp. 52-53).

The chapter “Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture” by Karen Krumrey-Fulks (2021) expands upon this as follows:

Karen Krumrey-Fulks (2021) shares:

Culture is Symbolic

Carbaugh [expands] on the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who believed that culture was a system based on symbols. Geertz said that people use symbols to define their world and express their emotions. As human beings, we all learn about the world around us, both consciously and unconsciously, starting at a very young age. What we internalize comes through observation, experience, interaction, and what we are taught. We manipulate symbols to create meaning and stories that dictate our behaviors, to organize our lives, and to interact with others. The meanings we attach to symbols are arbitrary. Looking someone in the eye means that you are direct and respectful in some countries, yet, in other cultural systems, looking away is a sign of respect.

Carbaugh also suggested that culture is ‘a learned set of shared interpretations and beliefs, values, and norms, which affect the behaviors of a relatively large group of people.’ Our course will combine Carbaugh’s longer definitions into the statement that culture is a learned pattern of values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a large group of people. It is within this framework that we will explore what happens when people from different cultural backgrounds interact.

Culture is Learned

Although there is a debate as to whether babies are born into the world as tabula rasa (blank slate) or without knowing anything. We can say that they do not come with pre-programmed preferences like your personal computer or cell phone. And, although human beings do share some universal habits such as eating and sleeping, these habits are biologically and physiologically based, not culturally based. Culture is the unique way that we have learned to eat and sleep. Other members of our culture have taught us slowly and consciously (or even subconsciously) what it means to eat and sleep.

Culture is Dynamic and Heterogeneous

…It should be understood that culture is always changing. Cultural patterns are not rigid but slowly and constantly changing. The United States of the 1960s is not the United States of today. Nor if I know one person from the United States do I know them all. Within cultures there are struggles to negotiate relationships within a multitude of forces of change. Although the general nature of this book focuses on broad principles, by viewing any culture as diverse in character or content (heterogeneous), we are better equipped to understand the complexities of that culture and become more sensitive to how people in that culture live.

Values and Culture

Value systems are fundamental to understanding how culture expresses itself. Values are deeply felt and often serve as principles that guide people in their perceptions and behaviors. Using our values, certain ideas are judged to be right or wrong, good or bad, important or not important, desirable or not desirable. Common values include fairness, respect, integrity, compassion, happiness, kindness, creativity, curiosity, religion, wisdom, and more.

Ideally, our values should match up with what we say we will do, but sometimes our various values come into conflict, and a choice has to be made as to which one will be given preference over another. An example of this could be love of country and love of family. You might love both, but ultimate choose family over country when a crisis occurs.

Beliefs and Culture

Our values are supported by our assumptions of our world. Assumptions are ideas that we believe and hold to be true. Beliefs come about through repetition. This repetition becomes a habit we form and leads to habitual patterns of thinking and doing. We do not realize our assumptions because they are in-grained in us at an unconscious level. We become aware of our assumptions when we encounter a value or belief that is different from our own, and it makes us feel that we need to stand up for, or validate, our beliefs.

People from the United States strongly believe in independence. They consider themselves as separate individuals in control of their own lives. The Declaration of Independence states that all people—not groups, but individual people—are created equal. This sense of equality leads to the idea that all people are of the same standing or importance, and therefore, informality or lack of rigid social protocol is common. This leads to an informality of speech, dress, and manners that other cultures might find difficult to negotiate because of their own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors.

Beliefs are part of every human life in all world cultures. They define for us, and give meaning to, objects, people, places, and things in our lives. Our assumptions about our world determine how we react emotionally and what actions we need to take. These assumptions about our worldviews guide our behaviors and shape our attitudes. Mary Clark (2005) defines worldviews as ‘beliefs and assumptions by which an individual makes sense of experiences that are hidden deep within the language and traditions of the surrounding society.’

Worldviews are the shared values and beliefs that form the customs, behaviors and foundations of any particular society. Worldviews ‘set the ground rules for shared cultural meaning’ (Clark, 2005). Worldviews are the patterns developed through interactions within families, neighborhoods, schools, communities, churches, and so on. Worldviews can be resources for understanding and analyzing the fundamental differences between cultures.

Feelings and Culture

Our culture can give us a sense of familiarity and comfort in a variety of contexts. We embody a sense of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to all other’s and is the standard by which all other cultures should be measured (Sumner, 1906). An example of this could be the farm-to-table movement that is currently popular in the United States. Different parts of the country, pride themselves in growing produce for local consumption touting the benefits of better food, enhanced economy, and carbon neutrality. Tasting menus are developed, awards are given, and consumers brag about the amazing, innovative benefits of living in the United States. What is often missed is the fact that for many people, in many cultures across the planet, the farm-to-table process has not changed for thousands of years. Being a locavore is the only way they know.

Geertz (1973) believed the meanings we attach to our cultural symbols can create chaos when we meet someone who believes in a different meaning or interpretation; it can give us culture shock. This shock can be disorientating, confusing, or surprising. It can bring on anxiety or nervousness, and, for some, a sense of losing control. Culture is always provoking a variety of feelings. Culture shock will be discussed in greater depth later.

Behavior and Culture

Our worldview influences our behaviors. Behaviors endure over time and are passed from person to person. Within a dominant or national culture, members can belong to many different groups. Dominant cultures may be made up of many subsets…that exist within them. For example, your dominant or national culture may be the United States, but you are also a thirty-year-old woman from the Midwest who loves poodles. Because you are a thirty-year-old woman, you exist in the world very differently than a fifty-year-old man. A co-culture is a group whose values, beliefs or behaviors set it apart from the larger culture of which it is a part of and shares many similarities (Orbe, 1996). Social psychologists may prefer the term micro-culture as opposed to co-culture.

Attribution for this Section:

This page titled 1.3: Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Karen Krumrey-Fulks.


Culture and Identity

The topic of cultural identity will be explored throughout the semester and later in this book. Exploring the key concepts of identity is helpful as we begin our first look at the topics this course will cover. Professor Shannon Ahrndt in her online creative commons textbook, Intercultural Communication, shares:

Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities

Attribution of this Section: Professor Shannon Ahrndt in her online creative commons textbook, Intercultural Communication

Professor Ahrndt (2020) shares, as fully quoted below:

“Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities Ask yourself the question “Who am I?”…We develop a sense of who we are based on what is reflected back on us from other people. Our parents, friends, teachers, and the media help shape our identities. While this happens from birth, most people in Western societies reach a stage in adolescence where maturing cognitive abilities and increased social awareness lead them to begin to reflect on who they are. This begins a lifelong process of thinking about who we are now, who we were before, and who we will become (Tatum, 2000). Our identities make up an important part of our self-concept and can be broken down into three main categories personal, social, and cultural identities (see Table 1.1).

TABLE 1.1 Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities




Antique collector Member of the historical society Irish American
Dog Lover Member of the humane society Male/Female/Non-Binary
Cyclist RCTC College Senate Member Mexican American
Singer High school Music Teachers Asso. Multiracial
Shy Book Club Member Heterosexual
Athletic Football Team Member LGBTQ+

“We must avoid the temptation to think of our identities as constant. Instead, our identities are formed through processes that started before we were born and will continue after we are gone; therefore our identities aren’t something we achieve or complete. Two related but distinct components of our identities are our personal and social identities (Spreckels & Kotthoff, 2009). Personal identities include the components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connected to our life experiences. For example, I consider myself a puzzle lover, and you may identify as a fan of hip-hop music. Our social identities are the components of self that are derived from involvement in social groups with which we are interpersonally committed.

“For example, we may derive aspects of our social identity from our family or from a community of fans for a  sports team. Social identities differ from personal identities because they are externally organized through membership. Our membership may be voluntary (Greek organization on campus) or involuntary (family) and explicit (we pay dues to our labor union) or implicit (we purchase and listen to hip-hop music). There are numerous options for personal and social identities. While our personal identity choices express who we are, our social identities align us with particular groups. Through our social identities, we make statements about who we are and who we are not.

“Personal identities may change often as people have new experiences and develop new interests and hobbies. A current interest in online video games may give way to an interest in graphic design. Social identities do not change as often because they take more time to develop, as you must become interpersonally invested. For example, if an interest in online video games leads someone to become a member of a MMORPG, or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game community, that personal identity has led to a social identity that is now interpersonal and more entrenched. Cultural identities are based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting (Yep, 2002). Since we are often a part of them since birth, cultural identities are the least changeable of the three. The ways of being and the social expectations for behavior within cultural identities do change over time, but what separates them = from most social identities is their historical roots (Collier, 1996). For example, think of how ways of being and acting have changed for African Americans since the civil rights movement.

“Any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed. Ascribed identities are personal, social, or cultural identities that are placed on us by others, while avowed identities are those that we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Sometimes people ascribe an identity to someone else based on stereotypes. You may see a person who likes to read science-fiction books, watches documentaries, has glasses, and collects Star Trek memorabilia and label him or her a nerd. If the person doesn’t avow that identity, it can create friction, and that label may even hurt the other person’s feelings. But ascribed and avowed identities can match up. To extend the previous example, there has been a movement in recent years to reclaim the label nerd and turn it into a positive, and a nerd subculture has been growing in popularity. For example, MC Frontalot, a leader in the nerdcore hip-hop movement, says that being branded a nerd in school was terrible, but now he raps about “nerdy” things like blogs to sold-out crowds (Shipman, 2007). We can see from this example that our ascribed and avowed identities change over the course of our lives, and sometimes they match up and sometimes not.”


Section Two: What is Intercultural Communication Competence?

Part Two Learning Outcomes

  1. Define communication competence.
  2. Explain each part of the definition of communication competence.
  3. Discuss strategies for developing communication competence.
  4. Discuss communication apprehension and public speaking anxiety and employ strategies to manage them.


Rochester Diversity Council Photograph, used with permission

Finally, in this introductory chapter, defining the basic notion of intercultural communication competence will help set a strong footing for the following chapters.

According to Darla Deardorff (2004), “Intercultural [communication] competence is the ability to interact effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations, based on specific attitudes, intercultural knowledge, skills and reflection” (p. 5). A pyramid model represents desired internal and external outcomes by acquiring necessary preliminary competencies and skills. Deardorff’s model of intercultural communication competence, influential in its field, is explained in great detail beyond our course level (along with other similar models) at this site: center for intercultural dialogue.

Undergirding Deardorff’s pyramid of intercultural communication competence and comprising its foundation are three characteristics allowing for its development and excellence:  (1) motivation — developing cultural curiosity, general openness, and respect for self/others; (2) knowledge — having a fund of knowledge to draw on to develop deep understanding, gaining knowledge of culture as well as specific cultural information and sociolinguistic awareness; (3) skills — possessing communication and listening skills such as listening, interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017, p. 217).

Barriers & Components of Intercultural Communication Competence

“Intercultural communication competence (ICC) is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in various cultural contexts.” Samovar, et al. (2017) share that motivation, skills, and knowledge are components of building intercultural communication competence. Others, such as (Martin & Nakayama, 2010) name the vital components as motivation, self and other knowledge, and tolerance for uncertainty.  


Barriers of Intercultural Communication Competence

Green, et. at al (2018) share the importance of looking at what impedes intercultural communication competence in the section below, shared from their OER, Introduction to Communication:

Before looking at how to be more competent in intercultural interactions, it is important to identify some of the barriers.  Verderber and MacGeorge (2016) give six:

  • Anxiety: While an intercultural situation will not necessarily result in culture shock, it is not unusual to experience some level of discomfort in such situations. The apprehension we feel can make the interaction awkward or can lead us to avoiding situations that we deem too unfamiliar.
  • Assumed similarity or difference: If we expect that restaurants will be the same in Asia as they are in the U.S., we are likely to be disappointed. Likewise, if we think no one in another country will understand us, we might miss the opportunity to connect with others who share similar interests.
  • Ethnocentrism: Assuming our culture is superior to or more important than all others will make it difficult to successfully engage with people from other cultures.
  • Stereotyping: We can create stereotypes of people within our culture or of people from other cultures. Either way it stops us from seeing people as individuals, and we instead see them as a certain age, race, gender, ability, or whatever. Stereotyping is a process of judging that we all need to work to avoid.
  • Incompatible communication code: Even within our own language, we may have trouble understanding the messages of others. When the languages are different, it may be more difficult. Nonverbal communication also varies between cultures, so it is not always a good substitute for verbal communication.
  • Incompatible norms and values: People of one culture may be offended by the norms or values of another culture. For example, less-significant differences in values, such as which foods are most desired, may be offensive. For example, in India, cows are considered sacred, yet in the U.S., beef is widely consumed. However, different cultural values about business practices or expansion of territory can lead to international conflict.



Communication in the Real World (2016) expands upon the notion of cultivating intercultural communication competence and is quoted below:

Throughout this book we have been putting various tools in our communication toolbox to improve our communication competence. Many of these tools can be translated into intercultural contexts. While building any form of competence requires effort, building intercultural communication competence often requires us to take more risks. Some of these risks require us to leave our comfort zones and adapt to new and uncertain situations. In this section, we will learn some of the skills needed to be an interculturally competent communicator.

Components of Intercultural Communication Listed

friends in a circle making a star with their finger and thumbs
photo: pexel.com


Initially, a person’s motivation for communicating with people from other cultures must be considered. Motivation refers to the root of a person’s desire to foster intercultural relationships and can be intrinsic or extrinsic (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Put simply, if a person isn’t motivated to communicate with people from different cultures, then the components of ICC discussed next don’t really matter. If a person has a healthy curiosity that drives him or her toward intercultural encounters in order to learn more about self and others, then there is a foundation from which to build additional competence-relevant attitudes and skills. This intrinsic motivation makes intercultural communication a voluntary, rewarding, and lifelong learning process. Motivation can also be extrinsic, meaning that the desire for intercultural communication is driven by an outside reward like money, power, or recognition. While both types of motivation can contribute to ICC, context may further enhance or impede a person’s motivation to communicate across cultures.

Members of dominant groups are often less motivated, intrinsically and extrinsically, toward intercultural communication than members of nondominant groups, because they don’t see the incentives for doing so. Having more power in communication encounters can create an unbalanced situation where the individual from the nondominant group is expected to exhibit competence, or the ability to adapt to the communication behaviors and attitudes of the other. Even in situations where extrinsic rewards like securing an overseas business investment are at stake, it is likely that the foreign investor is much more accustomed to adapting to United States business customs and communication than vice versa. This expectation that others will adapt to our communication can be unconscious, but later ICC skills we will learn will help bring it to awareness.

The unbalanced situation I just described is a daily reality for many individuals with nondominant identities. Their motivation toward intercultural communication may be driven by survival in terms of functioning effectively in dominant contexts. [Consider] the phenomenon known as code-switching, in which individuals from nondominant groups adapt their communication to fit in with the dominant group. In such instances, African Americans may “talk white” by conforming to what is called “standard English,” women in corporate environments may adapt masculine communication patterns, people who are gay or lesbian may self-censor and avoid discussing their same-gender partners with coworkers, and people with nonvisible disabilities may not disclose them in order to avoid judgment.

While intrinsic motivation captures an idealistic view of intercultural communication as rewarding in its own right, many contexts create extrinsic motivation. In either case, there is a risk that an individual’s motivation can still lead to incompetent communication. For example, it would be exploitative for an extrinsically motivated person to pursue intercultural communication solely for an external reward and then abandon the intercultural relationship once the reward is attained. These situations highlight the relational aspect of ICC, meaning that the motivation of all parties should be considered. Motivation alone cannot create ICC.

man looking at whiteboard of math problems
photo: pexel.com


Knowledge supplements motivation and is an important part of building ICC. Knowledge includes self- and other-awareness, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility. Building knowledge of our own cultures, identities, and communication patterns takes more than passive experience (Martin & Nakayama).

Developing cultural self-awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Listening to people who are different from us is a key component of developing self-knowledge. This may be uncomfortable, because we may realize that people think of our identities differently than we thought. For example, when I lived in Sweden, my Swedish roommates often discussed how they were wary of befriending students from the United States. They perceived US Americans to be shallow because they were friendly and exciting while they were in Sweden but didn’t remain friends once they left. Although I was initially upset by their assessment, I came to see the truth in it. Swedes are generally more reserved than US Americans and take longer to form close friendships. The comparatively extroverted nature of the Americans led some of the Swedes to overestimate the depth of their relationship, which ultimately hurt them when the Americans didn’t stay in touch. This made me more aware of how my communication was perceived, enhancing my self-knowledge. I also learned more about communication behaviors of the Swedes, which contributed to my other-knowledge.

The most effective way to develop other-knowledge is by direct and thoughtful encounters with other cultures. However, people may not readily have these opportunities for a variety of reasons. Despite the overall diversity in the United States, many people still only interact with people who are similar to them. Even in a racially diverse educational setting, for example, people often group off with people of their own race. While a heterosexual person may have a gay or lesbian friend or relative, they likely spend most of their time with other heterosexuals. Unless you interact with people with disabilities as part of your job or have a person with a disability in your friend or family group, you likely spend most of your time interacting with able-bodied people. Living in a rural area may limit your ability to interact with a range of cultures, and most people do not travel internationally regularly. Because of this, we may have to make a determined effort to interact with other cultures or rely on educational sources like college classes, books, or documentaries. Learning another language is also a good way to learn about a culture, because you can then read the news or watch movies in the native language, which can offer insights that are lost in translation. It is important to note though that we must evaluate the credibility of the source of our knowledge, whether it is a book, person, or other source. Also, knowledge of another language does not automatically equate to ICC.

4 friends sitting on the grass laughing
photo: pexel.com

Developing self- and other-knowledge is an ongoing process that will continue to adapt and grow as we encounter new experiences. Mindfulness and cognitive complexity will help as we continue to build our ICC (Pusch, 2009). Mindfulness is a state of self- and other-monitoring that informs later reflection on communication interactions. As mindful communicators we should ask questions that focus on the interactive process like “How is our communication going? What are my reactions? What are their reactions?” Being able to adapt our communication in the moment based on our answers to these questions is a skill that comes with a high level of ICC. Reflecting on the communication encounter later to see what can be learned is also a way to build ICC. We should then be able to incorporate what we learned into our communication frameworks, which requires cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to continually supplement and revise existing knowledge to create new categories rather than forcing new knowledge into old categories. Cognitive flexibility helps prevent our knowledge from becoming stale and also prevents the formation of stereotypes and can help us avoid prejudging an encounter or jumping to conclusions. In summary, to be better intercultural communicators, we should know much about others and ourselves and be able to reflect on and adapt our knowledge as we gain new experiences.

Skills & Tolerance for Uncertainity

Motivation and knowledge can inform us as we gain new experiences, but how we feel in the moment of intercultural encounters is also important. [We have heard feelings are ‘neither good nor bad – they just are.’ In fact, to gain intercultural communication competency, a skill based approach is necessary to help us communicate regargless of our emotional state. Additionally,] tolerance for uncertainty is necessary and refers to an individual’s attitude about and level of comfort in uncertain situations (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Some people perform better in uncertain situations than others, and intercultural encounters often bring up uncertainty. Whether communicating with someone of a different gender, race, or nationality, we are often wondering what we should or shouldn’t do or say. Situations of uncertainty most often become clearer as they progress, but the anxiety that an individual with a low tolerance for uncertainty feels may lead them to leave the situation or otherwise communicate in a less competent manner. Individuals with a high tolerance for uncertainty may exhibit more patience, waiting on new information to become available or seeking out information, which may then increase the understanding of the situation and lead to a more successful outcome (Pusch, 2009). Individuals who are intrinsically motivated toward intercultural communication may have a higher tolerance for uncertainty, in that their curiosity leads them to engage with others who are different because they find the self- and other-knowledge gained rewarding.

woman on a swing looking toward the sunset
photo: pexel.com

Cultivating Intercultural Communication Competence

How can ICC be built and achieved? This is a key question we will address in this section. Two main ways to build ICC are through experiential learning and reflective practices (Bednarz, 2010). We must first realize that competence isn’t any one thing. Part of being competent means that you can assess new situations and adapt your existing knowledge to the new contexts. What it means to be competent will vary depending on your physical location, your role (personal, professional, etc.), and your life stage, among other things. Sometimes we will know or be able to figure out what is expected of us in a given situation, but sometimes we may need to act in unexpected ways to meet the needs of a situation. Competence enables us to better cope with the unexpected, adapt to the nonroutine, and connect to uncommon frameworks. I have always told my students that ICC is less about a list of rules and more about a box of tools.

Three ways to cultivate ICC are to foster attitudes that motivate us, discover knowledge that informs us, and develop skills that enable us (Bennett, 2009). To foster attitudes that motivate us, we must develop a sense of wonder about culture. This sense of wonder can lead to feeling overwhelmed, humbled, or awed (Opdal, 2001). This sense of wonder may correlate to a high tolerance for uncertainty, which can help us turn potentially frustrating experiences we have into teachable moments. I’ve had many such moments in my intercultural encounters at home and abroad. One such moment came the first time I tried to cook a frozen pizza in the oven in the shared kitchen of my apartment in Sweden. The information on the packaging was written in Swedish, but like many college students, I had a wealth of experience cooking frozen pizzas to draw from. As I went to set the oven dial to preheat, I noticed it was strange that the oven didn’t go up to my usual 425–450 degrees. Not to be deterred, I cranked the dial up as far as it would go, waited a few minutes, put my pizza in, and walked down the hall to my room to wait for about fifteen minutes until the pizza was done. The smell of smoke drew me from my room before the fifteen minutes was up, and I walked into a corridor filled with smoke and the smell of burnt pizza. I pulled the pizza out and was puzzled for a few minutes while I tried to figure out why the pizza burned so quickly, when one of my corridor-mates gently pointed out that the oven temperatures in Sweden are listed in Celsius, not Fahrenheit! Despite almost burning the kitchen down, I learned a valuable lesson about assuming my map for temperatures and frozen pizzas was the same as everyone else’s.

woman looking at a mountain while sitting on the grass
photo: pexel.com

Discovering knowledge that informs us is another step that can build on our motivation. One tool involves learning more about our cognitive style, or how we learn. Our cognitive style consists of our preferred patterns for “gathering information, constructing meaning, and organizing and applying knowledge” (Bennett, 2009). As we explore cognitive styles, we discover that there are differences in how people attend to and perceive the world, explain events, organize the world, and use rules of logic (Nisbett, 2003). Some cultures have a cognitive style that focuses more on tasks, analytic and objective thinking, details and precision, inner direction, and independence, while others focus on relationships and people over tasks and things, concrete and metaphorical thinking, and a group consciousness and harmony.

Developing ICC is a complex learning process. At the basic level of learning, we accumulate knowledge and assimilate it into our existing frameworks. But accumulated knowledge doesn’t necessarily help us in situations where we have to apply that knowledge. Transformative learning takes place at the highest levels and occurs when we encounter situations that challenge our accumulated knowledge and our ability to accommodate that knowledge to manage a real-world situation. The cognitive dissonance that results in these situations is often uncomfortable and can lead to a hesitance to repeat such an engagement. One tip for cultivating ICC that can help manage these challenges is to find a community of like-minded people who are also motivated to develop ICC. In my graduate program, I lived in the international dormitory in order to experience the cultural diversity that I had enjoyed so much studying abroad a few years earlier. I was surrounded by international students and US American students who were more or less interested in cultural diversity. This ended up being a tremendous learning experience, and I worked on research about identity and communication between international and American students.

Developing skills that enable us is another part of ICC. Some of the skills important to ICC are the ability to empathize, accumulate cultural information, listen, resolve conflict, and manage anxiety (Bennett, 2009). Again, you are already developing a foundation for these skills by reading this book, but you can expand those skills to intercultural settings with the motivation and knowledge already described. Contact alone does not increase intercultural skills; there must be more deliberate measures taken to fully capitalize on those encounters. While research now shows that intercultural contact does decrease prejudices, this is not enough to become interculturally competent. The ability to empathize and manage anxiety enhances prejudice reduction, and these two skills have been shown to enhance the overall impact of intercultural contact even more than acquiring cultural knowledge. There is intercultural training available for people who are interested. If you can’t access training, you may choose to research intercultural training on your own, as there are many books, articles, and manuals written on the subject.

Reflective practices can also help us process through rewards and challenges associated with developing ICC. As we open ourselves to new experiences, we are likely to have both positive and negative reactions. It can be very useful to take note of negative or defensive reactions you have. This can help you identify certain triggers that may create barriers to effective intercultural interaction. Noting positive experiences can also help you identify triggers for learning that you could seek out or recreate to enhance the positive (Bednarz, 2010). A more complex method of reflection is called intersectional reflexivity. Intersectional reflexivity is a reflective practice by which we acknowledge intersecting identities, both privileged and disadvantaged, and implicate ourselves in social hierarchies and inequalities (Jones Jr., 2010). This method brings in the concepts of dominant and nondominant groups and the privileges/disadvantages dialectic we discussed earlier.

rocks on top of each other on a beach
photo: pexel.com

While formal intercultural experiences like studying abroad or volunteering for the Special Olympics or a shelter for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) youth can result in learning, informal experiences are also important. We may be less likely to include informal experiences in our reflection if we don’t see them as legitimate. Reflection should also include “critical incidents” or what I call “a-ha! moments.” Think of reflection as a tool for metacompetence that can be useful in bringing the formal and informal together (Bednarz, 2010).

*The section above is attributed to Communication in the Real World.


Why Study Intercultural Communication

Karen Krumrey (2020) in her online textbook, Intercultural Communication for the Community College, shares the following materials about the importance of studying Intercultural Communication. We are grateful to integrate her work in our online textbook. She shares as noted below:

What is your reason for studying intercultural communication?  Maybe it was a requirement on the road to achieving your major, and you dutifully signed up without having given it much thought.  Maybe you’ve spent time overseas or enjoyed spending time with an exchange student at your high school.  Martin & Nakayama (2011) believe that all our varied reasons can fall into six categories that they call imperatives.  For our purposes, an imperative will be an important or compelling reason.  Martin & Nakayama (2011) identify the six imperative categories as peace, demographic, economic, technological, self-awareness, and ethical.

Human civilization is familiar with conflict.  History is full of conflict over politics, religion, language, resources, and more.  The bottom line for the peace imperative is a question.  Can individuals of different races, ethnicities, language, and cultures co-exist on this planet?  It would be naïve to assume that simply understanding intercultural communication issues would end war and conflict, but this question does underscore the need for all of us to learn more about cultural groups other than our own.

The term demographics means the characteristics of a populationas classified by race, ethnicity, age, sex, income, and more.  U.S. demographics, as well as those around the world, are changing dramatically.  According to the Population Reference Bureau (2019), which computes a “diversity index,” the states in the US south, southwest, and west will see the biggest impact from immigration.  Many of those immigrants will be economic refugees directly impacted by climate change.  They will come searching for new ways to support themselves and their families.  Others will be victims of violence and political instability.

The United States has an interesting history in relationship to its’ immigrants.  A commonly used metaphor called the melting pot assumes that immigrants and cultural minorities are assimilated into the US majority culture, losing their original cultures.  Most researchers believe that the melting pot is a myth, and a better metaphor would be the tossed salad or rather the diversity of immigrants and minorities is still apparent, but part of a nourishing whole.

Vocabulary important to the demographic imperative are heterogeneous and homogeneous.  If a population is considered heterogeneous, there are differences in the group, culture, or population.  If a population is considered homogeneous, there are similarities in the group, culture, or population.Diversity is the quality of being different.  A nativistic group is extremely patriotic to the point of being anti-immigrant.

The demographic imperative is not only about immigration though, it’s also about an aging workforce, and economic pressure.  Most families need two incomes to live what is consider a middle-class existence or to generate savings enough to retire on.  As the demographics change, culture changes.

The recent trend toward globalization or the creation of a world market in goods, services, labor, capital, and technology is dramatic.  To be effective in this new global market, we must understand how business is conducted in other countries and cultures because more and more of our domestic economic growth depends on global success. An accurate understanding of the economies around the world is also crucial to compete on the world stage.  The bottom line when considering the economic imperative is the ultimate impact of globalization on the average person.

In 1967, a futurist named Marshall McLuhan coined the iconoclastic term, global village, which has become the vanguard for the technology imperative.  The term refers to a world in which communication technology unites people in remote parts of the world.  As you know, it was decades later before personal computing came into existence, but today new technology is introduced almost daily.  Technology has made communication easier.  Information is so easy to access and manipulate, that we are now confronted with the impact of fake news and purposeful disinformation.

Technology is not just about ease of use though, it’s also about increasing contact with others.  We can increase contact with people who are different than us, but we can also increase contact with people who are the same as us.  In fact, research tells us that humans prefer to use technology to contact those who are homogeneous.  Diasporic groups,ethnic and/or national groups that are geographically dispersed throughout the world, are using technology to maintain contact as they disperse from refugee camps to host nations.  Technology is also an identity management tool.  Individuals use technology to make sense of their multiple images concerning their sense of self in different social contexts.

Communication technology has become so important and so intertwined with the economic imperative that the term, digital divide, has come into being.  Digital natives, or people who grew up using technology, are often citizens of wealthy nations that live lives of privilege and have better economic prospects because of their technological access.  People who grew up in poorer nations without technological skills and access, often have fewer economic opportunities.  At the end of the last century, this idea was captured in the statement, “they live on the other side of the tracks.” The other side of the train tracks referred to a less desirable location.  In today’s world, the “tracks” have been replaced by technology, and the digital divide.

Does the digital divide lead you to ponder ethical issues of privilege and wealth?  Ethics, the principles of conduct that help govern behaviors of individuals and groups, often create cultural questions that lead to our understanding of the ethical imperative.  Ethical principles often arise from community consensus of what is good or bad, right or wrong, and what “ought” to be as opposed to what “is.”  Some ethical issues are explicit or clearly stated within a culture, while other are implicit or not clearly stated.
When pondering ethical situations and cultural mores, there are two ways humans view the situation, relativistically or universally.  If you are a relativist, you believe that no cultural pattern is inherently right or wrong, everything depends on perspective.  In other words, you might not make the same choice yourself, but are willing to understand why others would make that choice.  If you are a universalist, you believe that cultural differences are more superficial, and that fundamental notions of right and wrong are universal.  In other words, everyone should be making the same choices for the same reasons.  Although universalism and relativism are thought of as an either/or choice (non-dualistic), realistically most people are a combination of both (dualistic).  There are some issues you might hold strict opinions about while other issues you are willing to be more open about. [We will explore this notion next chapter].


One of the most important reasons for studying intercultural communication is the awareness it raises of our own cultural identity and background.  The self-awareness imperative helps us to gain insights into our own culture along with our intercultural experiences.  All cultures are ethnocentric by their very natures.  Ethnocentrism is a tendency to think that our own culture is superior to other cultures.  Most of us don’t even realize that we think this way, but we do.  Sure, we might admit that our culture isn’t perfect, yet we still think that we’re doing better than that culture to the north or south of us.  Ethnocentrism can lead to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.  It will be discussed in greater depth in coming chapters.


The opposite of ethnocentrism is self-reflexivity or the process of learning to understand oneself and one’s position in society.  Learning about others helps us to understand ourselves.  Real people with real lives struggle with decisions just like you do.  They have values, and beliefs that govern their choices.  Listening to the voices of people who are different can lead to different ways of seeing the world.  Developing self-awareness may also lead to an increased awareness of being caught up in the political, economic, and historical systems that are not associated with an individual’s choice.


As you ponder your reasons for studying intercultural communication, it is hoped that you make a conscious effort to become more aware of the communication practices of yourself and others.  Much of the communication principles and theories that you learn about in this book occur at a subconscious level.  As you learn more, challenge yourself to develop observation skills so you can “see” more.  As you learn more, become more flexible in your interpretation of the messages that you are receiving from others.  As you learn more, begin to create meaning “with” others and avoid dictating “to” others.  The study of intercultural communication is the study of the variation of your story within the human story.  Let’s get started.

Attribution for this section:



Application – Chapter One Discussion

An ending note from Lori and Mark H-W, as we end this chapter one, we are including your class discussion (which might vary in D2L) and key concepts for the quiz. The key concepts are also defined above and when you click on a glossary term, the definition appears! Here’s to a great week of discussion.

SAMPLE Discussion Questions – Getting Ready to Share

See your own D2L online instructions.


First, please watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The danger of a single story.”


As you reflect upon Chapter 1, please note how we define intercultural communication. Sometimes we hear people say, “I am from S.E. Minnesota, I am surrounded by corn and soybeans, I have no culture.”

Others say, “I am from far away, how does this relate? My whole life is intercultural communication.”

Please know we all have cultures. This chapter allows for theoretical definitions. The video above speaks to the importance of including all stories, noting there is more than a single story.

You will answer these questions in about 3 paragraphs (think about 3 paragraphs or 500 words) OR add a video upload  (2-3 minutes) of yourself explaining the ideas (remember the quote) in your course online Discussion Area:

Discussion Questions:

1. What does the book mean by “Developing Intercultural Competence?”

  • Use at least 1 quote from the book (you can mention the section as there are no “pages”) in this part of your post as you explain this notion.
  • Please introduce yourself. What co-cultures do you identify yourself with? Explain.
  • How do you describe yourself culturally? Reflect upon the notion of “story” — is your “story” told?
  • How have you experienced different intercultural communication relationships? What are the rewards/challenges of having intercultural relationships?
  • Add a video upload OR a photo of yourself, so we get a visual cue.

2. What/who do you wish you knew more about? You will need to complete 6 hours of intercultural conversations this semester (Lori will have ZOOM sessions you can join, people you can visit internationally and locally & online, and you can find your own conversations too). What “culture in your backyard” do you most want to explore? What other ideas do you have? Starting next week, I’ll add ideas.

3. What will you do this week (note, you add a reply on Sundays to update us on what you did):

  • Learn more about a culture you identify with.
  • Learn more about the culture “in your backyard” (yes, make a commitment to doing something).

Chapter Key Vocabulary

  • communication
  • symbol
  • nonverbal communication
  • verbal communication
  • culture
  • dominant culture
  • co-culture
  • objectivity
  • ethnocentrism
  • heterogeneous
  • homogeneous
  • worldview
  • assumption
  • imperative
  • peace
  • demographics
  • economic
  • technological
  • ethical
  • self-awareness
  • diversity
  • melting pot
  • tossed salad
  • nativistic
  • global village
  • diasporic groups
  • identity management
  • explicit
  • implicit
  • relativism/relativity
  • universalism/universality
  • self-reflexivity


Ahrndt, S. (2020). Intercultural Communication [Textbook]. University of Missouri-St. Louis. Open Educational Resources Collection. Retrieved from https://irl.umsl.edu/oer/24

Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). “Some Explorations In Initial Interaction And Beyond: Toward A Developmental Theory Of Interpersonal Communication.” Human Communication Research, 1(2), 99–112. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x

Clark, M. E. (2005). “In search of human nature.” London: Routledge.

Communication in the Real World. (2016). Communication is nonverbal. Retrieved from https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/chapter/6-4-communication-is-nonverbal/

Deardorff, D. K. (2004). The identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization at institutions of higher education in the United States (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global database. (UMI No. 3136104)

Geertz, C. (1973). “The Interpretation of cultures.” London: Hutchinson.

Green, J., Broussard, M., & Comadena, M. E. (2018). Introduction to communication. Open Educational Resources Collection. Retrieved from https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1070&context=communication-textbooks

Hall, E. T. (1959). The Silent Language. Doubleday.

Hall, E. (1976). “Beyond culture.” Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Hampden-Turner, C., & Trompenaars, F. (1997). “Response to Geert Hofstede.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 21(1), 149–159. doi: 10.1016/s0147-1767(96)00042-9

Hills, M. D. (2002). “Kluckhohn and Strodtbecks Values Orientation Theory.” Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 4(4). doi: 10.9707/2307-0919.1040

Hofstede, G. (1980). “Culture and Organizations.” International Studies of Management & Organization, 10(4), 15–41. doi: 10.1080/00208825.1980.11656300

Introduction to Communication. (2022). Verbal communication. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/introductiontocommunication/chapter/verbal-communication/

Kluckhohn, F. R., & Strodtbeck, dF. L. (1961). “Variations in Value Orientations.” Evanston, IL: Row Peterson.

Krumrey-Fulks, K. (n.d.). 1.3: Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture [Webpage]. Open Oregon Educational Resources. Retrieved March 6, 2023, from https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/intercultural/chapter/1-3-cultural-characteristics-and-the-roots-of-culture/

Lustig, M. W., & Koester, J. (2005). Among us: Essays on identity, belonging, and intercultural competence. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Martin, J. N., & Nakayama, T. K. (2010). Experiencing intercultural communication: An introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Martin, J. N., & Nakayama, T. K. (2011). “Experiencing intercultural communication” (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

New World Encyclopedia. (2022, January 6). “Globalization.” https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Globalization

Orr, L. M., & Hauser, W. J. (2008). “A Re-Inquiry of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: A Call for 21st Century Cross-Cultural Research.” Marketing Management Journal, 18(2), 1–19.

Pearson, J. C., & Nelson, P. E. (2000). An introduction to human communication: Understanding and sharing. National Textbook Co.

Samovar, L. A. (2021). Communication. In International encyclopedia of communication. Wiley-Blackwell.

Samovar, L. A., Porter, R. E., McDaniel, E. R., & Roy, C. S. (2009). Communication between cultures (7th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Samovar, L. A., Porter, R. E., McDaniel, E. R., & Roy, C. S. (2011). Communication between cultures (8th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Samovar, L. A., Porter, R. E., McDaniel, E. R., & Roy, C. S. (2017). Communication between cultures (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Samovar, L. A., Porter, R. E., & McDaniel, E. R. (2017). Intercultural communication: A reader. Cengage Learning.

Schultze, Q. (n.d.). Definitions of communication. Retrieved from http://www.quentinjshultze.com/definitions-of-communication/

Sumner, W. G. (1906). “Folkways: Sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores and morals.” 195

Victor, D. A. (1992). International business communication. Harper Collins.


Ahrndt, Shannon, “Intercultural Communication” (2020). Open Educational Resources Collection. 24. Available at: https://irl.umsl.edu/oer/24

  • This textbook is brought to you for free and open access by the Open Educational Resources at IRL @ UMSL. It has been accepted for inclusion in Open Educational Resources Collection by an authorized administrator of IRL @ UMSL. For more information, please contact marvinh@umsl.edu.

Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture

  • Shared by LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

Intercultural Communication for the Community College



  • [Author removed at the request of original publisher]. (2016, September 29). The University of M.N. Communication in the Real World. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/front-matter/publisher-information/


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Developing Intercultural Communication Competence Copyright © 2018 by Lori Halverson-Wente is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book