1 Key Intercultural Communication Terms

Intercultural Communication Key Terms

“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. (Washington Post, August 28, 2013).

Chapter Overview

Photo Rochester, MN Diversity Council

This chapter reviews some of the primary terms and concepts related to in section one. In section two, we’ll turn to define intercultural communication competence. In general and, in particular, we will define and explore those concepts and skills correlated to starting the semester off strong for students studying intercultural communication. Some of the concepts in this chapter will be treated more fully in subsequent chapters.

While this course will include both skill-based and theoretical aspects and applications, students will gradually become culturally curious, confident, and competent communicators in various intercultural communication encounters. Now, once gained, intercultural competencies may be deepened and tested through travel, perhaps contributing in a profound sense to an authentic sojourner experience discussed below. While necessary, it is not sufficient to learn with the substance or depth of the set of various life skills required to effectively function in a different culture or navigate our globe’s diverse cultures. Simply put, the classroom cannot be the only path to progress in successfully navigating cultural variety brought about by the forces of globalization. Unfortunately, a ship’s cruise director uses strictly scripted activities that may bring one closer to another mammalian culture, such as swimming with dolphins. However, the experience of swimming with dolphins is limited interculturally. Instead, one should experience the authentic human culture found a mile or two away from the Disney floating behemoths in foreign ports of call such as the Bahamas, Jamaica, and other ports.

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, co-culture.
  • Define intercultural communication.

Communication Defined

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

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 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 is defined as an agreed-upon and rule-governed system of symbols used to share meaning (Introduction to Communication, 2022). 

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 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.


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 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, “ 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 ” (p. 214).

photo – pexel.com

Samovar, et. al, (2009), best describe how 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 below and discussed in more detail later in this chapter.

Discussion Questions – Getting Ready to Share


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


As you read Chapter 1, please note how we define intercultural communication.  Sometimes we hear people say, “I am from SE 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 by speaks to the importance of including all stories.

You will answer these questions in about 3 paragraphs (think about 3 paragraphs or 600 words) OR add a video upload  (3 minutes) of yourself explaining the ideas (remember the quote) in your course online Dicussion Area:

Discussion Questions:

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

  • Use at least 1 quote from the book (with proper page reference) 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 to (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).

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.

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 text “Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture” by LibreTexts expands upon this as follows:

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.

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 (along with other similar models) at: https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/intercultural-communication-competencies-study-material.pdf ).

A visual depiction of the model is shared: at http://www.nafsa.org/_/file/_/theory_connections_intercultural_competence.pdf .

Undergirding Deardorff’s pyramid of 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).

Communication in the Real World (2016) expands upon this notion and is shared 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 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.  

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.

man kissing a woman's forhead
photo: pexel.com

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).

Chapter Key Vocabulary

  • communication
  • symbol
  • nonverbal communication
  • verbal communication
  • culture
  • dominant culture
  • co-culture
  • ethnocentrism
  • heterogeneous
  • worldview
  • assumption


Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some Explorations In Initial Interaction And Beyond: Toward A Developmental Theory Of Interpersonal Communication. Human Communication Research1(2), 99–112. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x

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

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

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

Hampden-Turner, C., & Trompenaars, F. (1997). Response to Geert Hofstede. International Journal of Intercultural Relations21(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 Culture4(4). doi: 10.9707/2307-0919.1040

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture and Organizations. International Studies of Management & Organization10(4), 15–41. doi: 10.1080/00208825.1980.11656300

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

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 Journal18(2), 1–19.

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: Sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores and morals. 1959 reprint. Boston, MA: Ginn and Company.


“Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture” by LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.



Share This Book