Cross-cultural communication

Cross-cultural communication is a field of study that looks at how people from differing cultural backgrounds communicate, in similar and different ways among themselves, and how they endeavor to communicate across cultures. Intercultural communication is a related field of study.[1]

Origins and culture

During the Cold War, the economy of the United States was largely self-contained because the world was polarized into two separate and competing powers: the East and the West. However, changes and advancements in economic relationships, political systems, and technological options began to break down old cultural barriers. Business transformed from individual-country capitalism to global capitalism. Thus, the study of cross-cultural communication was originally found within businesses and government, both seeking to expand globally. Businesses began to offer language training to their employees and programs were developed to train employees to understand how to act when abroad. With this also came the development of the Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, through the Foreign Service Act of 1946, where government employees received training and prepared for overseas posts.[2] There began also implementation of a “world view” perspective in the curriculum of higher education.[3] In 1974, the International Progress Organization, with the support of UNESCO and under the auspices of Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor, held an international conference on "The Cultural Self-comprehension of Nations" (Innsbruck, Austria, 27–29 July 1974) which called upon United Nations member states "to organize systematic and global comparative research on the different cultures of the world" and "to make all possible efforts for a more intensive training of diplomats in the field of international cultural co-operation ... and to develop the cultural aspects of their foreign policy."[4]

There has become an increasing pressure for universities across the world to incorporate intercultural and international understanding and knowledge into the education of their students.[5] International literacy and cross-cultural understanding have become critical to a country's cultural, technological, economic, and political health. It has become essential for universities to educate, or more importantly, “transform”, to function effectively and comfortably in a world characterized by close, multi-faceted relationships and permeable borders. Students must possess a certain level of global competence to understand the world they live in and how they fit into this world. This level of global competence starts at ground level- the university and its faculty- with how they generate and transmit cross-cultural knowledge and information to students.[6]

Interdisciplinary orientation

Cross-cultural communication endeavors to bring together the relatively unrelated fields of cultural anthropology with established areas of communication. At its core, cross-cultural communication involves understanding the ways in which culturally distinct individuals communicate with each other. Its charge is to also produce some guidelines with which people from different cultures can better communicate with each other.

Cross-cultural communication requires an interdisciplinary approach. It involves literacy in fields such as anthropology, cultural studies, psychology and communication. The field has also moved both toward the treatment of interethnic relations, and toward the study of communication strategies used by co-cultural populations, i.e., communication strategies used to deal with majority or mainstream populations.

The study of languages other than one's own can serve not only to help one understand what we as humans have in common, but also to assist in the understanding of the diversity which underlines our languages' methods of constructing and organizing knowledge. Such understanding has profound implications with respect to developing a critical awareness of social relationships. Understanding social relationships and the way other cultures work is the groundwork of successful globalization business affairs.

Language socialization can be broadly defined as “an investigation of how language both presupposes and creates anew, social relations in cultural context”.[7] It is imperative that the speaker understands the grammar of a language, as well as how elements of language are socially situated in order to reach communicative competence. Human experience is culturally relevant, so elements of language are also culturally relevant.[7]:3 One must carefully consider semiotics and the evaluation of sign systems to compare cross-cultural norms of communication.[7]:4 There are several potential problems that come with language socialization, however. Sometimes people can over-generalize or label cultures with stereotypical and subjective characterizations. Another primary concern with documenting alternative cultural norms revolves around the fact that no social actor uses language in ways that perfectly match normative characterizations.[7]:8 A methodology for investigating how an individual uses language and other semiotic activity to create and use new models of conduct and how this varies from the cultural norm should be incorporated into the study of language socialization.[7]:11,12

Global rise

With increasing globalization and international trade, it is unavoidable that different cultures will meet, conflict, and blend together. People from different culture find it is difficult to communicate not only due to language barriers, but also are affected by culture styles.[8] For instance, in individualistic cultures, such as in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, an independent figure or self is dominant. This independent figure is characterized by a sense of self relatively distinct from others and the environment. In interdependent cultures, usually identified as Asian, Latin American, African, and Southern European cultures, an interdependent figure of self is dominant. There is a much greater emphasis on the interrelatedness of the individual to others and the environment; the self is meaningful only (or primarily) in the context of social relationships, duties, and roles. In some degree, the effect brought by cultural difference override the language gap. This culture style difference contributes to one of the biggest challenges for cross-culture communication. Effective communication with people of different cultures is especially challenging. Cultures provide people with ways of thinking—ways of seeing, hearing, and interpreting the world. Thus the same words can mean different things to people from different cultures, even when they speak the "same" language. When the languages are different, and translation has to be used to communicate, the potential for misunderstandings increases. The study of cross-cultural communication is a global research area. As a result, cultural differences in the study of cross-cultural communication can already be found. For example, cross-cultural communication is generally considered part of communication studies in the US, but is emerging as a sub-field of applied linguistics in the UK.

Incorporation into college programs

The application of cross-cultural communication theory to foreign language education is increasingly appreciated around the world. Cross-cultural communication classes can now be found within foreign language departments of some universities, while other schools are placing cross-cultural communication programs in their departments of education.

With the increasing pressures and opportunities of globalization, the incorporation of international networking alliances has become an “essential mechanism for the internationalization of higher education”.[9] Many universities from around the world have taken great strides to increase intercultural understanding through processes of organizational change and innovations. In general, university processes revolve around four major dimensions which include: organizational change, curriculum innovation, staff development, and student mobility.[10] Ellingboe emphasizes these four major dimensions with his own specifications for the internationalization process. His specifications include: (1) college leadership; (2) faculty members' international involvement in activities with colleagues, research sites, and institutions worldwide; (3) the availability, affordability, accessibility, and transferability of study abroad programs for students; (4) the presence and integration of international students, scholars, and visiting faculty into campus life; and (5) international co-curricular units (residence halls, conference planning centers, student unions, career centers, cultural immersion and language houses, student activities, and student organizations).[6]

Above all, universities need to make sure that they are open and responsive to changes in the outside environment. In order for internationalization to be fully effective, the university (including all staff, students, curriculum, and activities) needs to be current with cultural changes, and willing to adapt to these changes.[11] As stated by Ellingboe, internationalization “is an ongoing, future-oriented, multidimensional, interdisciplinary, leadership-driven vision that involves many stakeholders working to change the internal dynamics of an institution to respond and adapt appropriately to an increasingly diverse, globally focused, ever-changing external environment".[12] New distance learning technologies, such as interactive teleconferencing, enable students located thousands of miles apart to communicate and interact in a virtual classroom.[13]

Research has indicated that certain themes and images such as children, animals, life cycles, relationships, and sports can transcend cultural differences, and may be used in international settings such as traditional and online university classrooms to create common ground among diverse cultures (Van Hook, 2011).[14]

The main theories for cross-cultural communication are based on the work done looking at value differences between different cultures, especially the works of Edward T. Hall, Richard D. Lewis, Geert Hofstede, and Fons Trompenaars. Clifford Geertz was also a contributor to this field. Also Jussi V. Koivisto's model on cultural crossing in internationally operating organizations elaborates from this base of research.

These theories have been applied to a variety of different communication theories and settings, including general business and management (Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner) and marketing (Marieke de Mooij, Stephan Dahl). There have also been several successful educational projects which concentrate on the practical applications of these theories in cross-cultural situations.

These theories have also been criticized mainly by management scholars (e.g. Nigel Holden) for being based on the culture concept derived from 19th century cultural anthropology and emphasizing on culture-as-difference and culture-as-essence. Another criticism has been the uncritical way Hofstede’s dimensions are served up in textbooks as facts (Peter W. Cardon). There is a move to focus on 'cross-cultural interdependence' instead of the traditional views of comparative differences and similarities between cultures. Cross-cultural management is increasingly seen as a form of knowledge management. While there is debate in academia, over what cross-cultural teams can do in practice, a meta-analysis by Günter Stahl, Martha Maznevski, Andreas Voigt and Karsten Jonsen on research done on multicultural groups, concluded "Research suggests that cultural diversity leads to process losses through task conflict and decreased social integration, but to process gains through increased creativity and satisfaction." [15]

Many Master of Science in Management programs have an internationalization specialization which may place a focus on cross-cultural communication. For example, the Ivey Business School has a course titled Cross Cultural Management.[16]

Cross cultural communication gives opportunities to share ideas, experiences, and different perspectives and perception by interacting with local people.

International educational organizations

The Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research

SIETAR is an educational membership organization for those professionals who are concerned with the challenges and rewards of intercultural relations. SIETAR was founded in the United States in 1974 by a few dedicated individuals to draw together professionals engaged in various forms of intercultural learning and engagement research and training. SIETAR now has loosely connected chapters in numerous countries and a large international membership.

WYSE International

WYSE International is a worldwide educational charity specializing in education and development for emerging leaders established in 1989. It is a non-governmental organization associated with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations.

Over 3000 participants from 110 countries have attended their courses, they have run in 5 continents. Its flagship International Leadership Programme is a 12-day residential course for 30 people from on average 20 different countries (aged 18 – 35).

WYSE International's website states its aims are to:

"provide education independently of political, religious or social backgrounds and promote visionary leadership capable of responding to evolving world needs."[17]

MEET - Middle East Education through Technology

MEET - Middle East Education through Technology is an innovative educational initiative aimed at creating a common professional language between Israeli and Palestinian young leaders. Israeli and Palestinian students are selected through an application process and work in small bi-national teams to develop technology and business projects for local impact. Through this process of cross-cultural communication, students build mutual respect, cultural competence and understanding of each others.


There are several parameters that may be perceived differently by people of different cultures:

  • High- and low-context cultures: context is the most important cultural dimension and also difficult to define. The idea of context in culture was advanced by the anthropologist Edward T Hall. He divides culture into two main groups: High and Low context cultures. He refers to context as the stimuli, environment or ambiance surrounding the environment. Depending on how a culture relies on the three points to communicate their meaning, will place them in either high or low- context cultures. For example, Hall goes on to explain that low-context cultures assume that the individuals know very little about what they are being told, and therefore must be given a lot of background information. High-context cultures assume the individual is knowledgeable about the subject and has to be given very little background information.
  • Nonverbal, oral and written: the main goal behind improving intercultural audiences is to pay special attention to specific areas of communication to enhance the effectiveness of the intercultural messages. The specific areas are broken down into three sub categories: nonverbal, oral and written messages.

Nonverbal contact involves everything from something as obvious as eye contact and facial expressions to more discreet forms of expression such as the use of space. Experts have labeled the term kinesics to mean communicating through body movement. Huseman, author of Business Communication, explains that the two most prominent ways of communication through kinesics are eye contact and facial expressions.

Eye contact, Huseman goes on to explain, is the key factor in setting the tone between two individuals and greatly differs in meaning between cultures. In the Americas and Western Europe, eye contact is interpreted the same way, conveying interest and honesty. People who avoid eye contact when speaking are viewed in a negative light, withholding information and lacking in general confidence. However, in the Middle East, Africa, and especially Asia, eye contact is seen as disrespectful and even challenging of one's authority. People who make eye contact, but only briefly, are seen as respectful and courteous.

Facial expressions are their own language by comparison and universal throughout all cultures. Dale Leathers, for example, states that facial expression can communicate ten basic classes of meaning.

The final part to nonverbal communication lies in our gestures, and can be broken down into five subcategories:

  • Emblems

Emblems refer to sign language (such as, thumbs up, one of the most recognized symbols in the world)

  • Illustrators

Illustrators mimic what is spoken (such as gesturing how much time is left by holding up a certain number of fingers).

  • Regulators

Regulators act as a way of conveying meaning through gestures (raising up a hand for instance indicates that one has a certain question about what was just said) and become more complicated since the same regulator can have different meanings across different cultures (making a circle with a hand, for instance, in the Americas means agreement, in Japan is symbolic for money, and in France conveys the notion of worthlessness).

  • Affect displays

Affect displays reveal emotions such as happiness (through a smile) or sadness (mouth trembling, tears).

  • Adaptors

Adaptors are more subtle such as a yawn or clenching fists in anger.

The last nonverbal type of communication deals with communication through the space around people, or proxemics. Huseman goes on to explain that Hall identifies three types of space:

  1. Feature-fixed space: deals with how cultures arrange their space on a large scale, such as buildings and parks.
  2. Semifixed feature space: deals with how space is arranged inside buildings, such as the placement of desks, chairs and plants.
  3. Informal space: the space and its importance, such as talking distance, how close people sit to one another and office space are all examples. A production line worker often has to make an appointment to see a supervisor, but the supervisor is free to visit the production line workers at will.

Oral and written communication is generally easier to learn, adapt and deal with in the business world for the simple fact that each language is unique. The one difficulty that comes into play is paralanguage, how something is said.

Differences between Western communication and traditional Indigenous communication

According to Michael Walsh and Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Western conversational interaction is typically "dyadic", between two particular people, where eye contact is important and the speaker controls the interaction; and "contained" in a relatively short, defined time frame. However, traditional Australian Aboriginal conversational interaction is "communal", broadcast to many people, eye contact is not important, the listener controls the interaction; and "continuous", spread over a longer, indefinite time frame.[18][19]

See also


  1. Japan Intercultural Consulting
  2. Everett M. Rogers, William B. Hart, & Yoshitaka Miike (2002). Edward T. Hall and The History of Intercultural Communication: The United States and Japan. Keio Communication Review No. 24, 1-5. Accessible at
  3. Bartell, M. (2003). Internationalization of universities: A university culture-based framework. Higher Education, 45(1), 44, 48, 49.
  4. Hans Köchler (ed.), Cultural Self-comprehension of Nations. Tübingen: Erdmann, 1978, ISBN 978-3-7711-0311-8, Final Resolution, p. 142.
  5. Deardorff, D. K. (2015). A 21st Century Imperative: integrating intercultural competence in Tuning. Tuning Journal for Higher Education, 3(1), 137–147.
  6. Bartell, M. (2003). Internationalization of universities: A university culture-based framework. Higher Education, 45(1), 46.
  7. Rymes, (2008). Language Socialization and the Linguistic Anthropology of Education. Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2(8, Springer)
  8. "Fact and Figure about cross cultural training". Cultural Candor Inc. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  9. Teather, D. (2004). The networking alliance: A mechanism for the internationalisation of higher education? Managing Education Matters, 7(2), 3.
  10. Rudzki, R. E. J. (1995). The application of a strategic management model to the internationalization of higher education institutions. Higher Education, 29(4), 421-422.
  11. Cameron, K.S. (1984). Organizational adaptation and higher education. Journal of Higher Education 55(2), 123.
  12. Ellingboe, B.J. (1998). Divisional strategies to internationalize a campus portrait: Results, resistance, and recommendations from a case study at a U.S. university, in Mestenhauser, J.A. and Ellingboe, B.J (eds.), Reforming the Higher Education Curriculum: Internationalizing the Campus. Phoenix, AZ: American Council on Education and Oryx Press, 199.
  13. Bartell, M. (2003). Internationalization of universities: A university culture-based framework. Higher Education, 45(1), 48.
  14. Van Hook, S.R. (2011, 11 April). Modes and models for transcending cultural differences in international classrooms. Journal of Research in International Education, 10(1), 5-27.
  15. Stahl, Günter; Maznevski, Martha; Voigt, Andreas; Jonsen, Karsten (May 2010). "Unraveling the Effects of Cultural Diversity in Teams: A Meta-Analysis of Research on Multicultural Work Groups". Journal of International Business Studies. 41 (4): 690–709. JSTOR 40604760.
  16. "Cross Cultural Management". Ivey Business School. Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  17. "WYSE International". WYSE International. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  18. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad; et al. (2015), ENGAGING - A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property (PDF), Australian Government: Indigenous Culture Support, p. 12, archived from the original (PDF) on 30 March 2016
  19. Walsh, Michael (1997), Cross cultural communication problems in Aboriginal Australia, Australian National University, North Australia Research Unit, pp. 7–9
  • Mary Ellen Guffey, Kathy Rhodes, Patricia Rogin. "Communicating Across Cultures." Mary Ellen Guffey, Kathy Rhodes, Patricia Rogin. Business Communication Process and Production. Nelson Education Ltd., 2010. 68-89.


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