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Article contents

Methods for intercultural communication research.

  • John Oetzel , John Oetzel Waikato Management School, The University of Waikato
  • Saumya Pant Saumya Pant Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA)
  •  and  Nagesh Rao Nagesh Rao Partner, Siya Consulting
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.202
  • Published online: 09 May 2016

Research on intercultural communication is conducted using primarily three different methodological approaches: social scientific, interpretive, and critical. Each of these approaches reflects different philosophical assumptions about the world and how we come to know it. Social scientific methods often involve quantitative data collection and research approaches such as surveys and experiments. From this perspective, intercultural communication is seen as patterns of interaction, and we seek to explain and understand these patterns through clear measurement and identification of key independent variables. Interpretive methods often involve qualitative data collection and research approaches such as interviews and ethnographic observation. From this perspective, intercultural communication and meaning is created through interaction, and we seek to understand these meanings by exploring the perspectives of people who participate as members of cultural communities. Critical methods often involve qualitative data collection and research approaches such as interviews and textual critique. From this perspective, intercultural communication involves inequalities that can be attributed to power and distortions created from (mis)use of this power. Critical scholars seek to unmask domination and inequality. Most scholars utilize one of these primary approaches given the consistency with their world views, theories, and research training. However, there are creative possibilities for combining these approaches that have potential for fuller understanding of intercultural communication.

  • social science methods
  • interpretive methods
  • critical methods
  • quantitative
  • qualitative
  • intercultural communication


Our worldview shapes what is “interesting” to a particular audience, what is considered a problem, what problem is interesting to study, and whether the goal of studying a problem is to analyze the problem, to analyze and solve the problem, or to analyze, solve, and implement the solution. Our worldview defines if an issue is a problem or not and if we need to come up with a solution. For example, behaviors associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are seen as a problem in the United States, and there are medications to solve the problem. In India, the same set of behaviors among children is seen as what children tend to do, as normal and not as a problem.

Our worldview not only shapes what we see as an interesting problem to study but also the methodology we use to study the problem. The purpose of this article is to describe, and explore integration of, the three main methodological perspectives in studying intercultural communication issues: social scientific, interpretive, and critical. First, the ontological, epistemological, and axiological assumptions underlying each of these methodological perspectives are explored. Then, for each methodological perspective, common methods and types of data collected and some exemplars are identified. Finally, we offer traditional integration of the three approaches and also alternate methodological perspectives to study intercultural issues from a non-Western lens.

Ontology, Epistemology, and Axiology

Ontology is the study of the researcher’s orientation to reality. In the social scientific perspective, the researcher views the world objectively in that there is a world outside of us that can be systematically studied. Researchers from this perspective use a deductive approach and are keen to explain and predict phenomena. Social scientific ontology provides clarity and direction due to its rigorous questioning of plausibility and reduction of subjectivity. In contrast and as a reaction to the social scientific perspective, interpretive researchers argue that the observer and the observed are subjective and the most important lessons are in how they co-create meaning. If the social scientists take a deterministic view of human behavior, interpretivists thrive in a person’s free will. Critical theorists focus particularly on social injustices and inequalities in life. Researchers in this area explore how social structures create power inequalities and injustices. Thus, they believe that power differences are at the base of social transactions (Scotland, 2012 ). Any ontological investigation for a critical theorist will thus have to help unearth these inequities.

Epistemology looks at how we come to know a chosen phenomenon and thus how researchers study this phenomenon. Social scientists, interested in assessing objective reality (or at least reduced subjectivity), use a scientific method to collect empirical evidence. They focus particularly on causal relationships between phenomena and generally use quantitative approaches to collect data. The basis of their assessment and data collection is the premise that objects have an existence independent of the knower (Cohen et al., 2007 ). Interpretivists, who are interested in situational and contextual meaning, generally use qualitative methods to assess participants’ sense of reality. They are not exploring one truth, but the play of multiple truths simultaneously. They do so by studying individual interactions and the historical and cultural contexts in which these individuals interact. Critical researchers use a variety of qualitative methods to explore, for example, how language is used to create power imbalances or how mass media is used to avoid critical thinking. Critical scholars are particularly sensitive to the overdependence on empirical and social scientific evidence. They do so as critical investigations are premised on the fact that social/positional power determines what is considered knowledge (Cohen et al., 2007 ).

Axiology explores the values that guide a researcher’s questions, the methods used to collect and analyze data, the interpretation of the data, and the implications of the findings. Social scientists study phenomena to find the truth, which, in turn, guides specific types of action. They are focused on exploring what is referred to as the value axiom, or how much a phenomenon being studied fulfills the requirements of the concept to which it belongs (Kelleher, 2013 ). Both interpretivists and critical theorists are interested in describing what exists, how the participants in the community interpret phenomena, with critical theorists particularly interested in reducing class imbalances and other forms of oppression. Interpretivists are axiologically determined to encourage the fact that observations drawn can always be disagreed upon and reopened to interpretation. With respect to control, social scientists wish to control as many variables as possible, narrowing down the causal pattern to the variables under study. Interpretivists seek active participation in the study to understand how they view reality. Critical theorists are particularly aware of the community members’ need to take control of their own situations. With this brief overview in mind, we now explain the methodological approaches of the social scientific, interpretive, and critical perspectives; the types of data collected; some exemplars for each perspective; and some general concerns about each of the methods.

Social Science Methods

Social science research methods address questions related to both cross-cultural and intercultural communication. Much of the foundational work on intercultural communication research is based on comparisons of two or more cultures. Both forms of communication research try to enhance the comprehension of communication that are mediated by and through cultural context (Sponcil & Gitimu, 2010 ). These comparisons helped to identify how the normative and subjective aspects of culture vary across cultures and presumably provided information about what to expect when interacting with members from different cultures. This type of research is classified as cross-cultural. In contrast, intercultural communication is the exchange of messages between people from different cultural groups (Gudykunst, 2003a ). Regardless of the interest in cross-cultural or intercultural communication, the social scientific perspective seeks to understand and predict the effect of culture on communication variables and the subsequent effect of communication on various outcomes. Thus, the methods of study are similar. This section reviews the three most prominent social scientific methods providing an example of each. Additionally, the types of data generated and methodological concerns are discussed.

There are three methods used by most social scientific researchers to study cross-cultural and intercultural research: (a) survey questionnaire, (b) experimental design, and (c) content analysis. The survey questionnaire is by far the most frequently used research method (e.g., Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003 ; Rao, Singhal, Ren, & Zhang, 2001 ). It is typically a self-administered and self-report instrument that is distributed to large samples in multiple cultures. Most cross-cultural comparisons utilize self-report questionnaires because of the difficulty of collecting data from large samples in multiple cultures using other methods. Finally, self-report questionnaires are relatively easy to construct. Numerous cross-culturally valid scales exist, and methodological difficulties have been clearly identified (Gudykunst, 2003b ). While not easy to overcome, methodological difficulties of survey questionnaires are manageable (see below for more detail). Survey questionnaires provide detailed description of cultural associations of communication behavior and outcomes and allow for comparisons to other cultures.

Hanasono, Chen, and Wilson’s ( 2014 ) study of perceived discrimination, social support, and coping among racial minority university students is an example of survey research. The authors surveyed 345 students, half international students and half U.S. students, about their acculturation, experiences with discrimination, support, and coping needs. They found that the level of acculturation helped to explain students’ need for support and how they coped with discrimination.

Experimental designs are highly regarded social scientific research because of the control of variables, which enables causal relationships to be examined. Culture is not a variable that lends itself well to experimental manipulation, and thus experimental designs are relatively rare in this line of research. Rather than experimental controlling culture, researchers typically use quasi-experimental designs manipulating the composition of groups or dyads to be intra- or intercultural (e.g., Cai, Wilson, & Drake, 2000 ; Oetzel, 1998 ). These experiments collect a combination of self-report information (e.g., cultural and individual variables) as well as videotaped interaction. Additionally, some researchers have used experimental conditions on survey questionnaires (e.g., Han & Cai, 2010 ). These studies utilize stimulus variables (e.g., contextual features) that ask participants to respond to specific situations.

Brinson and Stohl’s ( 2012 ) study of media framing on attitudes toward Muslims, civil liberties, and counterterrorism policies is an example of experimental design. They used a Solomon four-group design involving 371 U.S. adults to compare the media framing of “domestic homegrown” and “international” terrorism of the London bombings in 2005 . The authors used video segments from actual broadcasts on July 7, 2005 , and edited them together to create an approximately 10-minute video for each of the two conditions. The authors found that media frames of homegrown terrorism produced greater fear than the international framing. Fear resulted in greater support for restricting civil liberties of Muslims and, under certain conditions, general negative feelings toward Muslims.

A third method used in social scientific research is content analysis of media sources. This method is utilized to identify patterns prevalent in the media (e.g., Dixon & Azocar, 2006 ; Klein & Shiffman, 2006 ). Additionally, some researchers survey participants for their reactions about media patterns. Content analysis, while time consuming, is convenient and inexpensive since the only access needed is a recording or transcript of the artifact of study. It involves the use of a coding scheme to provide an “objective” description of the media and thus insights into cultural values and behaviors. The categorizations are then compared across cultures. When these categorizations are compared, it is done on the basis of frames, which are defined as a “schema of interpretation, collection of anecdotes, and stereotypes” (Cissel, 2014 , p. 67). Once these frames are determined, the way in which individuals deal with their realities within and across cultures can be studied.

An example of such content analysis was the study of the coverage of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in two Belgian newspapers: Le Soir and De Standard (Perko et al., 2011 ). The time period of the study was from March 11, 2011, to May 11, 2011 . Every article was coded by two independent coders. The authors had begun their study with a question as to how the framing of the question of nuclear power would appear in the two Belgian newspapers. They arrived at the conclusion that the reporting was mostly neutral. Further, since the Fukushima nuclear accident was in a country quite remote, the articles did not frame the issue as an example of a possible threat to their own country from nuclear power plants.

Data Analysis and Methodological Concerns

Data from these three methods are quantified to allow for statistical analysis. All forms of data must be reduced to categories that are independent from one another (exhaustive and exclusive categories). These can include frequency counts of behaviors, sequence of behaviors, and self-report information on numerical scales. Data are then analyzed with statistical software to determine associations between cultural (independent) and communication (dependent) variables (outcomes are dependent variables with culture and/or communication as independent). The nature of analysis depends on the numerical measurement of the variables, but frequent tests include t -tests, analysis of variance, correlation, and regression. Additionally, complex modeling of dependent variables can be undertaken using, for example, structural equation modeling and hierarchical linear modeling. The key concern with the statistical tests is accounting for variance in the dependent variables. The more variance explained means the “more important” a cultural factor is for communication behavior. Because of the vast number of factors that explain human behavior, intercultural researchers believe that as little as 5–10% of variance explained is meaningful.

There are four concerns for data analysis in social scientific research: (a) reliability, (b) measurement validity, (c) internal validity, and (d) external validity. Reliability is reproducibility. For the aforementioned methods, two types of reliability are relevant. First, internal consistency of measures is usually measured with Cronbach’s alpha. Second, when completing content or interaction analysis, intercoder reliability (agreement between two or more coders) is important and measured with Cohen’s K or Scott’s pi (or the like). Reliability means a researcher has consistent measures, whereas validity focuses on accurate information.

Validity is a combination of measurement, internal, and external validity (depending on the goals in the study). Measurement validity focuses on the accuracy with which a scale (or coding scheme) is measuring what is supposed to be measured. Internal validity is the strength to which a researcher can conclude that the independent variable is associated with the dependent variable as hypothesized. Internal validity is established by eliminating rival explanations for statistical associations through statistical or experimental control of confounding (or nuisance) variables. External validity is the degree to which a study’s results can be generalized to the larger populations from which a sample was drawn. In intercultural research, researchers are more concerned with measurement and internal validity than external validity.

While these general methodological concerns are true for all social science research, there are also unique concerns with cross-cultural/intercultural communication research (Gudykunst, 2003b ; Levine, Park, & Kim, 2007 ). Gudykunst ( 2003b ) outlined a number of concerns with cross-cultural research, but chief among the methodological issues is establishing equivalence. In order to make cross-cultural comparisons (and have valid measures for intercultural research), researchers need to ensure that the constructs and measures are equivalent on five levels. First, constructs must be functionally equivalent; that is, the construct must work the same way in the cultures under study. Second, constructs must be conceptually equivalent; that is, the construct must have the same meaning within the cognitive system of the members of cultures being examined. Third, linguistic equivalence for constructs refers having language that is equivalent. Linguistic equivalence is often established through translating and backtranslating of measures. Fourth, metric equivalence is established by ensuring that participants in different cultures do not respond to numerical scales in different ways (e.g., one cultural group may not use the extreme scores in a scale). Finally, researchers need to take care and establish that there is sample equivalence in the two cultural groups. The samples need to be comparable (e.g., similar age, gender, education, etc.). Fletcher and colleagues ( 2014 ) explore the steps needed to statistically ensure equivalence in measurement across multiple cultures. Establishing equivalence on these issues helps to eliminate rival explanations and further ensures that differences found are due to cultural differences. In addition to such methodological rigor, scholars from other orientations argue that it is also imperative for the researcher to be reflexive and aware of theoretical and methodological centeredness that can come from such systematic rigor (Asante, Miike, & Yin, 2008 ).

Interpretive Methods

Interpretive scholars are interested in unearthing multiple simultaneous truths, believe in a person’s free will, acknowledge that the known and the knower cannot be separated, and believe that interpretation is based on one’s persuasive abilities. Striving for meaning, interpretive scholars generally use a variety of qualitative methods to study specific intercultural phenomena. As a result of this, interpretivists examine theoretical limits by comparing results from multiple forms of research about the same phenomenon (Szabo, 2007 ). For this article, we focus on ethnography of communication and interpretive interviews as these are two common approaches. We then discuss the general methodological issues in collecting and analyzing interpretive data.

Ethnography of communication (EOC) is a method to study the relationship between language and culture through extensive field experience. The concept of the ethnography of communication was developed by Dell Hymes (Hall, 2002 ). It can be defined as the discovery and explication of the rules for contextually appropriate behavior in a community or group or what the individual needs to know to be a functional member of the community. EOC applies ethnographic methods to understand the communication patterns of a speech community (Philipsen, 1975 ). A speech community is a group of speakers who share common speech codes and use these codes based on a specific situation. From the presence or absence of certain speech codes, one can interpret the culture of a community with its shared values, beliefs, and attitudes. In his classic study, Philipsen ( 1975 ) explored the communication patterns of white males in a predominantly blue-collar neighborhood called “Teamsterville” in South Chicago. Philipsen lived in the community for several years and worked and interacted as a member of the community while also conducting his research. Results from this study explained when talk was appropriate, at what levels, and when action was more appropriate than talk. When two men were of similar backgrounds, of more or less equal status, and were close friends, they could talk to each other. There was less talk when the relationship was asymmetrical (e.g., father–son and husband–wife). The least amount of talk occurred when a “Teamsterville” was responding to an insult or trying to assert his power over someone. It is in these instances that action was more appropriate than words. If a man did talk during this interaction, he was seen as not masculine enough. Another interesting study was conducted by Radford et al. ( 2011 ). The study focused on applying EOC to the case of virtual reference context. Here, the researchers focused on the interactions that constitute the context in which the participants make verbal statements and coordinate them with other statements in order to closely analyze the relational barriers and relational facilitators. The interactions spanned a 23-month time period ( July 2004–May 2006 ), and the transcripts of 746 live chats of this period were studied. The researchers were able to conclude from their study that when professional librarians chatted, they were more formal, less free with accepted online abbreviations, whereas students were more comfortable with using abbreviations and other turns of phrases. One of the conclusions the researchers drew was that if the librarians used more informal language they would appear more friendly and approachable.

Interpretive interviews are a second common approach. The purpose of the interpretive interview is to uncover insider meanings and understandings from the perspective of the participants (Denzin, 2001 ). According to Denzin ( 2001 ), the characteristic of interpretive interviews is that they allow us to understand the society in which we live, which is referred to as an interview society. Typically, these interviews are one-on-one and face-to-face interviews designed to elicit in-depth information. The interviews can focus on narratives, topics, perspectives, and opinions and often are conducted in a semi-structured manner (although unstructured interviews are sometimes conducted). One of the reasons why the semi-structured and/or narrative form is used is to allow for deeper and embedded meanings that might elude a more inquiry-based approach. An example of interpretive interviews is Baig, Ting-Toomey, and Dorjee’s ( 2014 ) study of meaning construction of the South Asian Indian term izzat (face) in intergenerational contexts. The authors interviewed six younger (aged 31–40) and six older (aged 55–72) South Asian Indian American women about face concerns in their intergenerational family communication situations. The authors found that family izzat is of primary importance in these contexts and that the motif of respect is central to the meaning of izzat . They also identified differences in the younger and older facework strategies.

The primary focus of analyzing interpretive research data is rather nicely summarized by Carbaugh ( 2007 ):

It is important to emphasize the interpretive task before the analyst: while engaging in a communication practice, an analyst seeks to understand what range of meanings is active in that practice, when it is getting done. The analyst sets out to interpret this practice, what is being presumed by participants for it to be what it is, that is, to understand the meta-cultural commentary imminent in it. What all does this practice have to say? (p. 174)

Thus, the interpretive scholar analyzes data in order to describe and interpret.

Carbaugh ( 2007 ) identified two concerns in analyzing interpretive data—the framework used to analyze the semantic content of cultural discourse and the vocabulary used to formulate these contents. A researcher’s analysis of the content of the communication exchange also includes a meta-analysis of the subject, the object, the context, the history, and the stories revolving around the exchange. Carbaugh ( 2007 ) noted that “these cultural meanings—about personhood, relationships, action, emotion, and dwelling, respectively—are formulated in cultural discourse analyses as radiants of cultural meaning” (p. 174). These radiants of cultural meanings focus on personhood and identity, relating and relationships, meanings about acting, action and practice, meanings about emotions and feelings, and meanings about place or context.

Reliability and validity are explicated differently in interpretive research compared to social science research. If social scientific scholars are interested in consistency for reliability, interpretive scholars see reliability as the quality of the information obtained; does the data give us a richer, clearer understanding of the phenomena (Golafshani, 2003 )? Lincoln and Guba ( 1985 ) used the term “dependability” in place of reliability to assess the quality of a research project. For validity, it is important to assess the quality based on the specific paradigm used to conduct the qualitative research. Further, while many scholars argue that validity is not a critical concept for interpretive research, Lincoln and Guba ( 1985 ) explained that the “trustworthiness” of the data is similar to validity in social science research. Do the community of scholars conducting interpretive research view the data as meaningful, useful, and following the research protocols appropriately?

After having considered these general considerations, we now consider three specific data analysis approaches using in interpretive intercultural communication research including grounded theory, constant comparative analysis, and thematic analysis. Other data analytic approaches for data analysis include narrative analysis, conversational analysis, EOC, and interpretive phenomenological analysis. Grounded theory is a continuum of practices that are inductive and iterative aimed at recognizing categories and concepts in texts in order to integrate them to formal theoretical models (Corbin & Strauss, 2008 ). They begin with the observations, experiences, and stories, and through a process of coding, analysts identify a theoretical model to fit the data. Another important approach that interpretive scholars use is that of constant comparative analysis (CCA). CCA has often been used as a part of grounded theory, but it is now being used separately to analyze cross-cultural and intercultural communication. CCA is used to balance the etic perspective (participant as outsider) with the emic perspective (participant as insider) to ensure balance between cultural readings and theoretical frameworks. CCA ensures that all data in the relevant set are compared with all other data in the same set to make sure that no data are dismissed on thematic grounds (O’Connor et al., 2008 ). Further, CCA tries to accommodate the most relevant theories though they may appear disparate. A final prominent approach is thematic analysis. Thematic analysis is a flexible and yet rigorous approach of identifying and analyzing patterns or themes of meaning from data. Braun and Clarke ( 2006 ) identify a six-step process for conducting thematic analysis.

Critical Methods

From the critical perspective, relationships between cultural groups are often characterized by dominance and resistance. Communication between groups is based on certain understanding of culture and ethnicity that is fixed, reified, and essentialized and is informed by certain cultural assumptions that tend to be rooted in Euro-American traditions and worldviews (Asante et al., 2008 ). Hermans and Kempen ( 1998 ) argued that dominant approaches to knowledge favor static conceptualizations of culture. It is the creation of these static categories in which the Western understanding of the rest of the world dominates the intercultural relations that results in the reification of culturally homogeneous “ethnic” and racial groups. Consequently, this orientation undermines ways in which the self is understood in different cultures.

Critical and feminist scholars have consistently raised questions about power imbalance between researchers and researched in the field, suggesting that if researchers fail to explore how their personal, professional, and structural positions frame social scientific investigations, researchers may inevitably reproduce dominant gender, race, and class biases (Fairclough, 1995 ; Lazar, 2005 ). This section illustrates postcolonial ethnography and critical discourse analysis as approaches for intercultural discovery from the critical lens. Additionally, we introduce the role of self-reflexivity and consciousness-raising in the context of methodological concerns from the critical perspective.

A variety of approaches to critical issues exist such as critical race theory, decolonizing and indigenous methodologies, engaged methodologies, and performative methodologies (Willink, Gutierrez-Perez, Shukri, & Stein, 2014 ). In this article, we explore two prominent methods to illustrate some of the key elements to critical approaches given that we cannot cover all of them: postcolonial ethnography and critical discourse analysis.

Postcolonial ethnography seeks to disrupt and restructure established academic practices and modes of knowledge development and dissemination (Pathak, 2010 ). It attempt to do this by pointing out that gender roles, academic institutions, racial binaries, and other power structures are not apolitical. Postcolonial ethnography seeks to question the reification and valorization of supposed objective, scientific, and disembodied knowledge formations. Instead they seek to find alternate and embodied knowledge forms that accommodate the subjective and the personal.

While postcolonial and third world feminist scholars point to myriad ways in which relations of domination infuse ethnography, they also offer some guidance for negotiating power inherent in the practice of fieldwork (Spivak, 1999 ). This guidance takes the form of feminist geopolitics, which involves not only questioning hegemonic structures and dominant power structures but also offering alternatives to those structures (Koopman, 2011 ). Postcolonial scholars argue that the practice of ethnography among marginalized groups is historically tainted by ethnocentric biases in traditional ethnographic practice and research (Collins, 1990 ). Further, as philosopher Sandra Harding ( 1998 ) emphasized, ethnocentricism is structured into the institutional and academic practices so as to produce relationships oppressive to indigenous cultures in the so-called first world as well as third world countries.

An example of postcolonial inquiry is that of an ethnographic encounter (Irani et al., 2010 ). As a part of this inquiry, the company that the researchers studied, Ddesign, had to develop prototypical home water purification filters (Irani et al., 2010 ). The site of their study was various villages in India where they were supposed to study the feasibility of home water purifiers among the economically deprived households of the villages. The researchers later were told that when Ddesign first started their study, they had notions of privations in the lives of the householders. During their study, they found that the reality was quite different from their preconceptions. They realized that the definitions of privations that the company personnel had were not applicable to the people or to their living conditions. In fact, the researchers were told by the company personnel that the villagers had a very different worldview from that of the personnel. Thus, the researchers and the company personnel realized that one group’s notions of well-being and happiness were not necessarily applicable to another group no matter how universal those notions might be.

A second approach is critical discourse analysis (CDA). The creative combining of different approaches of lived experience, texts or discourses, and the social and political structures of power has resulted in popularity of cultural studies as a critical site for different modes of enquiry. According to Fairclough ( 1995 ), “many analysts are becoming increasingly hesitant in their use of basic theoretical concepts such as power, ideology, class, and even truth/falsity” (p. 15). In recent social scientific research, there has been a turn toward language or, more specifically, toward discourse. According to the feminist critical scholar Michelle M. Lazar ( 2005 ), discourse is a “site of struggle, where forces of social (re)production and contestation are played out” (p. 4). Critical discourse analysis is known for its overtly political stance and deals with all forms of social inequality and injustice. It includes the study of processes premised on the acts and discursive interactions of individuals and groups on which both the local and international contexts bring to bear their limits in the production of legislation, news making, and other such products of discursive interactions (van Dijk, 2008 ).

An example of critical discourse analysis in intercultural communication research is Chen, Simmons, and Kang’s ( 2015 ) study of identity construction of college students. The authors contextualize their study in an era of “postracial” utopia resulting during the Obama administration. They coin the term “Multicultural/multiracial Obama-ism (MMO)” to reflect this era and the prominent frame of colorblindness and multiculturalism prominent in media discourse. They examined 65 student essays about three cultural identities that stood out in a particular context. They analyzed the essays using CDA and found three frames that support this construction of postracial utopia: meritocracy, identity as self-chosen, and equality of opportunity despite privilege. They critique these frames and identify implications for teaching about intercultural communication and identity in the classroom.

Key methodological issues in the critical approach are the role of reflexivity, consciousness-raising, and limitations/possibilities of the reflective approach. A sociology-of-knowledge approach to critical scholarship reveals the role of reflexivity as a source of insight (Cook & Fonow, 1984 ). Reflexivity means the tendency of critical scholars to reflect upon, examine critically, and explore analytically the nature of the research process. To some extent, this tendency toward reflection is part of a tradition of attention to what Kaplan ( 1964 ) referred to as “logic-in-use” or the actual occurrences that arise in the inquiry, idealized and unreconstructed. Feminist and critical epistemology carries this tradition of reflection further by using it to gain insight into the assumptions about gender and intercultural relations underlying the conduct of inquiry. This is often accomplished by a thoroughgoing review of the research setting and its participants, including an exploration of the investigator’s reactions to doing the research.

One of the ways in which reflexivity is employed involves the concept of consciousness-raising, a process of self-awareness familiar to those involved with the women’s movement. Underlying much of the reflexivity found in feminist scholarship is the notion found in the earlier work of scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois ( 1969 ) and Paulo Freire ( 1970 ) that consciousness of oppression can lead to a creative insight that is generated by experiencing contradictions. Under ideal circumstances, transformation occurs, during which something hidden is revealed about the formerly taken-for-granted aspects of intercultural relations.

Consciousness-raising is employed in various ways by the critical scholar. The first way is through attention to the consciousness-raising effects of research on the researcher. Consciousness-raising is also involved in discussions of ways in which the research process influences subjects of the inquiry. Some authors view the research act as an explicit attempt to reduce the distance between the researcher and subjects (Collins, 1990 ). These approaches have provided critical and feminist researchers with a way to tap collective consciousness as a source of data and have provided participants in the research process with a way to confirm the experiences that have often been denied as real in the past. The applications of critical consciousness-raising and reflexivity can be seen in discourses surrounding terrorism and counterterrorism. This application can be seen in the study by Schmid ( 2013 ) about radicalization, deradicalization, and counter-radicalization. Schmid has observed that the usual causes such as poverty, social inequality, oppression, and neglect by the West have not been empirically tested satisfactorily, yet they are believed to be the primary causes of radicalization. The study provides three levels of analysis that can be used to understand how “radicals” are born and how that complex construction can be interrogated: the micro level, dealing with the individual level in terms of identity and self-reflection; the meso level, which deals with the socio-political milieu surrounding the individual; and the macro level, which refers to the larger society and governance that affect the individual. Further, these three levels of analysis can also be used to see how the continuum from radical to political undesirable and terrorist can be studied.

Finally, there are limitations and possibilities of reflective practice. Critical researchers use self-reflection about power as a tool to deepen ethnographic analysis and to highlight the dilemmas in fieldwork. The call for reflective practice has also been informed by critiques of postcolonial theorists who argue for self-reflexive understanding of the epistemological investments that shape the politics of method (Mohanty, 1991 ). Cultural studies scholars have also questioned the call to reflective practice, arguing that taken to the extreme, “constant reflexivity” can make “social interaction extremely cumbersome” (Hurtado, 1996 , p. 29). In contrast, the call to “accountability” is said to offer a more collective approach than the “individual self assessment of one’s perspective” that the term “reflexivity implies” (Hurtado, 1996 , p. 29). However, from point of ethnographic practice, it is seldom clear to whom one should be “accountable,” and therefore the term reflective practice seems to be appropriate.

Reflective practice indicates both individual self-assessment and collective assessment of research strategies. Hurtado ( 1996 ) emphasized that a “reflexive mechanism for understanding how we are all involved in the dirty process of racializing and gendering others, limiting who they are and who they can become” (p. 124) is a necessary strategy to help dismantle domination. Such reflective strategies can also help ethnographers bring to the surface “their own privilege and possible bias” as well as “addressing the difference between different constituencies” (Hurtado, 1996 , p. 160) within the communities they study.

Integrating Social Science, Interpretive, and Critical Research Methods

Each set of methods presented in this chapter has strengths and limitations. They address specific purposes that collectively are all important for the field of intercultural communication. Moreover, integrating the research methods provides richer insights than using any method by itself. However, these integrations still may have limitations in exploring non-Western contexts. Thus, this section explores integrations of the methods and alternative methods for intercultural inquiry.

Integrations of Methods

The integration of research methods involves using different types of methods at different phases (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2011 ). In this manner, the methods are used one after another (or concurrently) depending on the research question associated with the larger research program. Four phasic designs are most prevalent: a) qualitative/interpretive methods used to create a quantitative (social science measure); b) qualitative (interpretive and critical) methods used to embellish quantitative findings (Big Quant, Little Qual); c) quantitative methods used to embellish qualitative findings (Big Qual, Little Quant); and d) social science, interpretive, critical methods used conjointly. Space limitations prohibit us from providing examples of all of these approaches, so we detail two of them.

Zhang and colleagues (Zhang & Oetzel, 2006 ; Zhang, Oetzel, Gao, Wilcox, & Takai, 2007 ) provide an example of how to create a cross-culturally valid measure of a construct. Their purpose was to measure teacher immediacy. Teacher immediacy is the psychology closeness that is communicated from a teacher to a student. There exist different measures of immediacy, but Zhang and Oetzel ( 2006 ) argued that prior Western measures were not applicable in Chinese classrooms (i.e., they did not have conceptual equivalence). To address this issue, they first conducted open-ended interviews with Chinese students to identify themes associated with the meanings of immediacy. This phase of the research involved interpretive research methods as they put primacy on emic meanings. In the second phase, they used the emic meanings to create an operational measure of three dimensions of teacher immediacy (instructional, relational, and personal). This measure was administered to college students, and the data were analyzed with confirmatory factor analysis. The results dimensions were found to be internally consistent and had construct validity as they correlated with existing scales in expected directions. Zhang et al. ( 2007 ) then continued the development of the scale by administering the scale to college students in four national cultures: China, Japan, Germany, and the United States. With these data, the authors used confirmatory factor analysis to see if the three-dimensional model of teacher immediacy held up in each culture. They found cross-cultural support for the model and also the construct validity of the scales. Thus, their thorough testing from the interpretive phase to the social scientific phase led to the development of a teacher immediacy scale that has valid dimensions in at least four national cultures.

An example of integrating critical, social scientific, and interpretive methods into the same research program can be seen in the work on whiteness ideology (Nakayama & Martin, 1999 ). The project culminated in an edited book that included chapters using the various research methods. Whiteness ideology is the worldview that certain groups have privilege over others. It is labeled whiteness because whites tend to be the privileged groups in most societies. This research group’s work primarily focused on ethnic groups in the United States, but some international contexts were examined and other scholars have since examined international contexts we well (e.g., Collier, 2005 ). One part of the project examined the labels that white people in the United States prefer through a survey (Martin, Krizek, Nakayama, & Bradford, 1999 ). Another part of the project involved two of the team members’ integrated interpretive and critical methods to understand how whiteness is used as strategic rhetoric (Nakayama & Krizek, 1999 ). The volume included other scholars writing from different perspectives as well, and the editors attempted to bring together these various perspectives into a “coherent” picture about whiteness ideology. These scholars asked different questions and used different methods to investigate the same phenomena. Collectively, the research program told a richer and fuller story than any single study could have told. This example illustrates how different research methods can be used concurrently to advance understanding about intercultural phenomena.

Alternative Approaches to Studying Intercultural Communication

Intercultural research using the social scientific, interpretive, and critical methods have offered remarkable insights on a variety of intercultural phenomena. Each of these traditional approaches, however, uses a Euro-Western lens that is predominantly textocentric, privileging text, writing, and the lettered word in comparison to oral stories and visuals (Conquergood, 2002 ; Kim, 2002 ). We offer here two participatory approaches that, in some sense, hand over the power of the data to the participants. From these approaches, the ontology, epistemology, and axiology of the participants are more important than those of the researchers. Singhal, Harter, Chitnis, and Sharma ( 2007 ) explained that participation-based methodology allows for lateral communication between participants, creates a space for dialogue, focuses on the people’s needs, enables collective empowerment, and offers cultural-specific content. In contrast, they note that nonparticipatory methods allow top-down vertical communication, generally focus on individual behavior change, consider the donors’ and researchers’ goals of greater importance than community needs, and offer cultural-general information. This section discusses three participatory approaches: theater, photography, and community-based participatory research.

Participatory Theater

Based on the dialogic theorizing of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire ( 1970 ) and its application by Augusto Boal in his performative intervention, “Theater of the Oppressed” ( 1995 ), participatory theater can offer researchers an epistemology different from other research methods that rely on data from interviews and focus groups. This approach provides different kinds of data, discursive narratives that can be used to highlight some of the significant generative themes of the research participants.

The Theater of the Oppressed was developed in an effort to transform theater from the “monologue” of traditional performance into a “dialogue” between audience and stage. Boal ( 1995 ) experimented with many kinds of interactive theater. His explorations were based on the assumption that dialogue is the common, healthy dynamic between all humans and when a dialogue becomes a monologue, oppression ensues. Participatory theater is a research tool that produces generative and local knowledge, starting with the use of the body, the container of memory, emotions, and culture (Kaptani & Yuval-Davis, 2008 ). Theater has the ability to provide a useful connection to specific places as well as people. The encounter between the researcher and the researched in the theater space is outside the redundancy of everyday life. As a result, the researcher can see herself and her interactions between and with the researched in a way that is more distant than in everyday life, thus possibly making it easier to become reflexive.

Boal ( 1995 ) developed various forms of theater workshops and performances which aimed to meet the needs of all people for interaction, dialogue, critical thinking, action, and fun. For example, Forum Theater constitutes a series of workshops in which the participants are transformed from a passive audience into the double roles of actors and active audience. They construct dramatic scenes involving conflictual oppressive situations in small groups and show them to the other participants, who intervene by taking the place of the protagonists and suggesting better strategies for achieving their goals. One of the popular research tools used in Forum Theater is role-playing. Role-playing serves as a vehicle for analyzing power, stimulating public debate, and searching for solutions. Participants explore the complexity of the human condition and situate this knowledge in its cultural moment. The aim of the forum is not to find an ideal solution but to invent new ways of confronting problems. A second key tool is discussion. Following each intervention, audience members discuss the solution offered. A skilled facilitator encourages an in-depth discussion with the participants to generate ideas that will help to address issues under investigation.

Participatory Photography

Similarly, Paolo Friere is a pioneer in participatory photography. In 1973 , Freire and his team asked people living in a slum in Lima, Peru, to visualize “exploitation” by taking photographs (Singhal et al., 2007 ). One child took a photograph of a nail on a wall. While the photograph did not resonate with adults, many of the children strongly supported it. When asked to explain, it was learned that many of the boys in the neighborhood were shoeshine boys in the city. Since the shoeshine box was heavy and they could not carry it to the city, they rented a nail on the wall in one of the city shops. These shop owners charged the boys more than half of each day’s earnings as rent. The children expressed that the photo of the nail was the strongest symbol of exploitation. Friere and his team then used this photo to generate a discussion about exploitation and how the community members wished to address it.

Participatory photography, otherwise known as “photo voice” or “shooting back,” gives power to the participants, through photographs, to shape their own stories (Wang, 1999 ). Participatory photography has been used in a variety of contexts (slums, hospitals, schools, villages, etc.) and in different parts of the world (Singhal et al., 2007 ). For example, Briski and Kauffman ( 2004 ), in their Oscar-winning film, Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids , taught the children of commercial sex workers how to take photographs. These children, then, took photos to depict their harsh reality. These powerful images became the foundation of this moving film. Another example is the work of Loignon et al. ( 2014 ) in Canada about the relation between impoverishment and lack of access to primary health care. The researchers recruited four family medicine residents and two medical supervisors to pursue their study. There were eight participants who came from economically underprivileged backgrounds trained in photographic techniques and photo voice philosophy. The researchers were able to realize the importance of primary health care professionals developing greater interpersonal and social acuity. They also realized that their patients were co-participants in the processes of diagnosis, prognosis, and medication. Finally, the researchers were also able to realize that they would be able to develop a greater competency by actually investing a part of their training time in the socioeconomic milieu of the patients they are to serve.

The implications of using participatory photography are significant. This method works best when the participants are given general directions and allowed to play with ideas. It is important for the participants to share their visual stories with the researchers. It is, however, critical for fellow participants in a community to share their stories with each other. The challenge of using photography is that it is, by nature, an intrusive process (Singhal et al., 2007 ). With terminology like “aim,” “shoot,” and “capture,” there can be a colonizing mentality in photography. It is particularly important that the participants be sensitive and reflective about how they take photographs of people and objects. While this may be difficult to accomplish across cultures, it is important to seek the permission of the participants before taking their photographs.

Community-Based Participatory Research

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is a collaborative process where researchers and community members work together at all stages of the research process to address issues that are of importance to the community (Wallerstein et al., 2008 ). Rather than a top-down approach to health and social issues, CBPR focuses on a collaborative and bottom-up approach to identifying and defining problems and developing and implementing solutions (i.e., research “with” rather than “for” or “on”). CPBR is a preferred approach for researchers working with indigenous communities, other communities of color, or other communities facing disparities, which experience similar issues of mistrust for past research issues and social/health inequities. CBPR has goals of developing culturally centered research and interventions, building trust and synergy among partners, building the capacity of all members of the research team, changing power relations among communities and outside entities, developing sustainable change, and improving the social and health conditions of the community (Wallerstein et al., 2008 ).

CBPR is not a method, rather a philosophy of research. CBPR projects can include social scientific, interpretive, and critical approaches and often involve mixed methods. The specific methods meet the needs of the community and the research problem being addressed. The methods should follow key principles of CBPR, including: a) the project fits local/cultural beliefs, norms, and practices; b) the project emphasizes what is important in the community; c) the project builds on strengths in the community; d) the project balances research and social action; and e) the project disseminates findings to all partners and involves all partners in the dissemination process (Israel et al., 2008 ).

An example of CBPR is a project in Mysore, South India, addressing stigma and discrimination among men who have sex with men (MSM), many of whom were sex workers (Lorway et al., 2013 ). The project involved a collaboration of researchers and a sex workers collective in a long-term systematic process of knowledge production and action. The research approach involved training 10 community members as researchers who conducted interviews with MSM to understand their experiences. There were 70 in-depth interviews conducted in four days. Data analysis was completed with thematic analysis. The results provided a rallying point against stigma as the community cultivated its understanding of this concept and they mobilized to increase access to sexual health services.

The purpose of this article was to explore multidisciplinary methodological approaches to intercultural communication research. If our worldview shapes our reality, what we study and how we study phenomena is greatly influenced by our cultural frameworks. We described the traditional approaches to studying intercultural communication, namely, social scientific, interpretive, and critical perspectives. We identified the key ontological, epistemological, and axiological assumptions of each of these perspectives, offered an exemplar for each kind of perspective, types of data collected, and the methodological concerns in each framework. We then explained traditional ways to integrate the social scientific, interpretive, and critical perspectives, offered examples, and explicated the strengths of such integrations. We finally offered three alternative methodological approaches (participatory theater, participatory photography, and community-based participatory research) where the participants shape the scope of the study, interpret the meaning of the data, and offer practical implications for the study.


The early history of intercultural communication, including some discussion of research methods, has been covered well by Leeds-Hurwitz ( 1990 ) and Moon ( 1996 ). Leeds-Hurwitz reviewed the early foundation of intercultural communication, which can be traced to the work of Edward T. Hall in the Foreign Service Institute in the 1950s and 1960s. The focus in the earlier years was on descriptive linguistic analysis of micro communication practices (e.g., proxemics, kinesics, and verbal practices) of multiple cultures. These early roots of intercultural communication were influenced by anthropological study of culture (i.e., ethnography).

The 1970s saw the development of the field of intercultural communication, with a focus on culture as race, gender, nationality, and socioeconomic status (Moon, 1996 ). The research at this time also reflected the social issues of the 1970s. Methods of research were diverse but predominantly included social scientific and interpretive methods.

The late 1970s and the 1980s saw a change where the focus of culture became nationality and a large emphasis was placed on cross-cultural comparisons. There was a pursuit to develop and apply Western theories to non-Western contexts. Methodologically, the 1980s was dominated by social scientific approaches.

The 1990s brought some backlash against social scientific approaches from interpretive scholars. There was also a rise of critical scholarship which critiqued the social scientific research methods. A number of critical approaches were identified and were especially used to develop theoretical approaches for understanding intercultural communications.

The 2000s brought more balance and integration of the research approaches. The Journal of International and Intercultural Communication was founded in 2008 . The three editors of this journal to date (Tom Nakayama, Shiv Ganesh, and Rona Halualani) issued editorial statements about the scope of the journal respecting and including diverse methodological approaches.

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Intercultural and Intergroup Communication Research Paper Topics

Intercultural and Intergroup Communication Research Paper Topics

Origins of the Theories ICC has been studied for over 50 years (see Leeds- Hurwitz 1990) and developed to focus on how different cultures are distinguished from one another through their management of behaviors such as personal space and gestures. Particular attention has been devoted to understanding the cultural values that underpin different cultures’ communicative practices, including individualism– collectivism, high–low contexts, and so forth (Watson 2012). From the ICC perspective, when an individual recognizes that he is engaged in an intercultural interaction, the focus remains on competent interpersonal communication.

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  • Acculturation Processes and Communication
  • African Communication Modes
  • Anxiety Uncertainty Management Theory
  • Asian Communication Modes
  • Bi- and Multilingualism
  • Collective Action and Communication
  • Cultural Patterns and Communication
  • Disability and Communication
  • Diversity in the Workplace
  • Ethnic Media and their Influence
  • Ethnographic Perspectives on Culture and Communication
  • Ethnolinguistic Vitality and Communication
  • Hate Speech and Ethnophaulisms
  • Hispanic Communication Modes
  • Intercultural Communication in Health-Care
  • Intercultural Communication Training
  • Intercultural Conflict Styles and Facework
  • Intercultural Norms
  • Interethnic Relationships in Families
  • Intergroup Accommodative Processes
  • Intergroup Communication and Discursive Psychology
  • Intergroup Contact and Communication
  • Intergroup Dimensions of Organizational Life
  • Language Attitudes in Intergroup Contexts
  • Marginality, Stigma, and Communication
  • Media and Group Representations
  • Migration and Immigration
  • Muslim Communication Modes
  • Nonverbal Communication and Culture
  • Power in Intergroup Settings
  • Prejudiced and Discriminatory Communication
  • Social Stereotyping and Communication
  • Western Communication Modes

In contrast to ICC, the IGC approach came out of social identity theory (SIT: Tajfel 1978) which states that individuals categorize themselves and others into social groups and have a need to compare themselves with others, as a way of attaining a positive self-concept. We seek to favor our own groups (ingroups) compared to groups to which we do not belong (outgroups) and, communicatively act in accord with these social identities (Giles & Giles 2012). To join an outgroup, as, for instance, with immigrants wishing to acculturate into a host community, we communicate with members in ways akin to them so that we may gain membership to that group (Giles et al. 2012). SIT is not a communication theory but, rather, represents a theory of intergroup behavior and cognitions. Communication theories such as communication accommodation theory explain how and why individuals engage in specific communication strategies when they interact with representatives of salient ingroups and outgroups.

Intercultural and Intergroup Communication Applications

Wiseman (2002) detailed the applications of ICC competence to assist individuals from differing cultures to communicate effectively with one another. The ICC literature embraces a skills training approach, the premises of which are that individuals must have knowledge of the culture with which they engage, the motivation to effectively communicate (including intercultural sensitivity and empathy), and appropriate communication skills. Interactions are viewed as activities that occur at the interpersonal level.

In contrast, the main focus in IGC is on interactants implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) taking on the role of being representatives of their respective cultures. This explicit acknowledgment that at times our intergroup identities take precedence has important implications for any interaction. Individuals who perceive that their personal identity is salient may engage in different communications strategies from those who believe they are representative of a particular group. Whether individual or group identities, or both, are made salient will shape the communication process in different ways which, in turn, can reconstruct the very nature of those identities (Dragojevic & Giles in press).

The way a group or culture expresses its unique identity through a dialect, specialized jargon, or nonverbal demeanor, is fundamental to a healthy social identity, and to one (under differing conditions) that group members can vigorously and creatively sustain and proliferate. Intercultural communication is not subsumed under, or even a special case of, intergroup communication, but rather the two are parallel traditions capable of significant coalescence (Gudykunst 2002).

Assumptions of Both Theories

There are assumptions within ICC theories that are not held in IGC (Brabant et al. 2007). These are: that strangers to a new culture will take on an ethno-relativist position; they need to be educated in the new culture’s values and norms; and when strangers possess knowledge of the culture and use expedient communication skills, effective communication will prevail. However, there is no extension within ICC theories to predict and explain when misunderstanding could in some cases be inevitable, despite any one individual’s excellent skills and cultural knowledge. Sociopsychological theories that emphasize the intergroup nature of intercultural communication, rather than only its interpersonal aspects, directly address miscommunication and related issues of prejudice and intercultural tensions.

IGC is highly cognizant of how status and power differentials impact communication behavior. Power is, arguably, not a key consideration in ICC and the implicit overarching assumption is that competent communication is the main communication goal. However, when two individuals from different cultures with a history of power differentials and consequent perceived injustices come together, effective and competent communication may not be their mutual goal. A training and skills focus on achieving effective communication does not take account of the fact that culturally-salient power differentials may dictate what is appropriate communication for any particular encounter.

ICC as well as IGC – beyond the study of national and ethnic groups – can truly embrace an array of different categories including older people, homosexuals, bisexuals, or academicians from different disciplines, as well as those embedded in for example, religious, or organizational cultures (Giles 2012). Importantly, their members may view themselves as belonging to a group that owns specific characteristics and traits that set them apart from others. IGC theories distinguish between “me” in an interaction as an individual and “us” as a virtual representative of a group. While intercultural as well as intergroup perspectives have sometimes been infused into studies in such contexts, there is much more room for invoking each other’s positions. The challenge is to move toward bringing these two theoretical viewpoints together in order to explain and predict the variables that determine effective and ineffective interactions (Kim, forthcoming).


  • Brabant, M., Watson, B. M., & Gallois, C. (2007). Psychological perspectives: Social psychology, language and intercultural communication. In H. Kotthoff & H. Spencer-Oatey (eds.), Handbook of intercultural communication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 55–75.
  • Dragojevic, M. & Giles, H. (in press). Language and interpersonal communication: Their intergroup dynamics. In C. R. Berger (ed.), Handbook of interpersonal communication. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  • Giles, H. (ed.) (2012). The handbook of intergroup communication. London: Routledge.
  • Giles, H., Bonilla, D., & Speer, R. (2012). Acculturating intergroup vitalities, accommodation and contact. In J. Jackson (ed.), Routledge handbook of intercultural communication. London: Routledge, pp. 244–259.
  • Giles, H. & Giles, J. L. (2012). Ingroups and outgroups communicating. In A. Kuyulo (ed.), Inter/cultural communication: Representation and construction of culture in everyday interaction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 141–162.
  • Gudykunst, W. B. (2002). Intercultural communication theories. In W. B. Gudykunst & B. Mody (eds.), Handbook of international and intercultural communication, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 183–205.
  • Kim, Y. Y. (ed.) (forthcoming). The international encyclopedia of intercultural communication. New York: Wiley Blackwell.
  • Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1990). Notes on the history of intercultural communication: The Foreign Service Institute and the mandate for intercultural training. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, 262–281.
  • Tajfel, H. (ed.) (1978). Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations. New York: Academic Press.
  • Watson, B. M. (2012). Intercultural and cross-cultural communication. In A. Kurylo (ed.), Inter/cultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 25–46.
  • Wiseman, R. L. (2002). Intercultural communication competence In W. B. Gudykunst & B. Mody (eds.), Handbook of international and intercultural communication, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 207–224.

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intercultural communication research paper pdf

Research Paper

Intercultural communication research paper.

intercultural communication research paper pdf

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Every human group shares a body of common understandings, its culture, which serves to make communication within the group intelligible and which guides behavior and enables the group to achieve common objectives.

Common understandings, communication, and behaviors set each group apart from other groups. To a greater or lesser degree, there is overlap with the shared understandings of other groups. Nevertheless, critical points of difference in these understandings, however minor they may seem to outsiders, give rise to convictions of being a separate group and reinforce a shared identity.

While separate cultures may share varying amounts of their content, their points of difference establish boundaries. These cultural boundaries are potential obstacles to communication.

Communication is the act or process of imparting or exchanging meanings, such as information, opinions, thoughts, and feelings. Intercultural communication is the act or process of imparting or exchanging meanings across cultural boundaries. Anything that humans seek to transmit from one individual or group to another within a specific culture (intracultural communication) may also be transmitted between different cultures (intercultural communication).

Intercultural Miscommunication

Intercultural miscommunication occurs when intended meanings are unclearly, inadequately, or mistakenly communicated across cultural boundaries. All human behavior, including business behavior, is enacted within specific cultural contexts. When we are operating within our own native culture, we may take culture for granted. However, when we find ourselves within a culture different from our own we are operating culture blind. Whether we realize it or not, different rules of behavior may apply. Anything we do or say can unexpectedly, upsettingly, and sometimes destructively, explode in our faces. Such intercultural errors may negatively impact the situations in which we find ourselves.

There is growing understanding among businessmen and businesswomen at all levels of the importance of understanding foreign cultures and of the necessity of business

individuals and business organizations to adapt their behaviors and operations to their host foreign cultures (Ferraro, 2006; Serrie, 1986; Terpstra & David, 1991).

Intercultural Errors and Business Individuals

Simply by behaving normally in our own cultural perspective, we may unwittingly commit intercultural errors. Intercultural errors follow a typical pattern:

  • Innocuous Start: The intercultural visitor (e.g., business-person, government official, student, tourist) says or does something that would be considered entirely appropriate in the visitor’s home culture.
  • Inexplicable Response: The intercultural host reacts in an unexpected way, such as stunned silence, embarrassed laughter, frosty or angry retort, abrupt departure, and sometimes even physical violence.
  • Confusion: The intercultural visitor is unaware or only vaguely aware of his of her error, or the visitor is shocked and confused. (Brislin, Cushner, Cherrie, & Yong, 1986)

Culture Shock and the Ugly Foreigner

Residence in a country or region with a culture significantly different from our own can be an intensely rewarding experience, or it can result in varying degrees of misery for ourselves and/or others in contact with us. We may ethnocentrically hurt ourselves and/or we may ethnocentrically hurt our host nationals. Mistakes may be innocuous, perhaps the subject of much humor at our expense. More seriously, intercultural mistakes may prove to be upsetting to the intercultural visitor and/or host nationals and may even seriously damage the capability of the business organization to carry out its operations.

Failure to successfully manage the cultural barriers, especially when we are on our own, can result in a form of psychological regression or breakdown known as culture shock. If we are with a group of Americans, this can serve to insulate us from our cultural errors, and the damage may accrue primarily to those foreign persons unfortunate enough to have interacted with us. A series of intercultural mistakes can build an image of the “Ugly Foreigner.”

Intercultural Errors and Business Organizations

Not only do businesspersons commit intercultural mistakes as individuals, but their organizations do so as well (Ricks, 1993). When a business organization makes inter-cultural mistakes, it may result in costs to the company amounting to millions of dollars; and when a business organization hurts host individuals, organizations, and communities, it can seriously jeopardize its reputation and guest status in the host nation.

Europeans have understood this for centuries, in that even short trips of a hundred miles may bring a traveler to an entirely different nation and culture. Small nations that are highly dependent upon international trade are acutely aware of the need for intercultural knowledge and skills. For nations like Iceland, the Netherlands, or Japan, whose language is spoken in no other country, the need for linguistic as well as broader intercultural training is obvious. In the Netherlands, for example, instruction in not one but two foreign languages is required in the public schools, starting in the first grade and continuing through secondary school.

America, on the other hand, did not have to come to grips with cultural differences until the last few decades. Before World War II, the continental size of our country insured that internal trade dominated our economy; and, in the postwar years, America had little competition for its products in its growing international markets. Whatever intercultural errors Americans made in this period, and there undoubtedly were many, were usually accepted and swept under the carpet.

However, during the 1960s foreign products and labor became fierce competitors with American products and labor in price, quality, and advertising image, both at home and abroad. With many alternatives available to the rest of the world, and with rising movements of nationalism and ethnic identity everywhere, irritation with American intercultural ignorance and insensitivity was increasingly expressed.

Of necessity, the long era of American intercultural ignorance is rapidly coming to an end. Because intercultural understanding and skills enhance the competitive edge of any business product or activity, American business individuals and organizations are increasingly incorporating them into their daily operations and long-range strategies.

The Anthropological Concept Of Culture

Culture in the anthropological sense is the sum total of meanings and understandings, the learned patterns of ideation, communication, action, and materialization that constitute a way of living, built up over time by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. The nature of all culture is that it is learned, as opposed to genetically acquired like instinct, and the development of culture-creating abilities is a major feature of the biological evolution of hominids. As with instinct, the function of culture is to provide an adaptation to the environment.

The concept of culture has proven to be protean in its ability to morph into different shapes. The first anthropological definition of culture was crafted in the 19th century by E. B. Tylor (1871/1958), who wrote, “Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Fifty years ago, two leading anthropologists compiled no less than 400 different definitions of culture. Each one was tailored to the theoretical orientations of the authors and served the purpose of such

diverse fields as archeology, linguistics, and psychology (Kroeber & Kluckhohn, 1952). One of today’s popular anthropology textbooks defines culture as “a society’s shared, socially transmitted ideas, values, and perceptions” (Haviland, Prins, Walrath, & McBride, 2007).

The Divisions of Culture

Culture is divided into several systems that are in complex ways and varying degrees interrelated:

Technology and materialization. This division comprises the knowledge and skills to effect changes in the material world, and the material results, including artifacts, of those changes. Technology is at the base of cultural organization and change. Technology and the natural environment determine or limit the types of economy available to any human group.

Economy and economic organization. This division comprises the forms of obtaining basic and nonbasic needs from the natural and social environments, such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, communication, and entertainment. It includes the channels of production, distribution, and consumption.

Social organization and political organization. Technology and economy determine or limit the types of social and political organization available to any human group, from the family or domestic group through secondary organizations (e.g., lineage, clan, church, school) and up to the largest organizations of tribe, chiefdom, and state. This includes hunting-gathering bands and agribusinesses, shops and corporations, shamanic ceremonies and churches, war parties and armies, and councils and governments. It also includes the management knowledge and skills relevant to each organization.

Ideation. Technology, economy, and sociopolitical organization determine, limit, or influence the ideational systems of any human group, the bodies of thought and expression on such topics as the supernatural, politics, and everyday life, and include values, religion, ideology, and art forms.

Communication. This division comprises all the forms of communication, including gestures, spoken language, symbols, and writing. The vocabulary content (words, gestures, symbols) of communication makes reference to and summarizes the entire gamut of meanings of all the divisions of a culture. However, linguistic subsystems like phonology, morphology, and grammar are independent of other cultural systems.

Cultural Change

Because culture is learned, it is able to change rapidly in comparison with instinct. Through discovery and invention, trial and error, individuals generate innovations, some of which are adopted by other members of their own group and thus become part of the group’s culture. New business products and services that meet needs are readily acquired by consumers. Moreover, useful or attractive elements of one culture can be adopted by any other culture and made its own.

Throughout history, trade has been one of the most important mechanisms of cultural diffusion. Today, the multinational corporation may well be the most powerful institution for cultural change in the world. Many of the products and services it sells are relatively new from the perspectives of traditional cultures in developing nations. Other products and services are absolutely new, even in industrial nations, in that they have been discovered or invented in the research and development programs of the multinational corporations themselves. Advertising and marketing activities carried on by multinational corporations motivate people to buy these products and services and often teach media audiences not only the technical, but also the social behaviors for using them.

Viewed holistically, the new material culture merchandised by multinational corporations around the world implies or requires changes in economic, social, and ideational culture as well. There are, moreover, not only the direct effects but indirect and unforeseen effects as well. With immense assets that dwarf the resources of many developing nations, the role and effect of a multinational corporation can be pervasive.

Because this process is constant, incremental changes inexorably push all nations into cultural transformation after transformation. While political interest groups prevent or retard needed cultural changes through governmental structures, the free market is quietly introducing revolutionary changes that have their own philosophy and direction. Much of the cultural content of the future, trivial and fundamental, for good and for evil, is in the hands of multinational corporations.

Linguistic Versus Technological Cultural Change

Whereas cultural development pushed by technology is following an exponential rate of change, linguistic (non-vocabulary) change is very slow. It took around 12 to 15 centuries of linguistic process for a parent language (e.g., Ancient Chinese and Latin), to separate into mutually unintelligible offspring languages (e.g., Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Min, Hakka, Hsiang; Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Catalan, Provencal, Rhaeto-Romanic, Sardinian, Moldavian) (Katzner, 1986). Unlike technological change, which might be seen as progressive in that its developments lead to ever greater control over nature, linguistic change is not related to practical functions and is therefore not progressive.

Technology as the Prime Mover of Cultural Change

Technology undergirds most of culture. Starting with the very beginning of cultural evolution, archeologists label the prehistoric human periods in terms of increasingly sophisticated stoneworking technology (Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic). The Neolithic Period saw the advent of

agriculture and permanent habitations. Some villages grew into cities, creating the civilizations of antiquity, which are characterized by specialization of labor, monolithic architecture, organized religion, standing armies, endemic warfare, and the development of writing. Increasingly sophisticated metallurgical technology (Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages) distinguished categories of early civilization, and along with increasingly sophisticated management techniques, enabled the conquest by city-states of larger and larger empires (Harris, 1966).

Coexistent Technological Levels

None of the levels of technology observed in the archeological record have entirely disappeared among contemporary cultures. Mastery of fire, the great achievement of Homo erectus, remains a fundamental element of all present-day cultures. Remnants of Paleolithic hunting and gathering technology and material culture persist in remote and technologically primitive indigenous cultures found in many parts of the world, and specialized aspects are preserved as sport or art in wealthy nations (e.g., the bow and arrow, boomerang, and spear thrower or atlatl). In today’s world, there are fundamental differences between cities and urban culture, rural villages in developing nations, and isolated indigenous peoples.

Cities: Carriers of the Modern Global Culture

Globalization is spreading the most essential of modern technology everywhere. There is no city in the entire world that does not have modern transportation and communication systems (e.g., motor vehicles, traffic signals), even if the local culture often finds colorful ways of designing and decorating busses, trucks, three-wheeled vehicles, and the like. Telephones, cellular phones, fax machines, and computers are everywhere. The technology of modern transportation and communication has revolutionized the speed and the scope of international business operations. Along with the material culture of the industrialized world, nonmaterial ideational culture has also spread globally. Modern technology has made international business operations not only easier, but also more culturally familiar and therefore predictable.

Cultural Universals and Cultural Alternatives. However, while modern technology and science comprise the cultural universals (i.e., found in all cultures), ideational culture has spread as a set of cultural alternatives (i.e., choices or options). Probably every city in the world has restaurants specializing in different national cuisines: Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, American fast food, and others share a peaceful coexistence. On the other hand, city cultures in the contemporary world are in many ways in conflict as different religious beliefs, social practices, and political ideologies collide and compete with each other. Yet no nation rejects modern military hardware or modern high-rise construction techniques, and even terrorists hostile to modernization make full use of cell phones and the Internet.

Peasant Villages: Between the Neolithic and the Postindustrial

There is a severe cultural division between the urban and rural sectors of the developing world. Almost half the population of the world, perhaps 3 billion people, live in rural agricultural villages. Anthropologists have used the term “peasants” to distinguish these preindustrial or partly industrial agriculturalists from the industrialized and computerized farmers of the developed world. Though sharing the same civilization as the urban centers with which they are in a symbiotic relationship, peasant villages are simple and modest and lack the cultural elaboration and sophistication of cities. Though some hinterland villages are caught up in some of the great world, regional, and national movements of cultural change, they nonetheless lag behind cities. Rural cultures are bound by their agricultural technology and economy, are limited by poverty and low levels of education, and are far more culturally traditional in their social groupings and folkways.

In many of the rural villages of developing nations, Neolithic stone technology coexists with the machinery and other products of industrialization. In Mexican villages, for example, the metate and mano stone table and roller used for grinding corn are commonplace. Throughout the world, Neolithic techniques of making pottery and weaving cloth coexist with contemporary ceramic and textile manufacturing processes. In China, modern silk production still depends upon the labor-intensive feeding of silkworms and the unraveling of their cocoons; little has changed since the Chinese Neolithic. Much of the plant cultivation in developing countries is still done by hand or with animal power. It is still common to see oxen with wooden yokes pulling wooden plows. Goats, camels, horses (Mongolia), and a large percentage of the cows in the world are still milked by hand. Beasts of burden continue to be ridden bareback or with saddles invented in ancient times.

Business people, economists, development officials, and political leaders have not been sufficiently aware of the economic importance of Third World rural peoples as consumers of capitalist products. Yet peasants have always purchased and used products of the industrial world that are useful (e.g., bicycles) or interesting (e.g., radios) and which they can afford. A few writers have documented the informal distribution channels of multinational products in the hinterlands of developing nations and have pointed out the potential for a much larger and lucrative peasant market (Prahalad, 2005; Serrie, 1991, 1994).

American businessmen dream of a Chinese market with over 1 billion customers, but over two thirds of that market reside in China’s 1 million rural villages. Reaching Chinese villagers is a far greater intercultural challenge than reaching the residents of Shanghai or Guangzhou, and few Western businesspeople have the knowledge or skills to do it successfully. Intercultural training is imperative.

Indigenous Peoples: Aboriginal Isolation

Indigenous or aboriginal peoples are those known to be the original or earliest known inhabitants of a region or country. Every populated continent has indigenous peoples, including Eskimos in the North American Arctic, Yanomamo in the Amazon, Lapps in the European Arctic, Ainu in Japan, and Yir Yoront in Australia. They constitute remnants of those hunting-gathering, horticulturalist, and herding cultures existing before the arrival of agricultural and industrial civilizations.

Indigenous peoples are the most isolated of all human groups, typically occupying remnants of land unwanted by expanding agricultural or industrial cultures: mountains, deserts, tundra, jungles, and swamps. Yet this isolation is not absolute, and in modern times even indigenous peoples increasingly buy products of the industrial world, though on a greatly restricted basis, especially in comparison to the purchasing patterns of peasant peoples. Unlike peasant cultures, whose populations are in the millions in many developing nations, the populations of indigenous peoples are small, numbering in the hundreds, thousands or, rarely, in the tens of thousands. With relatively primitive technologies, the economic resources of indigenous hunting-gathering, horticultural, and herding peoples are meager in comparison with the resources of peasant peoples.

If cities and urban populations wield the most political power, and peasant populations much less, then isolated indigenous peoples have virtually no power at all; they are usually wards of the nations in which they are located. For these reasons, indigenous peoples usually do not constitute significant markets for multinational corporations. Significant exceptions occur, however, when valuable natural resources are discovered on indigenous lands, or when a nation’s laws permit exceptions to gambling prohibitions.

Intercultural Adaptation

Both business organizations and business individuals must adapt to their host cultures (Ferraro, 2006; Serrie, 1986; Terpstra & David, 1991).

intercultural communication research paper pdf

Adaptation of Business Operations to the Host Culture

Technology. In some nations, low levels of prior experience and familiarity with modern tools, appliances, machines, vehicles, and technical procedures may create difficulties with consumers in advertising a multinational product, in using it safely, or in using it so that it will last as long as intended. There may be difficulties with employees not sufficiently versed in the technical skills needed in production, clerical tasks, sales, or management. Employees may have difficulty operating company machines and vehicles. Concepts of hygiene and of safety may be little understood, and the company may need to provide explicit training. The host language may not have adequate vocabulary for describing the company’s product, identifying parts for assembly and servicing, or instructing in the use and repair of the product. The infrastructure of the host nation may be inadequate or different in critical ways.

Social groupings. In some nations, management style may be more authoritarian or less authoritarian than in the United States. It is not uncommon for decisions to be made higher in the chain of command than in the United States. so that one’s counterpart does not have equivalent powers. Sometimes it is a group rather than an individual that bears responsibility for making decisions and meeting objectives, and competition between individuals is avoided. In many countries, companies are family owned, and family members or friends hold significant positions in management. Jobs, contracts, and orders may be awarded to relatives of the manager rather than on the basis of merit. In some authoritarian nations, it may be necessary to hire an unproductive representative of the political party in power in order to negotiate the bureaucracy and legal system. Corruption is commonplace in many nations, and business transactions may carry the expectation that key host nationals will receive substantial gifts in cash or in kind. The general system of social classes, in some cases castes, may make it difficult if not impossible to reward or promote an employee on the basis of individual merit. Employees of one social group may refuse to engage in certain work or business activities with members of another social group. Sometimes business as an occupation is held in low esteem. Business socializing and entertaining may require participating in activities and in places that seem unusual from an American point of view. Labor unions may be more cooperative or more confrontational than expected, or they may not exist. It may be impossible to fire a worker once hired, to lay off workers in a slow period, or to reward or punish individual employees for bad or good work and conduct on the job.

Political organization. The multinational corporation must make special efforts to maintain cordial relations with the host government. It should make special efforts to create and maintain a public image of good corporate citizenship. The multinational corporation should seek to be appreciated for its positive role in the economic development of the host country, but it may find itself under attack and accused of being an instrument of so-called neoimperialism, neocolonialism, economic dependency, and underdevelopment. In many foreign nations, political risks must be assessed continually, with full cognizance of such factors as a colonial past, intense nationalism, and issues of sovereignty. Sometimes there are concerns for the political stability of

a regime and its controlling groups, or with possibilities of nationalization, expropriation, or various forms of protectionism. In benign environments, host nationals often regard any job with a multinational corporation as a plum, and the company may find itself in a leadership role with regard to health and accident benefits, environmental concerns, and ideals of equality and opportunity.

Law. Business contracts may draw upon the legal principles of tribal, Hindu, Rabbinical, Islamic, Ottoman, Civil or Common law, or some unfamiliar mixture. In nations with authoritarian regimes, the rule of law may be weak or nil. Laws of the host nation may require that the government or host nationals own a percentage of the host company. Laws may require that a percentage of the company’s rank-and-file employees and/or managers must be host nationals. The host nation may have laws restricting the production of the company’s products, the materials used, or the content and style of the company’s advertising and packaging.

Enculturation and education. In some countries or regions, low levels of functional literacy or mathematical ability may create difficulties in advertising the company product to potential consumers, or in consumers and workers failing to understand written instructions, hazard warning signs, and so forth. The guest company may find it necessary to create training programs for their host country employees in production, clerical, sales, and management positions. Increasingly, the guest company will offer training to its own expatriate employees in intercultural skills and knowledge specific to the host culture.

Personality and values. Personality characteristics, attitudes, or values in the host culture may differ in varying degrees from American norms. The host culture may not share positive attitudes toward punctuality, future orientation and long view, optimism about the future, willingness to take risks, diligence, work as meaningful, work as a source of personal achievement, frugality, savings and investment, rationality in decision making, cooperativeness within the work group, positive attitude towards new technology, alertness to opportunity, entrepreneurialism, personal appearance, cleanliness, orderliness, honesty, integrity, or disapproval of bribery.

Ideology and religion. Each nation has its own yearly round of religious and/or secular holidays, all of which have a bearing on local business operations. Some holidays are national, while others pertain to ethnic, religious, or other social groupings. Some businesses will close operations for the day(s), while others will remain open. Holidays requiring fasting or feasting will impact on consumption patterns of food and drink, and some holidays will feature special cuisine. Sometimes religious observances will be practiced on company premises, and may even be conducted in facilities provided by the company. Companies may find it prudent to invite religious specialists to conduct special rituals or ceremonies in conjunction with business operations, in order to determine auspicious circumstances, to invoke blessing or to ward off harm. Religious beliefs may create seasonal spikes or slumps in consumer purchasing, may enforce taboos against or prescriptions for the purchase or use of certain products, and may restrict various aspects of company advertising.

Symbols, language, and writing. Advertising employs the artistic organization of line, shape, color, texture, sound, and other properties in ways that evoke desired responses in home-culture consumers. None of this may be taken for granted in a host culture. The size and shape of soft drink containers varies among nations. Few Westerners understand or appreciate the music of traditional Chinese opera; the fact that a fifth of the world’s population loves it can instruct us in how difficult it might sometimes be to bridge differences in artistic styles. Company logos must be checked against host-culture interpretations. A red star on a standard Japanese product was seen to represent Communism and caused a flap in Taiwan during the Cold War. The Gerber baby was misunderstood by illiterate populations in Africa, who assumed that any food container would be depicting its contents on the label.

Brand names that work in one country may be laughable in another. In some Spanish-speaking countries, the Chevrolet Nova was a standing joke (nova translates does not run). In Syria during the early 1960s a local cola beverage used the prestige-seeking name of Mobil-Up. Chinese undershorts for men sport a flower logo and the English name Pansy. A Chinese brand of cigarettes named after the Chinese word for poker, uses romanization that spells out Puke. A health elixir made from the ginseng root is labeled Ginsenocide. The Chinese characters initially chosen to sound out the words “Coca-Cola” translated as Bite the White Tadpole. A subsequent, more felicitous set of same-sounding characters translates as Happiness in the Mouth.

There are approximately 3,000 languages spoken in the world today. Up to 3,000 languages have been lost in the last few centuries, and of those remaining, a little over 200 languages have sufficient numbers of speakers to assume international significance. A much smaller number of writing systems serve to convey these languages in print (Katzner, 1986). Multinational corporations must deal with whatever languages and writing systems are spoken and read by consumers in their host nations. Many nations are blessed by having a single dominant language, but some nations must cope with the difficulties and potential divisiveness of having multiple languages. India, for example, has 14 major languages. A business organization may find that more than one language is spoken by its employees. In locations where multiple languages are common, it will incur greater costs for translation, publication, and transmission of its advertising and servicing messages. Scientific and scholarly translation is costly to governments as well as business, so that higher education as well as business research, development, and technology transfer operations are carried out in English, French, and a handful of major national or regional languages (Terpstra & David, 1991).

Adaptation of Business Individuals to the Host Culture

Business personnel abroad must cope as individuals with the cultural differences confronting them and understand what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior. The Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI) offers a rigorously tested and widely used measure of intercultural sensitivity (Kelley & Meyers, 2001).

Often the expatriate spouse and children are the most deeply imbedded in the host culture and bear the brunt of cultural adaptation. They must contend with servants, shopping, and schools that may be worlds apart from the comfort zone of corporate offices. Completion of foreign postings is also fraught with intercultural difficulties when the home office fails to recognize and integrate the valuable experiences of their returned expatriates, who often go through reverse culture shock.

Material culture. The artifacts and machines of daily life may differ drastically in a host culture. A three-wheeled motorcycle taxi ride can be a frightening experience in Bangkok traffic, not to mention riding behind the driver of a motor scooter taxi in Barahona, Dominican Republic. An American might have difficulties remaining comfortable in a cross-legged sitting position at a Japanese table, squatting over a Middle Eastern toilet, or confronting a European bidet. He or she may be confused by the nonuse of sink stoppers in Colombia, the procedures of a Japanese bath, or the fine points of tucking in the mosquito netting over a bed in south China.

Cuisine. An American abroad may be unprepared for the host-culture foods or for alcoholic beverages like Taiwanese kaoliang or Mexican mescal, not to mention such delicacies as maguey worms, fried grasshoppers, raw fish, dog stew, or sheep eyeballs. The social rules for drinking alcoholic beverages may differ, or there may be strict prohibition against any drinking at all.

Social groupings. Family structure, secondary groups, and social roles will differ in the host culture. In southern Europe, one might need to learn to deal with the family firm. Executives in many Third World countries may not have the same power to make decisions and to conclude agreements as their American counterparts. The American businessperson may need to spend hours sipping coffee and chatting with other supplicants in Mexican waiting rooms, to meticulously remember all the favors he must dutifully reciprocate in Japan, or to assimilate the lifelong familistic affair that Chinese businessmen in southeast Asia seek to make of commercial relationships.

Class and caste. The principle of transfer or promotion to higher prestige occupations or positions on the basis of professional merit will be opposed by defenders of a rigid gender or class system.

Religion. The expressions of religion may adorn offices, busses, and company machinery. The Muslim workday is interrupted up to five times for prayers, and the Middle Eastern work force is divided into those that observe a holy day and do not work on Friday, on Saturday, or on Sunday.

Personal space and body language. The primordial expressions of personal space and body language are modified by culture. While East Asian cultures maximize spacing, giving two persons room to bow, Eastern Mediterranean cultures prefer close face-to-face positions in which the communicants bathe each other in their breath.

Gestures. Gestures may sometimes mimic the real world, but are often arbitrary. Making a ring with thumb and index finger means “A-OK” in America, but is an obscenity in Brazil. To knock on a door in Mexico with a “shave and a haircut” rhythm also broadcasts an obscenity. A European executive nearly caused a riot in a restaurant in Oman when he unthinkingly passed a plate of food to his Arab counterpart with his left hand, which is associated with toilet hygiene.

Spoken language. It often comes as a shock the first time one finds oneself in a community where almost no one speaks his or her language. A common rudeness among travelers abroad is to discuss in their own language the host people and culture in the presence of individuals who they mistakenly presume do not understand.

Intercultural Training: Language, Background, And Behavior

A complete intercultural training will provide skills in the appropriate foreign language, general background knowledge of the culture, and mastery of the culturally appropriate behavior. Language instruction is costly and a great deal of time is required to achieve fluency. In contrast, cultural backgrounding and training for culturally appropriate behavior can be accomplished in as little as several days (Bhawuk, 1998; Landis & Bhagat, 1996; Serrie, 1989). ‘

Foreign Language Instruction

Ideally all personnel should speak the language of the host culture. However, contrary to accepted wisdom, fluency in the host language is not the most important part of a businessperson’s intercultural skills, although it is the most immediately apparent and impressive.

Language is a fundamental part of culture. While its structure is unrelated to cultural content, the vocabulary of any language carries all its important meanings and understandings. (Whorf, 1956, on the other hand, famously argued that the grammar of any language conditions unconscious thought.) In any case, it would be a mistake to assume that intercultural training can be imparted merely by requiring study of a foreign language. Important and subtle cultural nuances are indeed learned in the mastery of the vocabulary and grammar of any language. Often cultural behaviors are taught in the process of mastering standard or typical conversations. But there is a vast domain of understandings, behaviors, and material artifacts that cannot possibly be included in standard

language courses, and indeed are not the normal purview of language and linguistics. Only a limited number of these cultural elements are even written down and available in print. Most of them can only be learned in the field in the course of daily life. They must be practiced in actual real-life behavioral contexts in order to be fully mastered.

Mastering the appropriate behavior takes precedence over mastering the language. The two skills overlap, but are not the same. Mastery of the language is often presumed to indicate a prior knowledge of the forms of social interaction as well, despite the unlikelihood of more than a few simple interactional patterns being taught in a typical language class. There is a danger that if a foreign guest is fluent in the native language, he or she will be held to a higher standard of correct behavior as well.

Background Knowledge of the Host Culture

A working knowledge of the way society and government are organized is essential, along with a sense of important values and everyday mores and customs. Some familiarity with the history of a nation is important, and any additional knowledge of topics important to the host people will be an asset in ordinary interpersonal conversation. Such knowledge may even provide creative avenues to solving business problems in the host culture or to creating or introducing new products for its market.

Some nations take great pride in their archeology and the brilliant ancient civilizations that form their heritage. Ancient Greece, for example, developed the first democracy, the principles of logic, and the systematic inquiry into the natural world that led to modern science. Beginning in the Han Dynasty, ancient China developed a system of government schools and public competitive examinations that established the first meritocratic civil service. In the history of art, music, and literature, many nations have brilliant traditions. Icelanders of today are avid readers of their Icelandic Sagas and can identify their ancestors among the characters. A number of Latin American nations have been on the cutting edge of modern architecture.

Every nation in the world has elements of its culture in which it takes especial pride, and any knowledge of these topics, or any interest and willingness to learn about them from host nationals, can create rapport and build friendships across cultural boundaries. For a nation like Iceland, knowledge of its tectonic geology is not only fascinating in its own right, but directly related to its economic comparative advantages in geothermal energy, cheap electricity, and the production of aluminum.

A multidisciplinary course on the host nation or region will provide adequate background knowledge of the host culture. Documentary films and videos will provide visual amplification of the readings. In addition, feature films and novels from the host culture will provide vicarious experience of characters, personalities, conflicts, and resolutions that resonate with large audiences. Often this will whet an appetite to deepen one’s knowledge of the host culture over time.

During World War II, anthropologists carried out research at a distance on the cultures of the Axis Powers in an effort to aid the war effort. Such work was of inestimable value in providing intercultural understanding. The most famous and prescient work was Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), which provided America with guidelines that helped shape the Japanese unconditional surrender and successful postwar occupation. In the postwar period, Francis L. K. Hsu, in a series of books such as Americans and Chinese (1987), provided important insights into the fundamental cultural differences between those two cultures. In recent decades, a major analyst of cultural differences is Geert Hofstede, who in Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (1980) and other publications has provided a way to statistically measure differences in power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, and masculinity in the national cultures of the world.

Mastery of Culturally Appropriate Behavior

The bottom line of successful intercultural interaction is to master the appropriate behavior for each situation in which we will find ourselves. Mastering situation-specific behavior will require that we go beyond a general background knowledge of the host culture and acquire a mastery of the social roles that we will be expected to play there. Our social roles will have certain culturally standardized aspects, as in greeting and leave-taking, eating, drinking, and giftgiving, within and around which the concerns that are of importance to us and our counterparts may be acted out. We must know what is appropriate behavior for ourselves as men or women of our age and position, and we must know what is appropriate behavior for others, in such categories as women, men, children, and the elderly. We must know the distinctions of class and status that divide people, and the observances of various customs that punctuate the day.

Principles Of Intercultural Training

Focus on intercultural errors.

The most effective training techniques focus on the individual discerning and correcting intercultural mistakes. The nature of such mistakes and the harm they may cause must be clearly understood. Because of the tremendous complexities and challenges of life as an expatriate, some intercultural mistakes will probably be inevitable. Nevertheless, it is essential that the trainee learn to predict and avoid as many as possible and to discern and resolve all those that do occur.

  • Discern the Negative Cues: The trainee develops practice in discerning cues that an intercultural mistake has been made.

Someone playing the role of host counterpart reacts in a way counter to what the trainee would expect in his own culture. The cultural host does not understand the trainee’s behavior, she does not get the joke, she has ignored or forgotten the request, or she is unintentionally insulted or offended. Her facial expressions may be unexpectedly smiling, blank, cold, or angry.

  • Cease and Desist: In response to such cues, the trainee learns to withdraw from the offending behavior, backpedal, and try to restore equanimity. That failing, the trainee should apologize and leave the scene.
  • Seek Understanding: As soon as possible following an intercultural error, and in a private context, the trainee seeks an explanation from an intercultural confidant from the host culture. He understands the nature of his mistake and resolves not to repeat it in the future.
  • Make Amends: As soon as possible, the trainee tries to make amends with the offended party. An apology, sometimes accompanied by a small gift, will usually suffice. A trusted translator can often be invaluable in mending relationships following an intercultural error.

Intercultural Errors Are Not Always Predictable

There are many books available that list the “do’s and taboos” in specific countries or around the world. They usually provide many useful tips for successful intercultural adaptation, and they are worth consulting. However, they cannot possibly cover everything a businessperson needs to know about the host culture.

For some places, there is no available material. Even when cultural guidebooks are available, some of the advice may not apply in specific locales. Given the rapid rate of cultural change almost everywhere, some of the advice may be obsolete.

Some of the culturally specific appropriate behavior that we must learn in a foreign country is not clearly discernable. It is usually not verbalized and may not be in the conscious minds of host nationals—until we violate the patterns. Cultural rules do not follow a pattern that might be considered logical in one’s home culture. From an outsider point of view, they may seem arbitrary or even contradictory.

Not all appropriate behavior can be learned before we arrive in the host country. Because some of it is unpredictable, we can only learn it by trial and error. Intercultural training offers preparation not only in some of the predictable elements of the host culture, but also in the critical skills for coping with the unpredictable.

Make Use Of Persons From Other Cultures Or With Overseas Experience

Foreign nationals can provide invaluable assistance in any intercultural training. They are, after all, the native experts on their culture and they usually have had a great deal of experience observing the intercultural errors of visitors in their home country.

Those who have returned from overseas field assignments or programs are also invaluable in intercultural training. They are experts on culture shock and the intercultural adjustment to a host culture. They have personally and experientially been confronted with the challenge of integrating into a foreign culture. They usually have many practical tips on what to do and what not to do in the host culture.

Intercultural Guidelines

  • Responsibility: Assume responsibility for the outcomes of your actions.
  • Caution: Exercise caution. Imagine that you have been blindfolded. Proceed cautiously, feeling your way, perceiving obstacles, places without footing, and other dangers. Unless you are already familiar with the tacit rules for interaction and general behavior of the culture you are operating in, remember that you are culture-blind. Above all, do no harm.
  • Flexibility: Be flexible. Make every effort to be accepting or tolerant of cultural elements that jolt your ethnocentrism. Remember that in a foreign country you are a guest.
  • Understanding: Get to know people. This is done by expressing an interest in them, in aspects of their lives. It must be done in a friendly, polite, and interculturally appropriate way.
  • Sensitivity: Be sensitive to the people and the situation. Do not talk at people, but rather talk to them, talk with them. Try to leave each conversation having achieved a sense of mutual understanding. Do not exploit.
  • Reciprocity: Reciprocate the kindnesses various persons are likely to extend to you, whether you do this in a material or symbolic way. Make sure that the forms of your reciprocation are culturally appropriate. Be aware that the forms of reciprocation are culture specific, and that symbolic gestures may be equal to or greater than material gifts in certain situations.
  • Mediation: Find a friend or associate among your host country counterparts who can serve as an intercultural confidant. You must find someone trustworthy who will instruct you in the fine points of correct behavior in his or her culture, correcting your errors in a positive way and explaining the different worldview that lies behind the most innocuous exchanges. Ideally, this should be someone of the same gender, roughly the same age, with no linguistic barriers between you, no significant material benefits that one hopes to derive from the other, and with whom you have common interests. You might consider meeting a number of host country nationals before developing this relationship; sometimes the first person to befriend a newly arrived stranger is someone who is marginal to his own culture. Beyond the practical utility of this relationship, your loneliness and isolation will be eased in what often becomes a deep friendship.
  • Continuity: Stay in touch with the good friends you will have made in your host culture. The long-term relationships that you are able to sustain with international friends will enrich your life as all friends do and develop you as a successful cosmopolitan manager. (Serrie, 1986)

Intercultural Caveats

There is much abuse of the concept of cultural relativity. All cultures are not equal. There are vast technological differences among the present-day cultures of the world, with profound effects on economy, sociopolitical organization, and ideation. Morally, all cultures are not always good. Sometimes a national government, supported by a large majority of its people (such as Nazi Germany) will carry out programs of unmitigated evil (Hatch, 1983). As with human individuals, wealth and power do not automatically confer virtue on human cultures.

Anthropologists in the field attempt to study a culture on its own terms, and this is a useful approach for any expatriate coping with his or her host culture. Nevertheless, there are limits to what anyone should be compelled to think and do when abroad. There are two caveats, conditioned by morality and safety, that are important to remember in intercultural relations.

  • Intercultural Safety: Whatever the host culture may seem to permit, no one from any culture should engage in any behavior that he or she personally regards as dangerous to life or health.
  • Intercultural Morality: Whatever the host culture may seem to permit, no one from any culture should engage in any behavior that he or she personally regards as immoral.

References :

  • Benedict, R. (1946). The chrysanthemum and the sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Bhawuk, D. P. S. (1998). The role of culture theory in cross-cultural training. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(5), 630-655.
  • Brislin, R. W., Cushner, K., Cherrie, C., & Yong, M. (1986). Intercultural interactions: A practical guide. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  • Ferraro, G. P. (2006). The cultural dimensions of international business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Harris, M. (1966). The rise of anthropological theory: A history of theories of culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
  • Hatch, E. (1983). Culture and morality: The relativity of values in anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Haviland, W. A., Prins, H. E., Walrath, D., & McBride, B. (2007). The essence of anthropology. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  • Hsu, F. L. K. (1987). Americans and Chinese: Passages to differences (3rd ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Katzner, K. (1986). Languages of the world. London: Routledge.
  • Kelley, C., & Meyers, J. (2001). CCAI: Cross-cultural adaptability inventory. Minneapolis, MN: National Computer Systems.
  • Kroeber, A. L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.
  • Landis, D., & Bhagat, R. S. (Eds.). (1996). Handbook of intercultural training (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Prahalad, C. K. (2005). The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid: Eradicating poverty through profits. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.
  • Ricks, D. A. (1993). Blunders in international business. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Serrie, H. (Ed.). (1986). Anthropology and international business: Studies in third world societies (No 28). Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary.
  • Serrie, H. (1989). An anthropology-led major in international business. Practicing Anthropology, 11(4), 8-10.
  • Serrie, H. (1991, April 5). The large, lucrative peasant market. The Wall Street Journal, p. A12.
  • Serrie, H. (1992). Teaching cross-cultural management skills. Journal of Teaching in International Business, 3(3), 75-91.
  • Serrie, H. (Ed.). (1994). What can multinationals do for peasants? In Studies in third world societies (No. 49). Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary.
  • Sizoo, S., & Serrie, H. (2004). Developing cross-cultural skills of international business students: An experiment. Journal of Instructional Psychology 31(2), 160-166.
  • Terpstra, V., & Kenneth, K. D. (1991). The cultural environment of international business. Cincinnati, OH: South-Western Publishing.
  • Tylor, E. B. (1958). Primitive culture. New York: Harper Torch-books. (Original work published 1871)
  • Whorf, B. (1956). Language, thought and reality. Cambridge, UK: Technology Press.
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