"What is intercultural communication?"

This article outlines our description of the key course topic. “Intercultural communication” is based on contact (communication) between at least two persons of cultural backgrounds with differences that may affect the encounter.

There are three important elements that mark a communicative act as intercultural. They are generally:

  • contact (communication)
  • between different cultures (inter-), where
  • the cultural differences make a difference in the process.

First, contact. It does not matter whether the contact is face to face or through a medium (e.g., letter, email, online games, social media, etc.), but there must be some kind of interaction taking place. We are lucky to live in an era with fast developing information and communication technology (ICT). These ICTs, along with increasingly speedy modes of global transport, facilitate communication on multiple platforms with audiences from all around the world.

Secondly, there must be cultural differences between people who are in contact. Here cultural differences can be categorized by nationality, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, age/generation, geographical region, political ideology, body (dis)ability, sexual orientation, etc. None of us belong to only one type of cultural group, so it is natural that several of these categories might apply in one interaction. In certain contexts, one or more of the cultural categories would be salient or singled out in comparison with others. None of the categories would define us all the time. For example, a female engineer might be culturally more similar to a male engineer at work, but quite different in their socializing behavior. A Buddhist from India and a Buddhist from China might share more cultures than their apparent differences in nationality or language.

This leads to the third element listed above, that the cultural difference (no matter which category it is) must influence the communication. The mere existence of cultural differences is the prerequisite for intercultural communication, but it is not necessarily the marker of such. The cultural differences have to influence the interaction in order to qualify the process as intercultural communication. Going back to the engineer’s example, we could say that the technical talks between the two engineers are probably not affected by their genders, and thus are not considered intercultural. On the other hand, the two Buddhists could be interacting interculturally if their understanding of the same Buddhist classics or teaching is different due to translation variations.

To summarize, you can characterize any communication interaction as being more or less intercultural if you can identify whether there is cultural difference and how it influences the communicative event. There is no magic line to draw to isolate “intercultural” from other types of communication. Although in practice, we often equate cultural differences to groups divided by nationality, ethnicity, or race, it is important that you keep in mind a broader understanding of cultures that each of us embody. Some of the definitions we find helpful in guiding our discussion are listed in the previous step (and cited in the downloadable article).

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)