Intercultural Communication. A literature Review

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2010 26 Pages

Business economics - Business Management, Corporate Governance







2.1 Culture
2.2 Communication
2.3 Intercultural Communication

3.1 Needs for Intercultural Communication
3.2 Problems of Intercultural Communication

4.1 Intercultural Communication Model
4.2 Rainbow Model
4.3 A Contextual Model of Intercultural Communication
4.4 Dimensional Value Framework
4.4.1 Interpretive Approach
4.4.2 Critical Approach
4.4.3 Communication Approach





Figure 1: Intercultural Communication Model

Figure 2: The Rainbow Model of Intercultural Communication

Figure 3: A Contextual Model of Intercultural Communication


Intercultural communication is becoming more and more essential in a globalized world. A couple of years ago, only international managers or diplomats needed to think about intercultural communication and its challenges. Today, this has changed and “ordinary” people from all over the world and different cultural backgrounds come into contact with each other on a regular base.

The different reasons, primarily driven by technology and globalization as well as the related challenges are presented in the following pages.

This paper presents different frameworks, which help to describe and understand the important elements and issues in intercultural communication. The presented models accept as a prerequisite that all individuals are being affected or interrelated by multiple cultures in various amounts and purposes. The Intercultural Communication Model, the Rainbow Model, A Contextual Model of Intercultural Communication as well as the recent Dimensional Value Framework will be presented and explained in this paper.

All of the four frameworks theorize the relationship between communication and culture while using different approaches and assumptions. As a first result it can be said, that there is no universal valid model on how to communicate in an intercultural context. All frameworks offer helpful guidance and recommendations on how to react within certain circumstances. Which model to use, depends on individual preferences and traceability of each and every one of us.


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Today, we all live in a world where many cultures and languages or styles of communication merge together and cross each other more and more frequently. This development has also documented the Centre for Intercultural Communication (CIC) at The University of British Columbia and recognizes that understanding and respect between cultures is the key to success in our global world. The CIC focuses its research on intercultural awareness, understanding and skill development for today’s increasingly global academic and business environments.

Intercultural communication is the discipline that develops principles and guidelines in order to optimize the process of exchanging verbal and non-verbal information across cultural borders. One of the primary goals is the preservation of mutual respect between all communication partners. The importance of the underlying topic has risen drastically, primarily driven by two factors:

- The enormous technological improvements in transportation and communication made it possible to interact with nearly all cultures around the globe. The internet opens opportunities to communicate in real-time while low cost airlines transfer people in unfamiliar milieu’s. It was never as easy as it was today to cross cultural boundaries virtually and physically.
- Other people believe that the ongoing globalization is radically reducing cultural diversity and therefore minimized the risk of misunderstandings and also equalizing people. Many symbols, brands and beliefs make people feel culturally integrated while traveling around the globe.

All these global economic developments have increased communicative exchanges across cultural borders as a consequence. It is significantly important, that research on cultures and communication is being done to minimize the risk of making elementary mistakes. In addition it is also very practical to set clear guidelines for everyone acting globally in order to understand the backgrounds as well as certain purposes of interactions. T]here are already ways how to behave when language skills are not equal, for example avoiding slang, using a minimum of words, use body language, careful listening and respect towards the local communication styles.

The purpose of the presented research paper is to provide an insight into the discussions and developments in the field of intercultural communication from an academic point-of-view. Due to the diverse range of topics dealt within this discipline, spreading from the classical cultural models like the dimensions from Hofstede to the role of communication within a social science approach, this paper will present an overview of the predominant theories and models. Beforehand, the notions of “culture” and “communication” will be defined in order to have a clear and common understanding how intercultural communication is interpreted in this research paper. The classification of theories is then mainly based on the timely development of major frameworks and knowledge, used in the different approaches, e.g. the Rainbow Model and the Dimensional Value Framework.

The outcome of the extensive literature review on intercultural communication will be a critical review of the described models, their applicability and degree of realization. At the end, the reader will be provided with a derivation of further questions which arose and should be discussed during future research in this field of study.


In this chapter, the definition of intercultural communication will be presented. Furthermore the reader will be provided with an overview of some basic definitions on culture and communication.

2.1 Culture

There are different ways to define the term culture. While in the 19th century the term was used as a synonym for Western civilization, today culture is defined differently. On the one hand, the term “culture” refers to all the characteristics common to a particular group of people that are learned and not given by nature (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952). According to Prosser (1978) culture is defined as traditions, customs, norms, beliefs, values and thought patterning passed down from generation to generation. In 1988 Collier and Thomas characterized culture as a historically transmitted system of symbols and norms used by any symbol system that is bounded and salient to individuals. According to Singer (1998) culture can be described as a pattern of learned, group-related perceptions - including both verbal and non-verbal language, attitudes, values, belief systems, disbelief systems and behaviors that is accepted and expected by an identity group. In 2000 Wang et al. identified culture as the human part of environment which reflects widely shared assumptions about life. Furthermore they state that culture becomes evident when someone encounters someone from another country who deviates from their own cultural norms and that culture is transmitted from generation to generation (Wang, et al. 2000). However, culture can be considered as the sum of total ways of living including behavioral norms, linguistic expression, styles of communication, patterns of thinking and beliefs and values of a group large enough to be self-sustaining transmitted over the course of generations.

2.2 Communication

Generally, communication can be described as a process of intentionally stimulating meaning in other humans through the use of symbols. However, there exist several approaches to describe it. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle described the process of communication as involving a speaker, the speech act, an audience and a purpose. Samovar and Porter (1991) base their definition of the term “communication” on the intentional communication. Communication can be defined as a dynamic transactional behavior-affecting process in which people behave intentionally in order to induce or elicit a particular response from another person (Samovar and Porter, Communication between cultures 1991). According to Infante et al. (1993) communication occurs when symbols are manipulated by one person to stimulating meaning in another person. Other than that, communication can also be defined as a symbolic process in which people create shared meanings (Lustig and Koester 1996).

2.3 Intercultural Communication

In general, intercultural communication refers to communication among people of diverse cultures. But there is not only one way of defining intercultural communication. Some authors describe intercultural communication as communication across cultures (Asante, Newmark and Blake, 1979, p.11 in Pinto 2000) or communication between people from different cultures (Gudykunst, 1983, p.13 in Pinto 2000). According to Collier and Thomas (1988) intercultural communication can be described as a communication between persons who identify themselves as distinct from others in a cultural sense. Samovar and Porter (1991) state that intercultural communication occurs whenever a message is produced by a member of one culture for consumption by a member of another culture, a message must be understood. In the “Culture’s Consequences”, Hofstede (1980) examined the relationships between employees and management in over forty different cultures. While he presents an immediate explanation of how the communication in management is influenced by the culture, other authors build on this basic research. Gudykunst and Kim (1984) argue that intercultural communication should be seen as a dialogical process, in which the persons involved are both - addressee and addressed.


This chapter will show what the needs as well as the problems and challenges of intercultural communication are. The identified needs and problems provide the reader with basic insights why it is absolute reasonable that diverse scientific frameworks and models address this topic in a comprehensive way. Different approaches will be presented in the subsequent chapter 4.

3.1 Needs for Intercultural Communication

After several definitions on intercultural communication have been discussed, the following question can be raised: Why is intercultural communication important? There are numerous reasons why it is important:

- People and cultures come together more than ever before because of the enormous growth in population and rapid progress in mass communication as well as mass transport (Pinto 2000, p. 11).
- The communication and establishment of relationships with people from different cultures can lead to various benefits (e.g. healthier communities, increasing of international, national and local commerce, reduction of conflict and personal growth through increased tolerance) (Neuliep 2006, pp. 2 - 4).
- The effective communication across cultures can minor and/or remove barriers of misunderstanding that separate different cultural groups from one another. Furthermore goals that benefit everyone can be achieved and in addition economic advantages occur (Neuliep 2006, pp. 2 - 4).

3.2 Problems of Intercultural Communication

In 1985, Jens Allwood has identified some problems of intercultural communication. Those aspects and a short explanation to each of them are listed below:

- Lack of understanding, meaning the failure in interpreting parts or all of what a person has said to another person.
- Misunderstanding, meaning that an interpretation made is inadequate or incorrect. The risk that poor understanding will lead to misunderstanding is dependent on some factors like strong expectation concerning communicative contents, insufficient awareness of lack of understanding the other’s cultural background, ability to speak the language used for the communication.
- Emotional reactions and actions adhering with the process of understanding and misunderstanding. Since emotional reactions are usually associated with desire and dispositions towards a person’s behavior, the consequence can be that actions built upon misunderstanding are taken.
- Interruption and breakdown, meaning that a communication is interrupted and breaks down, because one of the conversational partners disrupts the other and subsequently this person refuses to communicate with the other person.
- Communication on the conditions of only one party, meaning that there is a power difference between both communicating individuals. Therefore one of the parties gives up and starts communicating completely on the conditions of the other party.
- Communication via a third party, indicating that there is an enormous need of communication between two individuals, but they are not able to speak to each other’s language and therefore they choose to communicate via a third party.


In the following chapter the reader will get an overview on the four most important identified frameworks of the intercultural communication.

4.1 Intercultural Communication Model

In their Intercultural Communication Model, Samovar and Porter (1997) point out that as cultures differ from one another, the communication practices and behaviors of people will inevitably vary as a result of their different perceptions of the world. Intercultural communication can therefore be defined as the study of communication between people whose cultural awareness and symbol systems are sufficiently distinguished to modify their communication. They exemplify the process of how the meaning of a message changes when it is encoded by a person from one culture and decoded by a person from another culture. Possibly, this message will then be interpreted differently than it was intended. Their model indicates the possibility of misunderstandings which always exist in intercultural communication, especially if a huge difference within each culture can be identified.

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Figure 1: Intercultural Communication Model by Samovar and Porter (1997)

The figure above shows three different cultures (A, B and C). While the cultures “A” and “B” are considered to be quite similar, culture “C” is somewhat different. It can be recognized that within each culture there is another form similar to the shape of the influencing parent culture. This form represents the person who has been constituted by the parent culture. Since people are all influenced differently by the parent culture (e.g. age, gender, class, race, etc.), the shape of the person is to some extent different from the parent culture. The arrows connecting the figures represent the production, transmission and interpretation of messages across cultures. So, for example, a message leaving culture “A” carries the content of this message as it is intended to culture “B”. However, this message changes when reaching culture “B”, because the new culture influences how this message has to be interpreted. The greater the differences among the cultures, the more likely the message will be construed in another way than intended. When looking at the cultures of the model again, it can be recognized that the difference occurring between the cultures “A” and “B” is less than the one between cultures “B” and “C”. This is because culture “C” is quite different from the other two cultures. Due to the greater similarity among cultures, cultures “A” and “B” interpret the message nearly the same, whereas culture “C” interprets the message more differently. Samovar and Porter (1997) illustrate that the amount of influence a culture has on communication between cultures clearly depends on the similarity of the cultures: the more the cultures are similar to each other, the less influence culture will have on communication. Since cultural differences result from the differing perceptions of cultures and determine how people communicate with people from another culture, it is important to understand how people of different cultures perceive the world, their values and beliefs in order to anticipate potential intercultural misunderstandings.

4.2 Rainbow Model

The goal of achieving a high degree of communication competence in intercultural contact situations is a very challenging task, because the exposed risks of misinterpretations due to different cultural and contextual relevant behaviors are often factors that foster failures in these tasks. Major driving factors for the increased misunderstandings in intercultural communications are increased levels of uncertainty, ambiguity, anxiety, and excessive demands on knowledge or rather over motivated skills and performance application (Gudykunst and Kim 2003). These changes require further development and adaptation of an appropriate and effective framework to succeed in intercultural contexts. The constantly growing complexity and globalization of the world requires a steady evolution of interactive perspectives and approaches to life. The modern understanding of intercultural communication is no exception to this necessity, especially in regard to the question, what makes a person a capable communicator across cultural boundaries and how is it possible to improve, evaluate and further develop this key competence.



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European School of Business Reutlingen – Business Administration
Interkulturelle Kommunikation Communication Culture Intercultural Communication Model



Title: Intercultural Communication. A literature Review