What’s the difference between multicultural, intercultural, and cross-cultural communication?

What is culture? It seems like a straightforward question, but when talking about a person’s cultural background, the answer is actually quite complex. Culture in this context means a set of learned values, internalized practices, and shared beliefs among a group of people. We often think of it simultaneously as something internal and external, both locked inside us and overshadowing us. A more nuanced way to think about culture is that it’s something we perform and embody that changes over time. As we grow up, we get better and better at reproducing the cultures we are seen to be part of. And note that plural, cultures; we often participate in more than one, at different moments and contexts in our lives.

Multicultural Communication

Communication is a cultural practice like any other, shaped to a large degree by personal experience and tradition. Each culture often uses a particular language, though there is not a one-to-one correspondence; think of how many cultures use English! So, what happens when people performing different cultures interact?

The definitions of communication and its environments as multicultural, intercultural, or cross-cultural address some of the possibilities. Grasping the distinction is important for anyone about to enter an unfamiliar cultural context—which we all do, sometimes. With the right training, you can learn to approach these moments with the most appropriate mindset to communicate effectively.

Multicultural Communication

When people from multiple backgrounds, with different ways of communication, coexist without really interacting deeply—that’s a multicultural communication situation. There are multiple cultures present, but there isn’t much crossover or integration between the groups, who remain largely separate. Often, there is one group (or maybe a few) that has the most prestige relative to the others. This doesn’t have to be the case; instead, think of multicultural communication as the prerequisite for the other two types. There must be more than one culture to have the kind of moments produced by intercultural or cross-cultural communication. But sometimes, it takes resources (such as language services) or a shift in attitudes to move beyond this starting point. When interactions between people in different cultures occur in a solely multicultural context, they are rarely rich learning experiences for anyone involved.

Intercultural Communication

Like multicultural communication, intercultural communication acknowledges the coexistence of multiple cultures in a single space. However, it goes one step further by focusing on the productive encounters that are constantly taking place between cultures. If individuals can embody or perform multiple cultures, then any interaction between two people can potentially be an intercultural one. They may or may not share a common language; even within English, there are many cultures at play. But from a translation and interpreting point of view, an intercultural moment is perhaps most apparent when it happens across languages.

Training in language and culture is an important part of acclimating to an unfamiliar living situation, especially when moving abroad. After all, the point is not only to learn vocabulary and grammar, but also something of the worldview and practices. By being self-aware, and thinking of yourself as an active participant in multiple cultures, you enrich your own perspective.

Cross-Cultural Communication

This term is often confused with intercultural communication—but the two are not actually interchangeable!

The key aspect of cross-cultural communication is the comparison between two (or more) cultures. Researchers in this field attempt to objectively analyze the communication styles for the same contexts in different cultures.

For example, how do two groups differently handle a business situation like a job interview or board meeting? This kind of perspective is most useful for workers who are planning to relocate abroad.

Potential assignees should learn the relative difference of specific communicative moments from their own, which can help avoid culture shock. But sometimes the patterns found in specific cases are generalized into personality attributes that are applied to all cases.

Be careful with this assumption, as it can lead you to think everyone from a particular group is hopelessly different. Simply comparing the norms of how people behave does not on its own explain an entire culture, or its members.

Any given moment of communication can move through all three of these frames, depending on the participants’ behavior. It takes practice, but the more exposure you have, the better you will understand how an interaction is unfolding.

Then, you can adjust your own style of speaking and acting to find common ground, even without a common language. If there’s one quality all cultures share, it’s the expectation of being acknowledged—which is the foundation of being understood.

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