10 Group Communication Across Cultures

Introductory Exercises

  1. Find a film where one person overcomes all obstacles. Make notes of your observations on how he or she approaches the world, solves problems, and rises triumphant.
  2. Find a film where a group of people overcome obstacles through joint effort. Make notes of your observations on how they approach the world, solve problems, and rise triumphant.
  3. Consider a culture with which you have had little interaction. Write down at least five terms to describe that culture.
Getting Started

Communication, both oral and written, linked communities in ways that we failed to recognize until economic turmoil in one place led to job loss, in a matter of days and minutes, thousands of miles away. A system of trade and the circulation of capital and goods that once flowed relatively seamlessly has been challenged by change, misunderstanding, and conflict. People learn of political, economic, and military turmoil that is instantly translated into multiple market impacts.

Integrated markets and global networks bind us together in ways we are just now learning to appreciate, anticipate, and understand. Intercultural and international communication are critical areas of study with readily apparent, real-world consequences.

Intercultural and international communication has taken on a new role for students as well as career professionals. Knowing when the European and Asian markets open has become mandatory; so has awareness of multiple time zones and their importance in relation to trade, shipping, and the production cycle. Managing production in China from an office in Chicago has become common. Receiving technical assistance for your computer often means connecting with a well- educated English speaker in New Delhi. We compete with each other via ELance.com or oDesk.com for contracts and projects, selecting the currency of choice for each bid as we can be located anywhere on the planet. Communities are no longer linked as simply “brother” and “sister” cities in symbolic partnerships. They are linked in the daily trade of goods and services.

In this chapter we explore this dynamic aspect of communication. If the foundation of communication is important, its application in this context is critical. As Europe once formed intercontinental alliances for the trade of metals, leading to the development of a common currency, trade zone, and new concept of nation-state, now North and South America are following with increased integration. Major corporations are no longer affiliated with only one country, or one country’s interests, but perceive the integrated market as team members across global trade. “Made in X” is more of a relative statement as products, from cars to appliances to garments, now come with a list of where components were made, assembled, and what percentage corresponds to each nation.

Global business is more than trade between companies located in distinct countries; indeed, that concept is already outdated. Intercultural and international business focuses less on the borders that separate people and more on the communication that brings them together. Business communication values clear, concise interaction that promotes efficiency and effectiveness. Effective teams and groups are the core of this interaction. You may perceive your role as a communicator within a specific city, business or organization, but you need to be aware that your role crosses cultures, languages, value and legal systems, and borders.

10.1   Intercultural Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Define and discuss how to facilitate intercultural communication.
  2. Define and discuss the effects of ethnocentrism.

Communication is the sharing of understanding and meaning, [1]but what is intercultural communication? If you answered, “the sharing of understanding and meaning across cultures,” you’d be close, but the definition requires more attention. What is a culture? Where does one culture stop and another start? How are cultures  created,  maintained,  and  dissolved? Klopf[2]described culture as “that part of the environment made by humans.” From the building we erect that represents design values to the fences we install that delineate borders,   our environment is a representation of culture, but it is not all that is culture.

Culture involves beliefs, attitudes, values, and traditions that are shared by a group of people. Thus, we must consider more than the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, or the video games we play, all representations of environment, as culture. Culture also involves the psychological aspects of our expectations of the communication context. For example, if we are raised in a culture where males speak while females are expected to remain silent, the context of the communication interaction governs behavior, itself a representation of culture.  From the choice of words (message), to how we communicate (in person, or by email), to how we acknowledge understanding with a nod or a glance (nonverbal feedback), to the internal and external interference, all aspects of communication are influenced by culture.

In defining intercultural communication, we only have eight components of communication to work with, and yet we must bridge divergent cultures with distinct values across languages and time zones to exchange value, a representation of meaning. It may be tempting to consider only the source and receiver within a transaction as a representation of intercultural communication, but if we do that, we miss the other six components—the message, channel, feedback, context, environment, and interference—in every communicative act. Each component influences and is influenced by culture. Is culture context? Environment? Message? Culture is represented in all eight components every time we communicate. All communication is intercultural.

We may be tempted to think of intercultural communication as interaction between two people from different countries. While two distinct national passports may be artifacts, or nonverbal representations of communication, what happens when two people from two different parts of the same country communicate? From high and low Germanic dialects, to the perspective of a Southerner versus a Northerner in the United States, to the rural versus urban dynamic, our geographic, linguistic, educational, sociological, and psychological traits influence our communication.

It is not enough to say that someone from rural Southern Chile and the capital, Santiago, both speak Castellano (the Chilean word for the Spanish language), so that communication between them must be intracultural communication, or communication within the same culture. What is life like for the rural Southerner?   For the city dweller? Were their educational experiences the same? Do they share the same vocabulary? Do they value the same things? To a city dweller, all the sheep look the same. To the rural Southerner, the sheep  are  distinct,  with  unique markings; they have value as a food source, a source of wool with which to create sweaters and socks that keep the cold winters at bay, and, in their numbers, they represent wealth. Even if both Chileans speak the same language, their socialization will influence how they communicate and  what  they  value,  and  their  vocabulary will reflect these differences.

Let’s take this intra-national comparison one step further. Within the same family, can there be intercultural communication? If all communication is intercultural, then the answer would be yes, but we still have to prove our case. Imagine a three- generation family living in one house. The grandparents may represent another time, and different values, from the grandchildren. The parents may have a different level of education and pursue different careers from the grandparents; the schooling the children are receiving may prepare them for yet another career.  From music, to food preferences, to how work is done may vary across time; Elvis Presley may seem like ancient history to the children. The communication across generations represents intercultural communication, even if only to a limited degree.

But suppose we have a group of students who are all similar in age and educational level. Do gender and the societal expectations of roles influence interaction? Of course. And so we see that, among these students, the boys and girls not only communicate in distinct ways, but not all boys and girls are the same. With a group of sisters, there may be common characteristics, but they will still have differences, and these differences contribute to intercultural communication. We are each shaped by our upbringing and it influences our world view, what we value, and how we interact with each other. We create culture, and it creates us.

Rogers and Steinfatt [3] define intercultural communication as the exchange of information between individuals who are “unalike culturally.” If you follow our discussion and its implications, you may arrive at the idea that    ultimately we are each a “culture of one”—we are simultaneously a part of community and its culture(s), and separate from it in the unique combination that represents us as an individual. All of us are separated by a matter of degrees from each other even if we were raised on the same street, by parents of similar educational background and profession, and have many other things in common.

Communication with yourself is called intrapersonal communication, and it may also be intracultural, as you may only represent one culture, but most people belong to many groups, each with their own culture. Within our imaginary intergenerational home, how many cultures do you think we might find? If we only consider the parents, and consider work one culture, and family another, we now have two. If we were to examine the options more closely, we would find many more groups, and the complexity would grow exponentially. Does a conversation with yourself ever involve competing goals, objectives, needs, wants, or values?  How did you learn of those goals, or values? Through communication within and between individuals, they themselves representatives of many cultures. We struggle with the demands of each group, and their expectations, and could consider this internal struggle intercultural conflict, or simply intercultural communication.

Culture is part of the very fabric of our thought, and we cannot separate ourselves from it, even as we leave home, defining ourselves anew in work and achievement. Every business or organization has a culture, and within what may be considered a global culture, there are many subcultures or co-cultures. For example, consider the difference between the sales and accounting departments in a corporation: we can quickly see two distinct groups, with their own symbols, vocabulary, and values.  Within each group there may also be smaller groups, and each member of each department comes from a distinct background that in itself influences behavior and interaction.

Intercultural communication is a fascinating area of study within group or organizational communication, and essential to your success. One idea to keep in mind as we examine this topic is the importance of considering multiple points of view. If you tend to dismiss ideas or views that are “unalike culturally,” you will find it challenging to learn about diverse cultures. If you cannot learn, how can you grow and be successful?

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to view other cultures as inferior to one’s own. Having pride in your culture can be healthy, but history has taught us that having a predisposition to discount other cultures simply because they are different can be hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. Ethnocentrism makes us far less likely to be able to bridge the gap with others and often increases intolerance of difference. Business and industry are no longer regional, and in your career you will necessarily cross borders, languages, and cultures. You will need tolerance, understanding, patience, and openness to difference. A skilled communicator knows that the process of learning is never complete, and being open to new ideas is a key strategy for success.

Key Takeaways

  • Intercultural communication is an aspect of all communicative interactions, and attention to your own perspective is key to your effectiveness.
  • Ethnocentrism is a major obstacle to intercultural communication.


  1. Please list five words to describe your dominant culture. Please list five words to describe a culture with which you are not a member, have little or no contact, or have limited knowledge. Now compare and contrast the terms noting their inherent value statements.
  2. Identify a country you would like to visit. Research the country and find one interesting business fact and share it with the class.
  3. Write a brief summary about a city, region, state, or country you have visited that is not like where you live. Share and compare with classmates.

10.2  How to Understand Intercultural Communication

Learning Objective

Describe strategies to understand intercultural communication, prejudice, and ethnocentrism.

The American anthropologist Edward T. Hall is often cited as a pioneer in the field of intercultural communication. [4] Born in 1914, Hall spent much of his early adulthood in the multicultural setting of the  American  Southwest, where Native Americans,  Spanish-speakers,  and  descendants  of  pioneers  came together from  diverse  cultural  perspectives.  He  then  traveled  the  globe  during  World War II and later  served  as  a  State  Department  official.  Where  culture  had once been viewed by anthropologists as a single, distinct way of living, Hall saw how      the perspective of the individual influences interaction. By focusing  on  interactions, rather than cultures as separate from individuals, he asked us to evaluate  the  many cultures we ourselves belong to or are influenced by, as well as those with whom we interact. While his view makes the study of intercultural communication far  more complex, it also brings a healthy dose of reality to the discussion. Hall  is  generally credited  with  eight  contributions  to   our   study   of   intercultural communication: [5],[6]

  1. Comparing cultures. Focus on the interactions versus general observations of culture.
  2. Shift to local perspective. Local level versus global perspective.
  3. You don’t have to know everything to know something. Time, space, gestures, and gender roles can be studied, even if we lack a larger understanding of the entire culture.
  4. There are rules we can learn. People create rules for themselves in each community that we can learn from, compare, and contrast.
  5. Experience counts. Personal experience has value in addition to more comprehensive studies of interaction and culture.
  6. Differences in perspective. Descriptive linguistics serves as a model to understand cultures, and the US Foreign Service adopted it as a base for training.
  7. Application to International Business. Foreign Service trainings yielded applications to trade and commerce, and became a point of study for business majors.
  8. Integration of the disciplines. Culture and communication are intertwined, and bring together many academic disciplines.

Hall[7]shows us that emphasis on a culture as a whole, and how it operates, may lead us to neglect individual differences. Individuals may hold beliefs or practice customs that do not follow their own cultural norm. When we resort to the mental shortcut of a stereotype, we lose these unique differences. Stereotypes can be defined as a generalization about a group of people that oversimplifies their culture. [8]

The American psychologist Gordon Allport [9]explored how, when, and why we formulate or use stereotypes to characterize distinct groups. His results may not surprise you. Look back at Introductory Exercise #3 and examine the terms you used to describe a culture with which you are unfamiliar. Were the terms flattering, or pejorative? Did they reflect respect for the culture, or did they make unfavorable value judgments? Regardless    of how you answered, you proved Allport’s main point. When we do not have  enough contact with people or their cultures to understand them well, we tend to resort to stereotypes. [10]

As Hall [11]notes, experience has value. If you do not know a culture, you should consider learning more about it firsthand if possible. The people you interact with may not be representative of the culture as a whole, that is not to say that what you learn lacks validity. Quite the contrary; Hall asserts that you can, in fact, learn something without understanding everything, and given the dynamic nature of communication and culture, who is to say that your lessons will not serve you well? Consider a study abroad experience if that is an option for you, or learn from a classmate who comes from a foreign country or an unfamiliar culture. Be open to new ideas and experiences, and start investigating. Many have gone before you, and today, unlike in generations past, much of the information is accessible. Your experiences will allow you to learn about another culture and yourself, and help you to avoid prejudice.

Prejudice involves a negative preconceived  judgment  or  opinion  that  guides conduct or social behavior. [12]As an example, imagine two people walking into a room for a job  interview.  You  are  tasked  to  interview  both,  and having read the previous section, you know that Allport rings true when he says we rely on stereotypes when encountering people or cultures  with  which  we  have  had little contact. Will  the  way  these  candidates  dress,  their  age  or  gender  influence your opinion of them? Will their race or ethnicity be a  conscious  or  subconscious factor in  your  thinking  process?  Allport’s  work  would  indicate  that  those  factors and more will make  you  likely  to  use  stereotypes  to  guide  your  expectations  of them and your subsequent interactions with them.

People who treat other with prejudice often make assumptions, or take preconceived ideas for granted without question, about the group or communities. As Gordon Allport illustrated for us, we often assume characteristics about groups with which we have little contact. Sometimes we also assume similarity, thinking that people are all basically similar. This denies cultural, racial, ethnic, socio- economic, and many other valuable, insightful differences.

Key Takeaway

  • Ethnocentric tendencies, stereotyping, and assumptions of similarity can make it difficult to learn about cultural differences.


1.      People sometimes assume that learning about other cultures is unnecessary if we simply treat others as we would like to be treated. To test this assumption, try answering the following questions.


a.      When receiving a gift from a friend, should you open it immediately, or wait to open it in private?

b.     When grocery shopping, should you touch fruits and vegetables to evaluate their freshness?

c.      In a conversation with your instructor or your supervisor at work, should you maintain direct eye contact?


Write down your answers before reading further. Now let’s explore how these questions might be answered in various cultures.


a.      In Chile, it is good manners to open a gift immediately and express delight and thanks. But in Japan it is a traditional custom to not open a gift in the giver’s presence.

b.     In the United States, shoppers typically touch, hold, and even smell fruits and vegetables before buying them. But in northern Europe this is strongly frowned upon.


c.      In mainstream North American culture, people are expected to look directly at each other when having a conversation. But a cultural norm for many Native Americans involves keeping one’s eyes lowered as a sign of respect when speaking to an instructor or supervisor.


No one can be expected to learn all the “dos and don’ts” of the world’s myriad cultures; instead, the key is to keep an open mind, be sensitive to other cultures, and remember that the way you’d like to be treated is not necessarily the way others would appreciate.


2.  Please write a short paragraph where your perception of someone was changed once you got to know them. Share and compare with your classmates.


10.3  Common Cultural Characteristics

Learning Objective

Understand the concept of common cultural characteristics and list several examples of such characteristics in your own life.

While we may be members of many different cultures, we tend to adhere to some more than others. Perhaps you have become friendly with several of your fellow students as you’ve pursued your studies in college. As you take many of the same classes and share many experiences on campus, you begin to have more and more in common, in effect forming a small group culture of your own. A similar cultural formation process may happen in the workplace, where coworkers spend many hours each week sharing work experiences and getting to know each other socially in the process.

Groups come together, form cultures, and grow apart across time. How does one become a member of a community, and how do you know when you are full member? What aspects of culture do we have in common and how do they relate to communication? Researchers who have studied cultures around the world have identified certain characteristics that define a culture. These characteristics are expressed in different ways, but they tend to be present in nearly all cultures. Let’s examine them.

Rites of Initiation

Cultures tend to have a ritual for becoming a new member. A newcomer starts out as a non-entity, a stranger, an unaffiliated person with no connection or even possibly awareness of the community. Later, newcomers who stay around and learn about the culture become members. Most cultures have a rite of initiation that marks the passage of the individual within the community; some of these rituals may be so informal as to be hardly noticed (e.g., the first time a coworker asks you to join the group to eat lunch together), while others may be highly formalized (e.g., the ordination of clergy in a religion). The non-member becomes a member, the new member becomes a full member, and individuals rise in terms of responsibility and influence.

Business communities are communities first, because without communication interaction, no business will occur. Even if sales and stock are processed by servers that link database platforms to flow, individuals are still involved in the maintenance, repair, and development of the system. Where there is communication, there is culture, and every business has several cultures.

Across the course of your life you have no doubt passed several rites of initiation but may not have taken notice of them. Did you earn a driver’s license? Register to vote? The permission to purchase alcohol? In North American culture, these three common markers indicate the passing from a previous stage of life to a new one, with new rights and responsibilities. As a child, you were not allowed to have a driver’s license. At age 14–18, depending on your state and location (rural versus urban), you were allowed to drive a tractor, use farm equipment, operate a motor vehicle during daylight hours, or have full access to public roads. With the privilege of driving comes responsibility. It is your responsibility to learn what the signs and signals mean, and to obey traffic laws for the common safety. In order for stop signs to work, we all have to agree on the behavior associated with them and observe that behavior.

Sometimes people choose to ignore a stop sign, or accidentally miss one, and it places the public in danger. Law enforcement officials serve to help reinforce that common safety as representatives of the culture, empowered by the people themselves based on a common agreement of what a stop sign means, and what a driver is supposed to do when approaching one. Some people may argue that law enforcement serves some while prosecuting others, and this debate point may deserve consideration, but across cultures there are rules, signs, and symbols that we share.

Rites of initiation mark the transition of the role or status of the individual within the group. Your first day on the job may have been a challenge as you learned your way around the physical space, but the true challenge was to learn how the group members communicate with each other. If you graduate from college with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, you will already have passed a series of tests, learned terms and theories, and possess a symbol of accomplishment in your diploma, but that only grants you the opportunity to look for a job—to seek access to a new culture.

In every business there are groups, power struggles, and unspoken ways that members earn their way from the role of a “newbie” to that of a full member. The newbie may get the tough account, or the office without a window, or the cubicle next to the bathroom, denoting low status. As the new member learns to navigate the community and establish a track record of success, promotions, themselves a rite of initiation, bring new rights and responsibilities.

Over time, the person comes to be an important part of the business, a “keeper of the flame.” The “flame” may not exist in physical space or time, but it does exist in the minds of those members in the community who have invested time and effort in the business. It is not a flame to be trusted to a new person, and like trust, it can only be earned across time. Along the way there may be personality conflicts and power struggles over resources, and perceived scarcity (i.e., there is only one promotion and you want it). All of these challenges are to be expected in any culture.

Common History and Traditions

 Think for a moment about the history of a business like Ford Motor Company—what are your associations with Henry Ford, the assembly line manufacturing system, or the Model T? Or the early days of McDonald’s? Do you have an emotional response to mental images of the “golden arches” logo, Ronald McDonald, or the Big Mac sandwich? Traditions form as the organization grows and expands, and many of the stories are told and retold, serving to educate new members on how business should be conducted. The history of every culture, of every corporation, influences the present. There are times when the phrase “we’ve tried that before” can become stumbling block for members of the organization as it grows and adapts to new market forces. There may be struggles between members who have weathered many storms and new members, who come armed with new educational perspectives, technological tools, or experiences that may contribute to growth.

Common Values and Principles

Cultures all hold values and principles that are shared in common and are communicated from older members to younger (or newer) ones. Time and length of commitment are associated with an awareness of these values and principles, so that new members, whether they are socialized at home, in school, or at work, may not have a thorough understanding of their importance. For example, time (fast customer service) and cleanliness are two cornerstone values of the McDonald’s corporation. A new employee may take these for granted, while a seasoned professional who inspects restaurants may see the continued need to reinforce these core values. Without reinforcement, norms may gradually change, and if this were the case it could fundamentally change the customer experience associated with McDonald’s.

Common Purpose and Sense of Mission 

Cultures share a common sense of purpose and mission. Why are we here, and whom do we serve? These are fundamental questions of the human condition that philosophers and theologians the world over have pondered for centuries. In business, the answers to these questions often address purpose and mission, and they can be found in mission and vision statements of almost every organization. Individual members will be expected to acknowledge and share the mission and vision, and actualize them, or make them real through action. Without action, the mission and vision statements are simply an arrangement of words. As a guide to individual and group behavioral norms, they can serve as a powerful motivator and a call to action.

Common Symbols, Boundaries, Status, Language, and Rituals

Most of us learn early in life what a stop sign represents, but do we know what military stripes represent on a sleeve, or a 10-year service pin on a lapel, or a corner office with two windows? Cultures have common symbols that mark them as a group, and the knowledge of what a symbol stands for helps to reinforce who is a group member and who is not. You may have a brand on your arm from your fraternity, or wear a college ring—symbols that represent groups you affiliate with temporarily, while you are a student. They may or may not continue to hold meaning to you when your college experience is over. Cultural symbols include dress, such as the Western business suit and tie, the Scottish kilt, or the Islamic headscarf; symbols also include slogans or sayings, such as “You’re in good hands” or “You deserve a break today.” The slogan may serve a marketing purpose, but may also embrace a mission or purpose within the culture. Family crests and clan tartan patterns serve as symbols of affiliation, and symbols can be used to communicate rank and status within the group.

Space is another common cultural characteristic; it may be one nonverbal symbol that represents status and power. In most of the world’s cultures, a person occupying superior status is entitled to a physically elevated position—a throne, a dais, a podium from which to address subordinates. Subordinates may be expected to bow, curtsy, or lower their eyes as a sign of respect. In business, the corner office may offer the best view with the most space. Movement from a cubicle to a private office may also be a symbol of transition within an organization, involving increased responsibility as well as power. Parking spaces, what kind of vehicle you drive, and what your transportation allowance is may also serve to communicate symbolic meaning within an organization.

The office serves our discussion on the second point concerning boundaries. Would you sit on your boss’s desk, or sit in his or her chair with your feet up on the desk, in your boss’s presence? Most people indicate they would not, because to do so would communicate a lack of respect, violate normative space expectations, and invite retaliation. Still, subtle challenges to authority may arise in the workplace. A less than flattering photograph of the boss at the office party posted to the recreational room bulletin board communicates more than a lack of respect for authority. By placing the image anonymously in a public place, the prankster clearly communicates a challenge, even if it is a juvenile one. Movement from the cubicle to the broom closet may be the end result for someone who is found responsible for the prank. Again, there are no words used to communicate meaning, only symbols, but those symbols represent significant issues.

Communities have their own vocabulary and way in which they communicate. Consider the person who uses a sewing machine to create a dress and the accountant behind the desk; both are professionals and both have specialized jargon used in their field. If they were to change places, the lack of skills would present one obstacle, but the lack of understanding of terms, how they are used, and what they mean, would also severely limit their effectiveness. Those terms and how they are used are learned over time, through interaction, and while a textbook can help, it cannot demonstrate use in live interactions. Cultures are dynamic systems that reflect the communication process itself.

Cultures celebrate heroes, denigrate villains, and have specific ways of completing jobs and tasks. In business and industry the emphasis may be on effectiveness and efficiency, but the practice can often be “because that is the way we have always done it.” Rituals serve to guide our performance and behavior, and may be limited to small groups or celebrated across the entire company. A pink Cadillac has a special meaning for a Mary Kay cosmetics representative. How that car is received is ritualistic, in a public ceremony, recognizing current success while honoring past performances across the company.

Rituals can serve to bind a group together, or to constrain it. Institutions tend to formalize processes and then have a hard time adapting to new circumstances. While the core values or mission statement may hold true, the method of doing things that worked in the past may not be as successful as it once was. Adaptation and change can be difficult for individuals and companies, and yet all communities, cultures, and context of communication is dynamic, or always changing. As much as we might like things to stay the same, they will always change—and we will change with (and be changed by) them.

Key Takeaway

  • All cultures have characteristics such as initiations, traditions, history, values and principles, purpose, symbols and boundaries.


  1. Compile a list, or group of pictures, of symbols that characterize some of the cultural groups you belong to. Share and discuss your list with your classmates.
  2. Compile a list of pictures or symbols that your group or community finds offensive. Share and compare with classmates.

10.4  Divergent Cultural Characteristics

Learning Objective

Discuss divergent cultural characteristics and list several examples of such characteristics in the culture(s) you identify with.

We are not created equal. We are born light or dark skinned, to parents of education, or parents without access to education, and we grow up short or tall, slender or stocky. Our life chances, or options, are in many ways determined by our birth. The Victorian “rags to riches” novels which Horatio Alger wrote promoted the ideal that individuals can overcome all obstacles, raising themselves up by their bootstraps. Some people do have amazing stories, but even if you are quick to point out that Microsoft founder Bill Gates became fabulously successful despite his lack of a college education, know that his example is exception, not the rule. We all may use the advantages of our circumstances to improve our lives, but the type and extent of those advantages varies greatly across the planet.

Cultures reflect this inequality, this diversity, and the divergent range of values, symbols, and meanings across communities. Can you tie a knot? Perhaps you can tie your shoes, but what about a knot to secure a line to a boat, or to secure a heavy load on a cart or truck? To bundle a bale of hay? You may not be able to, but if you were raised in a culture that place a high value on knot-tying for specific purposes, you would learn that which your community values. We all have viewpoints, but they are shaped by our interactions with our communities. Let’s examine several points of divergence across cultures:

Individualistic versus Collectivist Cultures

People in individualistic cultures value individual freedom and personal independence, and cultures always have stories to reflect their values. You may recall the story of Superman, or John McLean in the Diehard series, and note how one person overcomes all obstacles. Through personal ingenuity, in spite of challenges, one person rises successfully to conquer or vanquish those obstacles.

Sometimes there is an assist, as in basketball or football, where another person lends a hand, but still the story repeats itself again and again, reflecting the cultural viewpoint.

The Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede explored the concepts of individualism and collectivism across diverse cultures. [13], [14],[15] He found that in individualistic  cultures, like the  United  States,  people  perceived  their  world  primarily  from  their own viewpoint. They perceived themselves as  empowered  individuals,  capable  of making their own decisions, and able to make an impact on their own lives.

Cultural viewpoint is not an either/or dichotomy, but rather a continuum or range.     You may belong to some communities  that  express  individualistic  cultural  values, while  others  place  the  focus  on  a  collective  viewpoint.  Collectivist cultures, [16]including many in Asia and South America, focus on the needs of the nation, community, family, or  group  of  workers.  Ownership  and  private  property  is  one way to examine this difference. In  some  cultures  property  is  almost  exclusively private, while others tend toward community ownership. The  collectively  owned resource returns benefits to the  community.  Water,  for  example,  has  long  been viewed as a community resource, much like air,  but  that  has  been  changing  as business and organizations have purchased water rights and gained control over resources. Public lands, such as parks, are often considered public, and individual exploitation of them is restricted. Copper, a metal with a variety  of  industrial applications, is collectively owned in Chile, with profits deposited in the general government  fund.  While  public/private  initiatives  exist,  the  cultural  viewpoint  is  our topic. How does someone raised in a culture that emphasizes  the  community interact with someone raised  in  a  primarily  individualistic  culture?  How  could tensions be expressed, and how might interactions be influenced by this point of divergence?

Explicit Rule Cultures versus Implicit Rule Cultures

Do you know the rules of your business or organization? Did you learn them from an employee manual or by observing the conduct of others? Your response may include both options, but not all cultures communicate rules in the same way.  Carley Dodd [17] discusses this difference and has found quite a range of difference. In an explicit rule culture, where rules are clearly communicated so that everyone is aware of them, the guidelines and agenda for a meeting are announced prior to the gathering. In an implicit rule culture, where rules are often understood and communicated nonverbally, there may be no agenda.  Everyone knows why they are gathered, what role each member plays, and the expectation may not be clearly stated. Power, status, and behavioral expectations may all be understood, and to the person from outside this culture it may prove a challenge to understand the rules of the context.

Outsiders often communicate their “otherness” but not knowing where to stand, when to sit, or how to initiate a conversation when the rules are not clearly stated. While it may help to know that implicit rule cultures are often more tolerant of deviation from the understood rules, the newcomer will be wise to learn by observing quietly—and to do as much research ahead of the event as possible.

Uncertainty-Accepting Cultures versus Uncertainty-Rejecting Cultures

When we meet each other for the first time, we often use what we have previously learned to understand our current context. We also do this to reduce our uncertainty. Some cultures, such as the U.S. and Britain, are highly tolerant of uncertainty, while others go to great lengths to reduce the element of surprise.  Cultures in the Arab world, for example, are high in uncertainty avoidance; they tend to be resistant to change and reluctant to take risks. Whereas a U.S. business negotiator might enthusiastically agree to try a new procedure, the Egyptian counterpart would likely refuse to get involved until all the details are worked out.

Berger and Calabrese [18] developed uncertainty reduction theory to examine this dynamic aspect of communication. Here are seven axioms of uncertainty:

  • There is a high level of uncertainty at first. As we get to know one another, our verbal communication increases and our uncertainty begins to decrease.
  • Following verbal communication, as nonverbal communication increases, uncertainty will continue to decrease, and we will express more nonverbal displays of affiliation, like nodding one’s head to express agreement.
  • When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, we tend to increase our information-seeking behavior, perhaps asking questions to gain more insight. As our understanding increases, uncertainty decreases, as does the information-seeking behavior.
  • When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, the communication interaction is not as personal or intimate. As uncertainty is reduced, intimacy increases.
  • When experiencing high levels of uncertainty, communication will feature more reciprocity, or displays of respect. As uncertainty decreases, reciprocity may diminish.
  • Differences between people increase uncertainty, while similarities decrease it.
  • Higher levels of uncertainty are associated with a decrease in the indication of liking the other person, while reductions in uncertainty are associated with liking the other person more.
Time Orientation

Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall Hall,[19] state that monochronic time oriented cultures consider one  thing  at  a  time, whereas polychronic time oriented cultures schedule many things at one time, and time is considered in a more fluid sense. In monochromatic time, interruptions are to be avoided, and everything has its own specific time. Even the multitasker from a monochromatic culture will, for example, recognize the value of work first before play or personal time. The United States, Germany, and Switzerland are often noted as countries that value a monochromatic time orientation.

Polychromatic time looks a little more complicated, with business and family mixing with dinner and dancing. Greece, Italy, Chile, and Saudi Arabia are countries where one can observe this perception of time, and while business meetings may be scheduled at a fixed time, when they actually begin may be another story. Also note that the dinner invitation for 8 p.m. may in reality be more like 9 p.m., and if you were to show up on time, you might be the first person to arrive and find that the hosts are not quite ready to receive you.

When in doubt, always ask before the event; many people from polychromatic cultures will be used to foreigner’s tendency to be punctual, even compulsive, about respecting established times for events. The skilled business communicator is aware of this difference and takes steps to anticipate it. The value of time in different cultures is expressed in many ways, and your understanding can help you communicate more effectively.

Short-Term versus Long-Term Orientation

Do you want your reward right now, or can you dedicate yourself to a long-term  goal? You may work in a culture that values immediate results, and grow impatient when those results do not materialize. Hofstede [20], [21]discusses this relationship of time orientation to a culture as a “time horizon,” and    it underscores the perspective of the individual within a cultural context. Many countries in Asia, influenced by the teachings of Confucius, value a long-term orientation, whereas other countries, including the United States, have a more short-term approach to life and results. Native American cultures are known for holding a long-term orientation, as illustrated by the proverb attributed to the Iroquois that decisions require contemplation of their impact seven generations removed.

If you work within a culture that has a short-term orientation, you may need to place greater emphasis on reciprocation of greetings, gifts, and rewards. For example, if you send a thank-you note the morning after being treated to a business dinner, your host will appreciate your promptness. While there may be a respect for tradition, there is also an emphasis on personal representation and honor, a reflection of identity and integrity. Personal stability and consistency are also valued in a short-term oriented culture, contributing to an overall sense of predictability and familiarity.

Long-term orientation is often marked by persistence, thrift and frugality, and an order to relationships based on age and status. A sense of shame, both personal and for the family and community, is also observed across generations. What an individual does reflects on the family, and is carried by immediate and extended family members.

Masculine versus Feminine Orientation

There was a time when many cultures and religions valued a female figurehead, and with the rise of Western cultures we have observed a shift toward a masculine ideal. Each carries with it a set of cultural expectations and norms for gender behavior and gender roles across life, including business.

Hofstede [22]describes the masculine/feminine dichotomy not in terms of whether men or women hold the power in a given culture, but rather the extent to which that culture values certain traits that may be considered masculine or feminine. Thus, “the assertive pole has been called ‘masculine’ and the modest, caring pole ‘feminine.’ The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values.”

We can observe this difference in where people gather, how they interact, and how they dress. We can see it during business negotiations, where it may make an important difference in the success of the organizations involved. Cultural expectations precede the interaction, so someone who doesn’t match those expectations may experience tension. Business in the United States has a masculine orientation—assertiveness and competition are highly valued. In other cultures, such as Sweden, business values are more attuned to modesty (lack of self- promotion) and taking care of society’s weaker members. This range of difference is one aspect of intercultural communication that requires significant attention when the communicator enters a new environment.

Direct versus Indirect

In the United States, business correspondence is expected to be short and to the point. “What can I do for you?” is a common question when a business person receives a call from a stranger; it is an accepted way of asking the caller to state his or her business. In some cultures it is quite appropriate to make direct personal observation, such as “you’ve changed your hairstyle,” while in others it may be observed, but never spoken of in polite company. In indirect cultures, such as those in Latin America, business conversations may start with discussions of the weather, or family, or topics other than business as the partners gain a sense of each other, long before the topic of business is raised. Again, the skilled communicator researches the new environment before entering it, as a social faux pas, or error, can have a significant impact.

Materialism versus Relationships

 Does the car someone drives say something about them? You may consider that many people across the planet do not own a vehicle, and that a car or truck in and of itself is a statement of wealth, but beyond that, does the make and model reflect their personality? If you are from a materialistic culture, you may be inclined to say yes. If you are from a culture that values relationships rather than material objects, you may say no, or focus on how the vehicle serves the family. From rocks that display beauty and wealth—what we call jewelry—to what you eat—will it be lobster ravioli or prime rib?

Members of a materialistic culture place emphasis on external goods and services as a representation of self, of power, and social rank. If you consider the plate of food before you, and consider the labor required to harvest the grain, butcher the animal, and cook the meal, you are focusing more on the relationships involved with its production rather than the foods themselves. Caviar may be a luxury, and it may communicate your ability to acquire and offer a delicacy, but it also represents an effort. Cultures differ in how they view material objects and their relationship to them, and some value people and relationships more than the objects themselves.

The United States and Japan are often noted as materialistic cultures, while many Scandinavian nations feature cultures that place more emphasis on relationships.

Low versus High Power Distance

How comfortable are you with critiquing  your  boss’s  decisions?  If  you  are  from  a low power distance culture, your answer might be “no  problem.”  In  low  power distance cultures, according to Hofstede,[23]people relate to one another more as equals  and  less  as  a  reflection  of  dominant/ subordinate roles, regardless of their  actual  formal  roles  as  employee  and  manager, for example.

In a high power distance culture, you would probably be much less likely to challenge the decision, to provide an alternative, or to give input. If you are working with someone from a high power distance culture, you may need to take extra care to elicit feedback and involve them in the discussion because their cultural framework may preclude their participation. They may have learned that less powerful people must accept decisions without comment, even if they have a concern or know there is a significant problem. Unless you are sensitive to cultural orientation and power distance, you may lose valuable information.

Key Takeaway

  • Cultures have distinct orientations when it comes to rules, uncertainty, time and time horizon, masculinity, directness, materialism, and power distance.


  1. Take a business letter or a page of a business report from a U.S. organization and try rewriting it as someone from a highly indirect, relational culture might have written it. Share and discuss your result with your classmates.
  2. Conduct an online search for translated movie titles. Share and compare your results with your classmates.
  3. Consider the movie you noted in Introductory Exercise 1. In what ways does it exemplify this individualistic viewpoint? Share your observations with your classmates.
  4. Think of a movie where one or more characters exemplify individualism. Write a brief statement and share with classmates.
  5. Think of a movie where one or more characters exemplify community- oriented values. Write a brief statement and share with classmates.

10.5 Summary

In this chapter we explored intercultural and international communication, understanding how intercultural and international communication has taken on a new role for students as well as career professionals.  We described strategies to understand intercultural communication, prejudice, and ethnocentrism. We learned that all cultures have characteristics such as initiations, traditions, history, values and principles, purpose, symbols and boundaries.  Finally, cultures have distinct orientations when it comes to rules, uncertainty, time and time horizon, masculinity, directness, materialism, and power distance.

Additional Resources

Visit the website of culture scholar Edward T. Hall. http://www.edwardthall.com/ index.html

Learn about intercultural awareness in the classroom by reading this article. Pedelty, Mark (2001). Self as other: An intercultural performance exercise.

Multicultural Education, Spring. Accessed 5/2/09 at http://findarticles.com/p/


Visit these sites to explore the history and traditions of some famous American businesses. http://www.ford.com/about-ford/heritage and http://www.aboutmcdonalds.com/mcd/our_company/mcd_history.html

Learn more about Geert Hofstede’s research on culture by exploring his website. http://www.geert-hofstede.com/geert_hofstede_resources.shtml

Supplemental Videos


  1. Pearson, J., & Nelson, P. (2000). An introduction to human communication: understanding and sharing. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Klopf, D. (1991). Intercultural encounters: the fundamentals of intercultural communication (2nd ed.). Inglewood, CA: Morton Publishing Company.
  3. Rogers, E., & Steinfatt, T. (1999). Intercultural communication. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  4. Chen, G., & Starosta, W. (2000). Foundations of intercultural communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  5. Chen, G., & Starosta, W. (2000). Foundations of intercultural communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon., Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1990). Notes in the history  of  intercultural  communication:  the  foreign  service  institute  and  the   mandate for intercultural training. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, 268–281.
  6. McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  7. Hall, E. (1966). The hidden dimension. N.Y., NY: Doubleday.
  8. Rogers, E., & Steinfatt, T. (1999). Intercultural communication. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  9. Allport, G. (1958). The nature of prejudice. NY: Doubleday.
  10. Allport, G. (1958). The nature of prejudice. NY: Doubleday.
  11. Hall, E. (1966). The hidden dimension. N.Y., NY: Doubleday.
  12. McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  13. Hofstede, G. (1982). Culture’s consequences (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  14. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  15. Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and organizations: software of the mind (Revised and expanded 2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  16. Hofstede, G. (1982). Culture’s consequences (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  17. Dodd, C. (1998). Dynamics of intercultural communication (5th ed.). New York, NY: Harper and Row.
  18. Berger, C., & Calabrese, R. (1975). Some explorations in initial interactions and beyond: toward a fundamental theory of interpersonal communication. Human communication Research, 1, 99–112.
  19. M. R., & Hall, E. T. (1987). Hidden differences: doing business with the Japanese. New York: Doubleday (Anchor Books).
  20. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  21. Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and organizations: software of the mind (Revised and expanded 2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  22. Hofstede, G. (2009). Gert Hofstede™ Cultural dimensions. Retrieved May 3, 2009, from http://www.geert-fofstede.com/
  23. Hofstede, G. (2009). Gert Hofstede™ Cultural dimensions. Retrieved May 3, 2009, from http://www.geert-fofstede.com/


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