CROSS-CULTURAL vs. INTERCULTURAL

By Mari D. González

Searching for blog articles on intercultural online communication, I found one on a well- respected social media blog. To my disappointment, not only did the author use “cross-cultural” to mean “intercultural” but she also argued that most people, even academics, use the terms “interchangeably”; when I tried to clarify the differences in the comments section, she responded that I didn’t need to bother explaining. This is what I wrote:

“’CROSS-CULTURAL’ means a comparison and contrast between two cultural groups. For example, my cross-cultural study of Brazilians and Mexicans when they celebrate a birthday shows that Mexicans love to focus on cooking and sharing of the food, while Brazilians love the dancing –even grandmas are dancing the samba. ‘Intercultural’ refers to what happens when people from these two groups come together. As a Mexican, I may complain that there’s not enough food, but I love the dancing and join the group. Thus, INTERCULTURAL is what happens when the two (or more) culturally-different groups come together, interact and communicate. Both terms describe important aspects of the study.”

As an interculturalist, I also found it troubling to read the author’s definition of “culture” as “layers of identity–not as groups of people.” My instructor and intercultural communication pioneer, Milton J. Bennett (1992) defines culture as “learned and shared values, beliefs, and behavior of a group of interacting people”; this is the definition I use in offline and online communication contexts.

Myron W. and Koester (1993) define intercultural communication in their book Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures as “a symbolic, interpretative, transactional, contextual process,” which implies the engagement of culturally-different people. On the other hand, they define cross-cultural communication as “the study of a particular idea or concept within many cultures…in order to compare one culture to another…. Whereas intercultural communication involves interactions among people from different cultures, cross-cultural communication involves a comparison of interactions among people from the same culture to those from another culture.”

In the graduate program in Intercultural Relations, from day one we learn the definitions of intercultural vs. cross-cultural in the context of communication across cultures. Because social media has become “the” online platform for collaboration, learning, and exchange of knowledge, the blog author needs to learn both the correct definitions of the terms and the principles of the new media. Trying to oblige one’s ideas through new media is a thing of the past so, as a colleague of mine put it, “she is a traditionalist.”

Edited by Connie Cobb

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34 thoughts on “CROSS-CULTURAL vs. INTERCULTURAL

  1. Well written, Mari. One learns by writing, and the more I write the more I realize how little I know. I welcome the learning offered by experts such as yourself, who take the time and trouble to help me understand. It’s unfortunate that the particular writer on the Mashable, oops, I mean the well-respected social media blog, wasn’t open to your contribution.

    You have, indeed, pointed out a very fundamental difference in terms. Most people who have a good command of the English language should understand that “inter-” and “cross-” have completely different meanings. You travel the interstate to go cross-country, but you can’t take the cross-state to go inter-country.

  2. Good explanation, Mari. I have been working on presentation that includes some of these aspects and knew there were subtle yet contrasting differences in the terms.

    I seem to hear the term cross-cultural thrown about more so than intercultural when navigating through the Latino market universe. However, much of my interaction is also with Native American tribes and have noticed that one term they use quite a bit is intertribal.

    Your explanation was clear and very helpful. Much appreciated!

  3. Thank you Leo and Joe for adding more knowledge to this post with your examples.

    Leo: We, the “so called” experts, have the responsibility to double check the correctness of the terms we use. I just visited your blog. It’s very captivating.

    Joe: Yes, the differences are subtle yet, they help us expand our perspective and support the depth of our study.

  4. Mari, I couldn’t agree with you more! And, interestingly, the point you make about the distinction between “inter-” and “cross-” is applicable to a number of areas of study, not only cultural studies. For example, as a professor of Communication Studies, I routinely teach a seminar that deals with both inter- and cross-generational communication, especailly as it applies to family settings. I always make it a point to spell out the difference between the two concepts at the start of each semester. My students learn to appreciate the importance of the distinction as time goes on, especially when it’s time for them to propose reasonable hypotheses about intergenerational family communication. Their hypotheses are so much better informed when they are able to grasp some of the key differences in the ways that people from different generations tend to communicate. Thanks for your well thought out post…

    1. Richard, you brought an additional and important insight to this conversation. I agree, by defining key terms from the onset, the subsequent analysis becomes more substantial. Thank you for adding your comment.

  5. I loved your article, and I need to know how to translate “cross-cultural communication” to spanish! , since “multicultural communication” is “comunicación intercultural”. I NEED this urgently, I’m giving a lecture tomorrow!!!

    1. Thank you for your comment Lucy. Cross-cultural communucation translates as, Comunicacion Croscultural. No, multicultural communication is not translated as “intercultural,” sino “multicultural.” Los tres terminos son diferentes.
      Please call me for further discussion on this topic.

  6. Your article is insightful. I love it. I want to Know your explanation of cross- cultural adaptation. So far as I have understood from Young Kim that cross- cultural adaptation means intercultural communication or does cross- cultural adaptation lead to intercultural communication. Really, im going nuts with these terms. I am applying these terms and concepts to literary works so I need to know the differences!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

    1. Abeer, Adaptation can only be intercultural, not cross-cultural. People accommodate and adapt through interacting and coming together. Please note the “inter” on intercultural and interacting -which means between. Cross-cultural analysis is done to compare and contrast two or more societies as separate social, cultural or national groups.

  7. I thank you Mari for the inspiring explanation you give on cross-cultural and inter-cultural communication. Actually, these are two terms I always knew were different, but it has been difficult for me to make that difference. I’m a linguistic student, who has come to understand that we can’t further science correctly, unless it is studied at least from a cultural relative view. I’m about to defend my Masters and was wondering before now: “what if I’m asked to tell the difference between the two terms, since I use a cross-cultural framework”. But now I know and understand the difference. Special thanks to the leading team of Scoop it, and many thanks to you Mari!

  8. You’re welcome Solange. I am glad you found my post helpful. I agree with you. Our views of the world are relative to our contextual experiences.
    We start with the theory and then, we move into the application. I attempted to clarify these two terms through my personal observations after having a good grasp of their scientific definitions. Best wishes on defending your Masters!

  9. well explain. but some question further. you mention the intercultural communicaiton emphasizes the engagement while the cross-culture in the comparision. but we may study the difference why people act or react differently when we in engagement. can we think this is a cross-culture communication? thanks

  10. If the analysis is based on interactions, it is considered intercultural. Think of Geert. Hofstede vs Edward T. Hall. Hofstede’s pioneering analysis was purely cross-cultural. He studied people in their own countries or in-culture. Conversely, Hall studied encounters between American businessmen in Japan and the local Japanese, thus his analysis was intercultural.

  11. Hello Mari,
    I am currently studying a Cross-Cultural communication Masters degree and one of our essays has to do with the importance of CCC studies. Our lecturers have mentioned that CCC and ICC can be used in the same way. What are your views on that? Would you agree in the context of the essay theme?
    Thank you

  12. Hello John:
    No, CCC and ICC cannot be used in the same way. You need to understand each one as a separate concept. Please, carefully read all the comments on this thread. They explain and provide more specific examples on the differences.

  13. Yes, I’ve read the above comments, and although we have been told that ccc is about the comparison of different cultures while icc is when different cultures interact, I just wonder why they told us that we could use them interchangeably. They did not stress the fact that we should always use one or the other, but rather that ccc sometimes comes in icc’s way and vice versa (which I assume, is why they said we can use them interchangeably). Or perhaps they meant the broader sense, ccc and icc being both based on more than one culture as opposed to communication in general.

  14. Because most people do not the difference, they won’t notice. But, I insist, we must educate ourselves in order to educate others. For instance, the terms interpreter and translator are commonly used interchangeably. Is that correct, no. So, I always make a point in telling people the difference.

  15. Hi Mari – Thank you very much for diving into such a delicate topic. Over the past couple of months I’ve hearing all the terms you mention being used over and over again, with no distinction between one or the other. I have seen marketing agencies take different adoptions to each term as well.

    – I was born in Mexico city, traveled to the US twice, or sometimes 3x a year. Went to school and college in both countries. Have family on both sides. Just like me, there are millions of people here in the US with the same life experience. My question is: Will this make us cross-cultural? Multi-cultural? or, inter-cultural? Thoughts?

    Gracias por tu ayuda! Estoy tratando de definir el termino correcto para nuestro tipo de cultura (prinicpalmente mexico-americana)

    BTW, te recomiendo el el articulo de @jrvilla – Jose Villa (Presidente de Sensis – Cross-cultural Agency) http://bit.ly/1fjXSK2

    Saludos! OP

    1. Hi Oscar, Intercultural and Cross-cultural are not terms that define a state of being or people, but the actions or the type of activity one engages. Your interactions with Americans and acculturated Latinos in the U.S. are referred as Intercultural. While your analysis on what makes you different from Americans and U.S. Latinos is Cross-cultural. I refuse to use the term Multicultural because it has been overused. However, multicultural fits well when you have an event in which people from different national cultures showcase their big “C” Culture–cuisine, dance, and music–then you’d say the event was Multicultural. So, multicultural is an adjective.

    2. And, honestly speaking marketers, most of the time do not get the academic lexicon. They go by what it sounds good, cool, or sexy, in order to sell. Thus, terms lose their original meaning. In other words, marketers kill the real meaning.

  16. Hi Mari,
    I found your article very insightful. But I still have a question. So far I have understood cultural variability and cross-cultural conflict styles affect intercultural conflict. Is the conflict between married couples from two different cultures ‘cross-cultural’ or ‘intercultural’?

    1. The conflict, because it’s an actual interaction, is intercultural. Whatever analysis you do in your head, in writing, or when reading is cross-cultural.

      1. Thank you very much for your response. One of my friends is doing a research about managing conflict between intercultural couples. She argues that as it is also about cross-cultural differences, the study is “Cross-cultural conflict and negotiations in Intercultural marriages”. I think it should be “Intercultural conflict and negotiation in intercultural marriages”. Which one is correct? Or does it depend on what actually she is going to compare and explore?

      2. It should be “Cross-cultural study of conflict and negotiation in intercultural marriages.” The study is cross-cultural, the negotiation and the actual conflict are intercultural (between couples).
        I’d recommend your friend to read the work of Stella Ting-Toomey. She specializes in intercultural conflict resolution and teaches at UCI. Best wishes.

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