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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