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What Is Cross-Cultural Communication?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

Cross-cultural communication refers to a hybrid branch of academia combining cultural anthropology, sociology and international studies that is focused on ways to facilitate understanding across borders and cultures. In addition to spearheading tactics for streamlining communication across various language groups, it also highlights the many hurdles and misunderstandings in the way of true global understanding. The more a person becomes well-versed in the many ways in which communication can fail between members of disparate cultures, the more equipped he or she will be to establish and maintain healthy communication with people from starkly different backgrounds.

A primary barrier to cross-cultural communication, also referred to as intercultural communication, is a lack of a predominating, universal language and culture. Therefore, the acquisition of knowledge is the chief recommendation for building a progressively more lucid understanding of those from other cultures. This may include acquiring second or third languages in an effort to stand on more equal footing with those from other cultures. Gaining knowledge of other cultures and traditions can also aid in understanding the complex and unique web of influences that shaped each culture's citizens.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Cross-cultural understanding begins in early childhood, when students are taught broader, often-generalized trivia or historical facts about other countries by teachers, parents and media outlets. In high school and particularly college, a student's cross-cultural communication may intensify. Liberal arts colleges in particular seek to graduate holistic learners with an understanding of not just a chosen career field but also how that job relates to the broader global community.

In a more pragmatic way, cross-cultural communication attempts to educate people about ways to become active listeners across boundaries. Some common tactics include avoiding local expressions or slang, opting instead for short, declarative statements in simple language and syntax. When listening, slowing down is a commonly employed tactic, and asking questions whenever stumped by a certain phrase or train of thought. Most people will appreciate the effort spent on trying to understand exactly what is trying to be conveyed. Furthermore, extra homework can reveal another culture's preconceived notions about one's own culture — valuable data when figuring out what to say, and when and to whom.

Many other culture-specific differences are explored in the study of cross-cultural communication. For instance, many Asian cultures prefer to maintain a bubble of empty space around them when speaking to others. Some westerners, on the other hand, may prefer their conversations to take place in a closer, more conspiratorial manner. Learning these differences helps to allay fear and misunderstanding on both sides of a cultural divide.

Discussion Comments


@burcinc-- Language can be important depending on the context and what it is that you are trying to achieve. Obviously, you probably can't close a business deal with someone if you can't speak to them.

In other circumstances, though, just a few words and an understanding of cultural norms may be enough. I feel that when people want to communicate with one another, and are respectful of one another, then even weak language skills may be enough.

I think what's most important is doing a good amount of research about that culture first and respecting their norms and rules while interacting and speaking with them.


If I want to communicate with people of another culture, or leave a good impression on them, is it necessary to learn their language? Learning a language takes a long time and how many languages can one person learn anyway?


Cross-cultural education in schools is very inadequate in my view. Unless children go to a school where there are students from a variety of different cultural backgrounds, they don't develop cross-cultural communication skills.

Children may learn about different countries and cultures, but this doesn't necessarily make them more open-minded about them. Unfortunately, stereotypes are very widespread and children do not begin to understand or appreciate other cultures until high school or college.

The only exceptions are urban areas and areas where there are large populations of residents from a different culture. For example, in states and cities where there are large Hispanic populations, children begin developing cross-cultural communication at an earlier age because their friends are from different cultures and backgrounds.

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