COM 372—Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication

Updated 9 June 2015

Cross-Cultural Adaptation


A General Introduction

Adaptation: Going Abroad

·        Many authors have theorized and researched the notion of cross-cultural adaptation, which entails moving from one culture to another culture, usually (but not always) learning the rules, norms, customs, and language of the new culture. We should differentiate between different types of cross-cultural travel.

o   Short-term travelers, such as those on vacations or business trips. But let’s get this straight up front—Culture shock/adaptation theory is not meant to apply to that drunken stint you spent in a jail in Tijuana! It is not about a single stressful experience on any single trip, but about the ongoing stress of living in a new culture over a period of time.

o   Sojourners, those who travel to a culture for an extended time, but still one with planned limits—that is, a plan to return, such as international students or those on an extended business assignment of (for example), one to three years

o   Immigrants, those who move to another culture with plans of making that culture their new home

·        Of course, even immigrants can vary on several dimensions, which become important later, such as:

o   Purpose (Voluntary/Obligatory Immigration): Some emigrate (leave a culture) to seek better opportunities; others leave, for example, as refugees. Many of these do not have a choice of the culture to which they choose to immigrate (enter a culture).

o   Social class/support: Often, but not always, social class combines with purpose of immigration. Those who emigrate because they choose to do often have more financial support and higher social status (depending on the closeness of the culture to which one is immigrating and the firmness of the border between cultures). Refugees can be any social status, but, if the travel distance is far (such as from Southeast Asia to the U.S.) and transportation difficult, refugees are more likely to be lower income than voluntary immigrants.

o   Cohesion of group in the new culture, including a wide variety of factors such as ethnolinguistic vitality of the group in a given area (for example, Brazilians moving to a region of Boston might find many stores, sports, clubs, and so on catering to Portuguese speakers; Brazilians moving to Normal, Illinois will not find the same), the number of people continuing to move (is it a continued immigration, or one of the past), segregation in the new area, and efforts of those in the new culture to maintain some cultural/historical link to the past.

There can be a wide variety of patterns of adjustment of one group to another. Keefe and Padilla (1987) for example, note that there are different types of Mexican American adjustment, depending on one’s connection to language and history, region of country, and so on. This aspect of “cultural adjustment” deals more at the group level of assimilation or pluralism. That is, these terms (which you learned earlier this semester) deal more with the degree to which an immigrant group or co-culture adopts the culture of the dominant or new culture. This level of adjustment is more often the topic of study of sociologists and anthropologists.

Psychologists and communication scholars tend to focus on the individual level of adjustment, that is, the thought, emotional, and behavioral processes of adjustment (psychology), and the role of communication in both leading to “culture shock” (or “cross-cultural transition stress,” or any one of several names people might call this phenomenon) and in helping to reduce this stress.


Today’s notes cover two main themes:

Ø  Acculturation (cultural transition at the individual level)

o   Going abroad (e.g., “culture shock”)

o   Coming home (e.g., “return culture shock”)

Ø  Competence. This is related to acculturation, and many of the same variables and explanations for one work for the other. In a sense, competence deals with appropriate communication (more detailed def below); but it also deals with acculturation, because the more competent one is, the more one will acculturate (and vice versa), and if one acculturates several times to different cultures, one might become a multicultural person. With this in mind, let’s jump into the notes. If you want more extended notes, including summaries of some specific research, please contact me! I probably have outlines of this research in my files.



·        What is acculturation? Bradford “J” Hall defines it as “the process of becoming communicatively competent in a  culture we have not been raised in” (p. 270). This is related to other important words:

o   Enculturation: the learning of one’s own culture as we are brought up

o   Deculturation: the process of unlearning our original culture, leaving behind its patterns when we move to a new culture.


Baldwin’s notes! The definition acculturation raises some issues!

o   Is acculturation the same thing as adaptation? Many scholars debate this (one author, Ady (1995) outlines 5 different ways that adaptation/adjustment have been conceptualized!]. Many feel that adaptation/adjustment should refer not merely (or even) to the learning of the cultural patterns, but of either one’s ability to get around in the culture (sociocultural adjustment) or one’s overall ability to handle being in the other culture emotionally (psychological adjustment) . The problem is that one could be totally psychologically comfortable in a new culture (that is, adjusted) but not adopt the norms and values of the new culture!

o   Is acculturation “total,” or is it, perhaps, fragmented? Maybe people acculturate in some ways but (deliberately?) also maintain some elements of their own culture. I think we see this a lot with Indian immigrants, who often may keep close in-group ties in the new culture, even with cricket games in the park, arranged marriages, and so on. Perhaps adjustment is dialectical, existing in tension, with people adjusting in some ways but maintaining their original identity in other ways (which exist in constant change and tension).

·        What is the U-Curve?  What are the 4 stages and what are they like? Many writers, based on the original work of Oberg (1960) have pictured acculturation in some series of stages (some see 3, 4, 5, or more). For our purposes, we will use a standard four-stage model: The Four Stages

1.       Honeymoon

2.       Crisis: Hostility/Stereotypes. This is where Hall and others see “culture shock.” Often at this stage people engage in one of two response to the culture:

          --fight: lashing out against the culture in some way, complaining about the culture

          --flight: separating self from culture, either by spending all time with people from own culture or by spending time in one’s room, eating only food from own culture, etc.

3.       Recovery: In the words of Carley Dodd (textbook writer) a third response to the culture stress is flex, where one learns to deal with, even embrace cultural differences or to work with them with stability and a good attitude.

4.       Adjustment

u-curve2’s Notes: The 4 stages are often conceptualized as a curve, in which the “X” axis (horizontal) is time and the “Y” axis (vertical) is adjustment (higher score means better adjustment, whatever “adjustment” means!). It is so common that many institutions use it for student cross-cultural training, such as the Old Dominion University site for international students, or the North Carolina A&T State University, as to “travel-abroad” guides such as  Many organizations that train cross-cultural travelers use this, and it is standard knowledge that anyone with a class in intercultural communication should probably know! But this is Baldwin’s intercultural class, so you should also know that most research, summarized as early as Austin Church’s 1982 summary of the U-curve idea and since, suggest that the U-curve is valid only as a general principle, but not for precise prediction of travelers’ adjustment experiences. Perhaps there is more than one dimension of adjustment, such that one might be doing great in terms of getting around or getting the job done, but just miserable psychologically. Or perhaps there are different ‘types’ of adjusters (an article by Kealey, 1989, for example found about 10% of the people in his study actually went through a “U-curve” of adjustment). So, why do we like it? Because, I think (1) it makes general sense. Like many of our cultural notions, there is some truth to the fact that there are different responses to adjustment. (2) It is easy to package and sell! People often like what seems easy, even if academic research does not support it.


·        What is culture shock? With which of the stages would you associate it?

Beyond the exam! It is important if you train to note the symptoms of culture shock! Here are some of them, from (Taft, 1977)

1.    Culture fatigue, irritable, hostile, insomnia, psychosomatic disorder

2.    A sense of loss, uprooted

3.    Rejection by new enevironment members

MPj00786040000[1]4.    Feeling of powerless (impotence—but not that kind of impotence!) to change, adjust, inadequate

People often find themselves longing for original culture, isolating themselves (“flight”), complaining about new culture (“fight”), anxious, and so on. An important note is that Janet Bennett is that the same sorts of things that people confront, and the same sort of stage process (if this, indeed, exists, as noted above!) occur with people going through any sort of transition (job change, loss of a loved one, major regional move). She calls the principle, to use a broader term, transition shock.


Explaining “Culture Shock”:

A.     Berry’s Model of Acculturation: John Berry, along with others, has described a 4-fold pattern of assimilation by a person or group to a culture (see figure). Basically:

1.      A person can be highly adjusted to one culture (host/dominant or original/ethnic), both (bicultural) or neither (marginal). This can apply either to the person adjusting in a new culture or to a person who is a minority member in a dominant culture (for example, some minority members are more efficient in one or the other culture, some are very competent in both, and some become “marginalized”—not effective in either.

2.      Importantly, Berry notes that the dominant culture works for or against the sojourner/minority member with its own approaches of acceptance. Some cultures try to force assimilation; others encourage pluralism; some people separate themselves from the minority, and some seek to segregate the minority culture. In a way, this approach anticipates Melissa Curtin’s (2010) criticism of intercultural adjustment literature. She says we should neither insist on the sojourner adapting nor think that the sojourner is the only one adapting. Members of the dominant culture also adapt to the sojourner, just as dominant culture members shift their behavior in interaction with minority members.



B.                Atheoretical” Lists of Variables: Many researchers try to predict how immigrants and sojourners will adjust with a variety of variables.

o   The exact impact of immigration on adaptation will depend on how one defines adaptation. As noted above, one might adjust psychologically (be very happy and comfortable), but not adjust in terms of adopting the norms of the new culture. One might move to an “ethnic” community of people from one’s own group, such as the Brazilian immigrants in the Baltimore area (see photo at right; credit:, live among many of one’s own nation and not really learn American culture, but be quite happy!

Ø  Whether one defines acculturation in terms of “assimilation” or in terms of “psychological adjustment,” it will be influenced by the patterns of immigration, including many sociological factors such as:

o   Whether one moves to an immigrant community or is integrated into the larger society

o   The continued influx of ideas, language, or people from one’s group of origin

o   The social status of the immigrant

o   The conditions of the immigration, for example forced immigration (refugees) versus voluntary immigration


Some authors seek to move away from a laundry list of variables to predict assimilation and try to put these into a theory. Berry (see identity notes) and Young Yun Kim is two such authors.


C. Young Yun Kim’s theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation

· Yun Kim has done much writing in the area of cultural adjustment. We have a chapter by her in the Martin, Nakayama, & Flores reader, as well as a reading on-line from her book that summarizes the theory.

·        Kim begins with assumptions, in which she sees the human as a “system,” who, when confronted with a new culture, goes through “disequlibrium.” The person  then incorporates feedback to bring the “system” back into balance. Note her assumptions on pp. 236-237.

·        Know main idea of the model, pp. 238-239. Basically,

·        Instead of a “U-curve,” the model suggests that adaptation is more cyclical—“two-steps-forward-one-step-back” (I believe Kim calls it “draw-back –to-leap” (Figure 1). Very important: Know the general idea of her approach: The Stress-Adaptation-Growth model! Rather than see culture shock as bad, she feels it is necessary, even good. The “stress” leads to change and personal growth. She presents this in a visual model in which one takes “two steps forward and one step back” (or what she calls “draw-back-to-leap”), rather than a U-curve:

o   Intercultural transformation is the idea that, by adjusting to a new culture, we learn new thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We actually become a different person through “transformation,” and, in a way, a more “complete” person or a person with more choices. Kim sees cross-cultural travel, in this sense, as empowering. The transformation occurs, of course, through communication!


o   Be able to recognize the difference and explain the different variables, listed and described briefly pp. 239-243. The model she provides (Figure 2) is difficult to understand to a degree. Here is my own visualization—you can use them both together.

Baldwin Notes: Kim takes what is called a systems approach: The person is a “system” seeking to maintain balance. Changes in the environment lead to “disequilibrium” or lack of balance. The “system” institutes “feedback”—a message to bring the system back into balance, either by changing some part of the environment, or by adjusting to it. In this system, the feedback (or process) is done through communication of two types—mass and social (interpersonal), and with two groups—own and new culture groups.


All this occurs within an environment. It the “environment” does not want you there, it may be harder to adjust. However, if the environment pressures you to conform, you *will* adjust. This raises some tough questions about what “adjustment” is that we will have to come to later!


Finally, Kim believes that adjustment leads to a new repertoire of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that help one to be a more global, multicultural person.


The model is different from most other approaches in a few key ways!

Ø In addition to communication with the host culture, which all models admit, Kim believes that one also needs continued communication with people from own culture who are in the new culture, as they serve as a bridge (but only as long as they serve as a bridge to new culture. Hanging out only with people of your own culture will not help you adjust!)

Ø In addition to interpersonal communication, Kim notes the importance of media. Own-culture media also serves as a bridge (and becomes important when one returns home to reduce return culture shock!), but host culture media, especially (says Kim) of certain types like news media, help one to adjust to the new culture.

Ø Kim’s model admits the role of the environment, that it is not all up to the traveler to adjust! People in the environment are part of the process, making adjustment harder or easier! This may occur through variables such as host receptivity and conformity pressure.

Ø A limitation of the model is that, while increased host receptivity might help one “adjust” in terms of being psychologically happy in a new culture, conformity pressure will help them “adjust” in terms of learning the rules of the new culture. But could one learn and follow the rules of the new culture but still feel miserable and sad? Suddenly, it seems important to know exactly how we are defining adjustment.


C. Domains of Adjustment: Colleen Ward and others

Finally, several researchers, such as Australian psychologist, Colleen Ward, have worked extensively to suggest that there may be different domains of adjustment—such as psychocultural adjustment (mental health) and sociocultural adjustment (getting around, knowing the “rules” of the culture.” These might be related, Ward says, but they are separate! Want to know more—you can see one of Colleen Ward’s articles here.


Do you want to know more!?

o    MPj04018530000[1]There is a chapter from Kim’s 2001 book on adaptation, in which she summarizes the theory, provides a model, and even gives a number of axioms (this is a theory that actually seeks to predict whether one will adjust by use of the variables in the model). This is the “easy-to-read” version (for students only).

o    There is an on-line reading—A chapter by Young Yun Kim from a theory book (often used by graduate students—available to students only). The variables are listed on pp. 180-188 (with a nice summary figure on p. 188 and visual model on p. 189).

o    Just for fun—here is a presentation Shannon O’Donnell (from Chestnut Global Partners, and an ex-graduate student from our program) and I did at the last SIETAR-America (Society for International Training, Education, and Research) conference in Bloomington, IL on return cultural adjustment. This covers briefly U- and W-curve, Kim’s theory (and others), but mostly moves to solutions. The way we did this presentation was an interactive session, where the participants developed the solutions in the later panels. We then typed them into the presentation on-the-spot and returned the PPt to all participants. On-line for a limited time only, as the university limits my Web domain space.


D. Solutions…Alas, our texts don’t give us good suggestions for overcoming adjustment. Here are some quick hints:

·         Look up “strategies for cross-cultural adjustment”

·         Use theory to develop strategies (you will note that a lot of the suggestions you see probably relate to some aspect of YY Kim’s theory).

·         Find resources that outline clear tips for going abroad and coming home, such as:


Smith, S. L. (2002). The cycle of cross-cultural adaptation and re-entry. In J. M. Martin, T. K. Nakayama, & L. A. Flores (Eds.), Readings in cultural contexts (2nd ed., pp. 246-259). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.


II. Adaptation: Coming Home?

The Problem: Surprisingly, many travelers actually experience as much or more culture shock coming home! One student in 372 traveled to Ireland (he has given me permission to tell his story). He wrote me from Ireland before returning home:

I found your email to be most practical and helpful. I've kept in touch with my family and like you said even in short emails I noticed I've become more aware of a sense of frustration with American waste, greed, materialism, consumerism. I can tell especially with my brother and sister I'm going to have a hard time telling them about my experiences and cultural differences that I've been exposed to.  In one of the emails I sent to my brother I was telling him how it’s amazing to see the value change between the US and Ireland in his response to this he asked me 'Did you get to see the Superbowl?' I haven't spoken to my family, well at least my brother, after his question. 


When the student returned home, he was trying to show his pictures of Ireland to his family. His sister-in-law said, “Put those away. No one really wants to see them.” He found himself frequently at odds with his conservative and very traditional American family, especially when he tried to point out to them that he felt that things in America are not all perfect. They especially rejected his view that America is wasteful. His brother said, “If you liked it so much there, why don’t you just go back.”


While this response is extreme, I do know that the same semester, I had two other returned students in my office, one of them crying, as she learned how to readjust to the living in the United States. One of my friends from the mission field said she came home and one day she just broke down. Where? What prompted it? She said she was in the “chips” aisle at the grocery store—she was just overwhelmed by the choice. Some research suggests that the easier one’s adjustment to the new culture, the more difficult will be the return home. Unfortunately, while many organizations prepare for the trip there, much fewer prepare employees for returning home. Many business people are told (even if not in words) to forget their years of experience and new knowledge they have gained abroad and to fit back into the old mold. For this reason and others a large number of return employees end up leaving their company within a year of their return abroad. And many return home not because of their own lack of adjustment, but that of their spouses and family, who are often ignored by companies in cross-cultural training.


Some authors (Gullahorn & Gullahorn) suggest a W-curve—with the 2nd part of the W being the return home after the U-curve. The stages are similar (as is the lack of strong empirical support!). We begin with anticipation at the trip home, being excited to be returning home. After we get home, things are not as we expect, so we enter crisis, but hopefully we adjust.


Like culture shock, return culture shock is often based not on major crises, but on the little things (see my journal—I have a lot to say about this!). There are many cites on both culture and return culture shock, such as the Unionite article from which the image below was taken, or the Munich Business School site in which the “culture specific” W-curve graphic above appears.


·        What are some of the main reasons for return culture shock?

1. in self and others (see notes below). We expect others to change in same way we did; they expect us to be the same as when we left.

2.      Unrealistic expectations (may expect everything to be the same and return to be easy). Either we expect the U.S. to be perfect, or we become critical. Many travelers are no longer comfortable, in total agreement with own culture's values. Uehara: 40% "had become aware that the U.S. is a big, affluent, and powerful country in the world" 20% noted individualism especially as something they realized.; 66% spoke objectively about host culture, but seemed freeer to criticize the U.S

3.      Lack of appreciation: Many people simply don’t want to hear about your visit abroad. They might want to, but often after a few brief minutes, they tire of hearing about it and want to talk about other things. The result is that you have a lot of “stuff” inside of you that you want to share, but people do not want to hear about it. No one wants to listen


Here are what some other authors say:  Clyde Austin, who has written a lengthy annotated bibliography on return culture shock (1987) narrows the symptoms of culture shock to 4:

1.   Psychological Stress (from the changes, setting up the details of living back home, re-establishing relationships)

2.   Self-Evaluation (who am I): People change and often are not sure if they belong to the culture they just came from or to their original culture. = change in self and others

3.   A sense of loss, nostalgia, homesickness for other country, grief: Just as we often feel nostalgia for home culture when we leave, we miss the visited culture when we return home. We might miss the food, the music, even the cultural ways. One friend of mine found, after a 2-year stay in Chile, that she hated her watch and the whole sense of American time.

4.   Value Change: Many scholars state that this is the number one difficulty for travelers returning home, especially for women from more traditional cultures to more progressive cultures. After living in a new culture for a while, we see things differently, have different values and different views on things like consumerism, American consumption, success, the family, or other things.


The Solution: People deal with culture shock in different ways. Bradford “J” Hall (2004) outlines these:

o   Alienated approach: Reject home culture, embrace culture one has just left. Sourness, forming cliques of other international travelers, highly critical of home culture.

o   Resocialized approach: “Returnee sheds as quickly as possible any influence the trip to the other culture has had” (p. 293).

o   Proactive approach: Maintains positive attitude towards both visited and home culture.

Angene Wilson (1985) suggest that the returnee can see her or himself as a bridge in different ways—to help reduce stereotypes of the home toward the visited culture, to help prepare new travelers to other cultures, and so on (maybe I am a “bridge” by teaching this course and doing business training for international travelers!)

Thought Box: 

Ø Tell about a time that you traveled from one culture to another. What were some of your experiences! If possible, relate your experience to our readings, either by talking about:

--factors that led to your adjustment or lack of adjustment (Kim)

--practical steps that you or others did to help your adjustment.

Ø Tell about a time you returned home!

Ø Consider the Case Study below. The names have been changed to protect the innocent…and to create some really corny jokes:


A Case Study: Going Abroad


You work for the human resources department of DuPint, a major textiles/manufacturing/ chemical corporation that sends many people abroad (it specializes in paint that comes in 473.176475 cubic centimeter containers). The company has an office in Singapore and is sending I.R. Wurm, a long-time project manager, to oversee the development of a new textile plant. His wife, Henrietta, and her two children of a previous marriage (with a Mr. M. Peed—but he’s not part of the story, as he is not standing in the way of his children’s travel), Millie (13 years) and Senta (6 years), will be joining him for this 3-year “sojourn.”


In this session, with your fellow human resource agents, work to determine, based on our class readings today, the answers to any of the following questions (probably choose 1):

·       What you should involve in any cross-cultural training about sojourning? NOTE: Do *not* focus all of your time discussing specific content about things that they should know (values, customs, etiquette, etc.)—rather, think in broader categories. “Cultural knowledge” should be only one of your considerations. Think for example, specifically about what Kim says about media, host and ethnic communication, and the host environment, that might be relevant to your travelers!

·       What are some specific suggestions you would make about the cultural adjustment during sojourn? What recommendations do the readings specifically lead you to consider?

·       Who would you involve in your training, and why?

·       What, if anything, would you say about the return trip, and why (or why not?)



Thought Questions about adjustment:

       Are the issues the same in sojourner adjustment, long-term adjustment, return adjustment?

       Is all adjustment the same, or are there subtle differences/types of adjustment (e.g. short/long-term, adjustment in different areas).

       How does one define "adjustment" or "adaptation"?  Is it all or nothing? Is it "assimilation"? Should we encourage “acculturation” or just adjustment?


Toward the Exam:


§  Know key definitions: acculturation, enculturation, deculturation, “adjustment”/adaptation, “transition shock”

§  What are the U-curve and W-curve? What are the stages of the U-curve? What is current scholarly consensus about the U-curve?

§  Kim’s theory: Know the main defs of the different variables as presented in the Power Point presentation

§  Berry’s approach? Ward’s domain approach and 2 domains?

§  Return culture shock: What are some symptoms? What is the greatest cause of return culture shock, according to many authors?


Some Internet Resources:

o   Culture shock exercise and case studies

o   CNN article: Coping with Culture shock

o   U.S. Government tips for travelers abroad

o   Tips for coming home: U of Maryland

o   Real stories: coming home from Tibet

o   A learning module for learning/teaching IC competence (with a handy reference list)


Other sources:

Ady, 1995

Church, A. (1982). Sojourner adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 91, 540-575. (review of sources).

Curtin, M. (2010). Coculturation: Toward a critical theoretical framework of cultural adjustment. In T. K. Nakayama & R. T. Halualani (Eds.), The handbook of critical intercultural communication (pp. 270-285). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Gullahorn & Gullahorn

Hall, B. J. (2005). Among cultures: The challenge of communication. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Kealey, 1989

Keefe, S. E., & Padilla, A. M. (1987). Chicano ethnicity. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.




Intercultural Competence


Many writers have suggested that one can move even a stage beyond adapting to a specific culture. One can become a multicultural person. This is the person who can travel readily between cultures, being a good communicator and well adjusted in most any situation. The person, it is said, “rides the waves” between different cultures, like a cultural surfer, able to dip here or dip there into different cultures with little problem. This is "not simply the person who is sensitive to many different cultures.  Rather, he is a person who is always in the process of becoming a part of and apart from a given cultural context" (Bennett, 1986, p. 26). This often comes not after one trip to another culture, but after frequent contact with people from other cultures.


In one of our textbooks—Samovar, Porter, & McNeil, there are several chapters dedicated to competence. Some of these are by leading authors in this area (e.g., Spitzberg, Chen); we will consider other essays in different portions of our class.


What is competence?

For many years, authors debated what “intercultural communicator competence” is, coming up with many different approaches. Indeed, this is one of the more researched areas in the intercultural communication area (look up “Intercultural AND competence” in CIOS for many sources, or see for review up to that date:


Chen, Guo-Ming, and Starosta, William J. , (1996). Intercultural communication competence: A synthesis. Communication Yearbook, 19, 353-383.


Deardorff, D. K. (Ed.). (2009). The Sage handbook of intercultural competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



The elements that have been linked to intercultural competence are many. Spitzberg (2004) listed about 45 of them! Some include:


o    Altercentrism (focus on others)

o    The ability to form relationships

o    Extraversion (being outgoing)

o    Ability to reduce uncertainty by locating information

o    Intuition

o    See value in all people

o    Risk-taker, adventuresome, willing to try new things

o    Ability to describe rather than evaluate

o    Ability to manage turn-taking effectively

o    Sense of security in own identity

o    Healthy family relationships

o    Knowledge of other culture and of tools for locating new knowledge

o    Empathy

o    Not ethnocentric

o    Positive expectations

o    Ability to speak the language

o    Psychological strength

o    Openness, flexibility

o    Ability to manage stress


More important for our purposes, Spitzberg and Cupach (1984) did two major things to simplify the literature on competence in general, which can be applied to intercultural communication specifically.

o   They define intercultural communication competence as being both effective (getting the job done) and appropriate (acting according to the norms of the culture). Thus, one could be effective (get the job done) but totally inappropriate culturally, and one could also totally act according to the culture, but never quite get the job done. Thus, gaining “shared understanding” might be “effective”—I can make people understand me! But to be truly competent, I would also do it according to the cultural rules. In brief, Competence = Effectiveness + Appropriateness

o   Second, they summarized the many variables into a nice three-fold model. Much better to learn 3 aspects than 40 for an exam, wouldn’t you say?

o   Knowledge: (cognition)

o   Motivation: (affect, emotion)

o   Anne Fazioli with PeaceCorps/Panama’s participants Clelia Corro, Jassette Sandoval and Dionicia Acosta.Skills (behavior)


Basically, all other variables above could be classified into the three overall categories. Some skills or aspects might involve more than one category. For example, do I understand the basic principles of Spanish (knowledge), am I able to speak it (skills), and do I actually enjoy practicing it when I meet people in Costa Rica (motivation)? [citation for foto to R:]


Much of what most authors present in chapters on competence are variables organized into the KMS approach. This and the definition of competence = appropriateness + effectiveness come from early work on communication competence by Spitzberg and Cupach (1984), with Spitzberg (2004) applying it especially to intercultural communication in his model of intercultural competence.


As you read the Spitzberg essay (SP&McD, pp. 424-435), focus on these things:

·        What are some different models, or approaches, to competence that people have taken? (Spitzberg’s approach to ICC has tended to blend several of these).

·        Note the propositions and what he is saying about competence. Especially, note 2.3, 3.1-2, and 4. (E.g., for Spitzberg, competence is an impression, not the actual behavior!).

·        What are the 2 main components of competence (4.1, 4.2)?

·        For the rest of the axioms, make a list of things that can work for or against someone else’s perception of your competence in a(n intercultural) interaction. I might have organized these differently, with “4.3”—probability conjecture, being a main point: We can’t absolutely predict people’s competence, but the more we know of certain variables, the better guess we can make. Some of what follows in 4.4 to 6 are aspects of what competence is like, and others are aspects that will help predict competence impressions.

·        Pt 7 is useful for all of our writing about cultures. People interact, not cultures




Knowledge of how to gather information…



Need for predictability…

Ability to be mindful…


What are some aspects of knowledge, motivation, or skills that might help you to be perceived as more competent?


Note that being competent interculturally is much more than just being able to speak a language. Notably, no one will have all of the characteristics of the effective cross-cultural communicator. The general idea is that the more of the variables we know, the better we can predict one’s competence.


The research and theory in intercultural competence is especially useful in at least two main areas of intercultural business work:  

Ø  Employee selection: Often those who send employees or workers abroad can give attitude and psychological tests to employees, prioritizing the variables they feel are the most important, and using the variables listed in this research area as “selection criteria.” For example, before I left to do Evangelical mission work in Brazil, I took a battery of psychological tests. . .  but they let me go anyway. J

Ø  Employee training: Many—but not all—of the variables are things that can be trained or developed in a person.

If you are working with a company training international travelers, you may need to make some decisions, such as (a) which of the variables are most important (since no one has all of them), and (b) which can be trained and which must be used as selection criteria?


Thought Box: 

Ø Evaluate yourself (or someone else) in terms of the dimensions of competence presented in our text, or in terms of general knowledge, motivation and skills. Did you have competence, or just either effectiveness or appropriateness? Feel free to reply privately, if you don’t want to share this “participation”

Ø Think back to an intercultural or intergroup interaction that you had. Was the interaction (or your part in it) “competent” by the definition above? Why or why not? What might you have done to make it better? Did you see any factors at work that don’t appear in Neuliep or this Website? Do the same aspects of competence apply to intercultural as to intergroup communication? (Answer any or all of these questions).


OR: Case Study: Employee Selection and Competence

Ø Consider the Class Exercise that is more difficult to do in an On-Line course:

Ø Whom would you choose, and why?



Spitzberg, B. M. (1994). A model of intercultural communication competence. In L. A. Samovar & R. E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural communication: A reader (7th ed., pp. 347-359). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Spitzberg, B. M., & Cupach, W. R. (1984). Interpersonal communication competence. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


Other resources:

Arasaratnam, L. A. (2006). Further testing of a new model of intercultural communication competence. Communication Research Reports, 23, 93-99.


Austin, C. (Ed.). (1987). Readings in cross-cultural re-entry. Abilene, TX: ACU Press.


Sam, D. L, & Berry, J. W. (Eds.). (2006). The Cambridge handbook of acculturation psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.