Communication 372 – Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication

John R. Baldwin

School of Communication

Illinois State University

Updated 21 May 2013


Models of Intercultural Communication


Objectives: After this class, students should be able to:  See here for optional powerpoint

  • Differentiate intercultural communication from intergroup communication
  • Explain the strengths and limitations of models, describe how they can be used
  • Describe the “dialectical” approach to intercultural comm. (practice & research)
  • Describe Baldwin et al.’s model of intercultural communication
  • Apply either of the above to an intercultural breakdown
  • Differentiate between some key aspects of perception (we discussed these already, but some definitions appear in the otherwise less-important-for-our-discussion section on Gudykunst & Kim model below).
  • Recognize main notions behind two other models of communication
    1. Gudykunst & Kim’s model of intercultural communication
    2. Samovar & Porter’s model of intercultural communication


Some Notes on Approaches to IC Communication

In this class period, we compare two different approaches to intercultural communication. We are interested in some of the specific details of each, but are, perhaps, more interested in the overarching approach each takes—something that will become clear only towards the end of today’s reading as we look back at these two approaches.


One of our approaches is more formally a “model” of communication (that is, a visual representation of a process). The other is not really visual, but is a framework of concepts that can be applied to understand a communication episode. I am keeping some old notes at the bottom of the page (so don’t print the page of indiscriminately!) because they are informative and useful for those who want to “know more.” You will know what is most important as you read the webpage.


Defining Intercultural Communication

People have defined intercultural communication in different ways. More and more, people see cultures not as nations but as groups of people that share a similar set of values, beliefs, etc. –or the set of values, beliefs, etc. shared by the group of people. With that in mind, some have said that all communication is intercultural, even if you are communicating with the person next door who looks and sounds very much like you. Others have said that communication is only intercultural if we perceive it to be intercultural.


But we believe that culture could be impacting our interactions to some degree, even if we are not aware of it. We do not need to notice culture’s impact on our communication for it to be important. At the same time, we often communicate with others—even those from other nations or more obviously different “cultures” in situations where culture really is not that relevant to the interaction. With that in mind, we define intercultural communication as “communication in which cultural differences are large enough to impact the production or consumption of messages.” This is distinct from intergroup communication, which occurs when our perception of our own or the other person’s social identity (e.g., race, regional, religious, etc.) is impacting the communication, even if there are no real cultural differences. That is, in intergroup communication, we are interacting with others not on individual terms, but in terms of “in-groups” and “out-groups”—something we will talk about more in our discussion of identity.



Why “Models” of Intercultural Communication?

Models and approaches are very useful in helping us to understand communication in general. They serve several functions, including (but not limited to):

  • Providing a visual representation of a process so that we can better understand it (descriptive function)
  • Summarizing research in an area, especially if the model is “theoretical” or is based on actual research (for example, a model on communication accommodation theory that shows which factors might lead one to adjust behavior)
  • Helping to understand where or how a communication breakdown has occurred (the troubleshooting function). In this sense, a model can help us analyze our communication and make it better!


At the same time, models have limitations. Among these are:

  • Models inherently turn a process into a single, two-dimensional image. It is often difficult to keep track of the “process” notion, making a model more like a “snapshot” than a “moving picture” that it means to represent.
  • All models focus on some aspect of something and, by necessity, must leave something else out! Keep in mind that whatever your model chooses to focus on may limit—but at the same time, enhance in other ways—your understanding of the topic of the model. As you read, think about how the approaches vary in what they include and what they leave out.


Some other points about models and approaches:

  • Models are not theories! While some models might detail a theoretical process (why and how something occurs, often with “factors” that cause or lead to it), many are simply pictures of processes and are not theories.
  • Models vary in level of complexity, just like diagrams of the working of an engine should differ according to the audience to which you are trying to explain it. I keep several models in my “theory toolbox” –I will use one for one audience, and a different model for a different audience. It’s useful to know which model you like most and why, but it’s also useful to know which will most speak to your audience and which provides the best understanding of a process!


But, Are the Models Good? (Evaluating Models)

It is important for us to be able to evaluate models, just as we need to be able to evaluate theories or research. Here are some brief thoughts on evaluating models:

  • A good “critique” contains both strengths and limitations—it is not only “what’s wrong” with a model (or theory, or article), but also what it has to offer.
  • Models (like theories) can be evaluated with several tools. Here are some:
    • Does it accurately reflect what it is trying to describe (best learned when you try to apply the whole model to a single instance or even to different instances. But beware—if you try to apply each aspect of the model to a different situation, then the model will always work. You should apply the whole model to a situation. If it fits well (especially with repeated situations), this is a strength.
    • The model should correctly reflect research in the area (if you know the research)
    • The model should be “appropriately simple” to the audience. Can it be simplified without losing any strength of explanation? Is it so simple that it does not explain a lot? (Could you add to it and have it explain better, or take away from it and have it explain just as well)?
    • Are the definitions or terms of the model clear? Are they mutually exclusive, and if they are not, are relationships between aspects of the model shown correctly (for example, a classic model of communication often treats communication as a one-way process of a sender sending a message to a receiver, which neglects the dynamic, two-way aspect of communication).
    • How does the model compare and contrast to competing explanations? Do they offer something the model in question does not? Does it do some things better than other explanations?


Some Specific Models and Approaches:

I. Baldwin’s Model of Intercultural Communication


lurch7.jpgI’ve published this model in Baldwin & Hunt (2002), Baldwin & Hecht (2003), and Baldwin, González, & Means-Coleman (in press). The main points of the model are that any communication episode has three potential components, with each ranging from low to high (see the references to see where this model comes from and how it compares to earlier models). Each line is supposed to be in three dimensional space (3 unique dimensions), so it doesn’t work well on paper!


1.      Interpersonal dimension: This dimension relates to the degree to which we communicate with people based on our personal understanding of them. For example, Miller and Steinberg said that we first make demographic predictions about someone (how they might communicate, say, as a woman or man), then sociological predictions (they are Republican, Jewish, or over 30), and finally, as we get to to know them, personal predictions. (I think I have these right—I just pulled them from memory!). If we are strangers—or if you are an office worker that I treat only in terms of a role—the interpersonal dimension might be very low. Lovers (usually) see each other high on this dimension.

2.      Intergroup dimension: This relates to the degree to which we see people in terms of groups. Social identity theory (which we will look at in a couple of weeks) suggests that we see ourselves and others in terms of the groups to which we belong. When Jasmin first walks into class, I might see her as a Latina, as a woman, or as a student. The intergroup dimension is high. But the more I interact with her, the lower the intergroup dimension (and the higher the intercultural). However, people in interracial or intercultural relationships might see the other both as group members and as individuals, so both dimensions could be high! This dimension is related not only to group perception, but also to stereotypes and prejudices (I’ll explain in just a moment).

3.      Intercultural dimension: This dimension relates to real cultural differences, which can range from minimal to very great. This is clearly different from the intergroup dimension—on that dimension, I might perceive Jasmin to have cultural differences because she looks different or is from a different part of the country but be totally mistaken. We could, in fact, be culturally similar. So, perception of difference (because of group belonging) is 2nd dimension; but real differences are the 3rd dimension.


A strength of this model is that it allows us to distinguish between group belonging (including prejudice and stereotypes) and real cultural differences. Two people could be high on all three dimensions or low on all three. Some combinations that might be problematic are if you and I are high on intergroup perception (we think we are different) but on the intercultural dimension, we are actually low. In this case, we are not really interacting with each other, but with our stereotypes of each other’s group. At the same time, we might look alike, even be from the same country or racial/ethnic group, so we see ourselves low on the intergroup dimension, but because of urban/rural or family culture differences, we are actually high on the intercultural dimension. In this case, because we don’t expect cultural differences, we would blame communication problems just on personal traits and behaviors.


A limitation of this definition is that it does not include context (see, for example, Gudykunst & Kim model, below). Also, it doesn’t have a way to really show whether one or both partners in a communication episode are seeing each other in intergroup or interpersonal terms.


II.  Martin, Nakayama, & Flores’ Dialectical Approach (pp. 3-13 in MN&F reader)

Some critique approaches such as that by Neuliep (based in part on a “classic” approach by Gudykunst and Kim, see below) by arguing that it is too linear—for example, with variables that predict outcomes. They feel that communication might, in fact, be too difficult to “predict” in the way a traditional scientific theory would propose.


Others suggest that, in fact, we want some uncertainty or tension in our communication, or that one partner in an interaction might want more predictability and another more novelty. These people feel that prediction and novelty are opposite sides of a coin—both exist in tension with each other, always present, but also always contradicting or working against each other. MN&F, in their essay that introduces their text of readings, combine these two criticisms to provide their own approach to intercultural communication. Where the other two frameworks we look at in this unit are visual models, this is more of an approach that can be used to understand actual intercultural communication and intercultural research.


Questions for the reading:

  • What do MN&F mean by a “dialectical approach”? Baldwin’s summary and brief history:
    1. Brief history: Hegel and Marx were early writers to use the dialectical perspective. According to Marx, there was a tension between a current political/economic system (the “thesis”) and an opposing view (the “antithesis”). These struggled together to create a new “synthesis,” which, after entrenched, became the new “thesis,” awaiting a new “antithesis” to challenge it, and so on. Bakhtin applied the view to relationships and communication, and writers in relationships (e.g., Baxter & Montgomery, Rawlins) applied the view more fully to relationships.
    2. The dialectic is a tension between two opposites that contradict each other and, yet, must both be present at any given time, as complements of each other. The dialectical view of relationships (Baxter & Montgomery, for example) treats relationships as murky, messy, even unpredictable. Rather, the dialectical approach explains how one partner in a relationship wants a particular balance (for example) of independence and autonomy, while the other partner might want a different balance.
    3. In sum, then, the tension comes to explain a view where, rather than placing items in a dichotomy, we see them in an ongoing, ever-changing tension with each other, with both likely present at any time.
  • The first set of dialectics (pp. 4-6) refer to everyday interaction, some referring to the tensions that exist within a culture and others to tensions that exist within intercultural communication. Be able to define and tell the difference between different tensions (Figure 1). I will provide examples here—you can see the chapter for the definitions:
    1. Culturalßà Individual: As I interact with Shyla, our interaction will reflect some balance of personal identities and personalities, but also some balance of cultural influence. The exact balance will change from person to person in the interaction and from time to time (for example, if we are following scripts, culture may influence our behavior more. As we get to know each other better, we may make more predictions based on personal aspects of the other, though culture will still play more or less of a role at any given time.
    2. Personalßà Social-Contextual: Since Shyla is a student and I am the prof, our behavior will also have a role-based component. Each of us will behave, in part, in line with social role or context expectations (i.e., fulfilling a role) and in part in terms of personal goals or ideas. Again, this will change over time and from situation to situation.
    3. DifferencesßàSimilarities: Our communication will have (cultural) differences, but we should not overemphasize these. We will also have cultural similarities. These differences and similarities exist in tension…
    4. StaticßàDynamic: Where others suggest that some cultures strive for change and others maintain stability, the dialectical approach holds that change and stability mark all cultures (including organizational and religious cultures)—within any culture, forces will work both for change and for stability, with change being more important (to some members) at some times, and stability at other times or to other members.
    5. Present-futureßàHistory-past: The same can be said of the drive towards the future or striving towards the past. If we look back to time-capsule exercise, we do see change in American culture, but also a deep-abiding tradition. Notably, however, some cultures may have a preference for change or future, even though stability and past-focus are still present. Also, these last two dimensions refer more to a single culture than to interaction between individuals.
    6. PrivilegeßàDisadvantage: Here we see the critical roots of some of the authors coming out: According to the authors, all interactions, especially intercultural interactions, have power relationships, where some individuals have more socially inscribed (social, economic, political) than others. But it is a tension—both people in an interaction might have power, but the relations are more complex than assuming that just because a person is a White male tourist, that he has all the power in the interaction! This power dimension has been ignored by most traditional researchers.

In sum, we see that this approach, rather than predicting intercultural communication outcomes, sees intercultural communication as more dynamic (processual) and contains a critical element as well.


  • The second set of tensions (pp. 6-11) start with tensions of doing research. These relate to the three “paradigms” that guide intercultural communication research. Understand the main tensions as represented in the bottom part of Figure 2. In brief, the dimensions are as follows:
    1. CausalßàReciprocalßàContested: This deals with what causes human behavior. The causal approach (à la Gudykunst) sees causality as fairly linear (A causes B, which causes C). A reciprocal view (like a “systems” approach) would see A causing or influencing B, but B also influencing A—kind of like the communication patterns in our families! The contested view might actually abandon the notion that causality exists at all, suggesting that people act based on choices and “in order to” motives, rather than “because of” motives.
    2. ReductionistßàHolistic: Some research wants to break reality down into smaller parts—typically “variables”—and a single study will look at the relationships between some of these variables (such as “warm nonverbal behavior” and “teacher effectiveness” in the cross-cultural classroom). Other researchers think that this “variable analytic” approach ignores larger social, political, relational, or historical contexts, and will, instead, seek to understand behavior within these contexts. Because of these approaches, the first type of approach will tend to try to “predict” outcomes (in “independent variables”) based on the “influences” of other variables. The second will seek, instead, to “interpret” an interaction or group or text in terms of the social contexts, but may not try to predict at all.
    3. ObjectiveßàSubjective: This deals, briefly, with whether there is an reality external to observers, or whether reality is essentially in the minds of the observers. But perhaps it is time to turn to a fuller explanation of these. First, in sum, where much research frames itself in terms of one approach (subjective) or the other (objective), M, N, & F suggest that these are tensions—that is, that objective and subjective elements might both appear in a scholar’s approach, and that the two existe in tension with each other.


NOTE: These latter approaches are less important to our discussion this year! They provide interesting history and context (and some terms of the basic language of intercultural communication that we have already discussed), so I leave them here for your reading pleasure and to spark your dinner table conversation…There may be a single scan-tron question that asks you to choose a model based on it’s main focus only.


III  Gudykunst’s Approach: Anxiety-Uncertainty Management (class notes only)


One of the models of intercultural communication that I have found most helpful in its breakdown of communication issues (and there are several models out there!) is that provided by Gudykunst and Kim in their text, Communicating with Strangers.


Later in the semester, we will look at Gudykunst’s Anxiety/Uncertainty Management theory. A very brief description of his theory will help give context to the model.


William GudykunstEssentially, William Gudykunst (who passed away in 2005) felt that the central issue in intercultural and intergroup communication was the ability for people to control (“manage”) their levels of uncertainty (“cognitive” ability to explain and predict the behavior of the other person) and anxiety (“affective” or “emotional” apprehension, fear of different things that might occur in the interaction, such as looking stupid, being rejected, and so on). If one could control these, one would have better shared understanding (which Gudykunst calls effectiveness) and will be better able to adapt. You will be responsible for the terms of this theory only when we cover it more formally later in the semester. For now, it gives context to his model.


In this model, there are two larger circles, each representing a communicator. For simplicity’s sake, I have drawn only one of the circles (you will receive a handout in class with the full model). Between the two individuals are lines of sending and receiving verbal and nonverbal messages. Gudykust and Kim argue that when we create or process messages, we use four different filters.




The filters are as follows [all defs are my own informal defs!]

  • Cultural: The first filter is culture, which refers to all elements of shared perception (Gudykunst defines culture in terms of shared perception or frameworks of thought, rather than artifacts or behaviors—also, his masters-level background is in Psychology!). This would include:
    1. Values: What a culture holds to be important
    2. Beliefs: Thoughts or concepts about the connections between concepts (e.g., the “sky” is “blue”; “Communism” is “good” and so on).
    3. World View: A particular set of beliefs that a culture or individual holds about the larger aspects of the cosmos and humans’ position within it (e.g., regarding the deity, incarnation, why humans are here, and so on).
    4. Rules: Behavior expected in certain situations—behaviors that are demanded, encouraged, allowed, discouraged, or prohibited.
    5. Norms: Behavior that has a component of morality (good/bad, right/wrong) attached to it. Strong norms might be called mores or taboos.
    6. Definitions, and so on.
  • Sociocultural: This regards aspects of group identity (like “socio” as in “sociology”), specifically things like:
    1. Roles: Behavior expected of people based on relationships with specific functions or positions in relation to other people (e.g., “doctor-patient,” “teacher-student,” “wife-husband,” “child-parent”)
    2. Social identities: All people have a personal identity (aspects that define themselves, such as shy, smart, or clumsy), but also a variety of social identity based on relationships (boy/girlfriend, sister), roles (worker/supervisor, minister/layperson), or groups (“American,” racial, ethnic, social organizations, Communication major)
  • Psychocultural: The third filter regards aspects of the individual mind (like the “psych” of “psychology”). This includes things such as:\
    1. Prejudice, stereotypes: Definitions and distinctions later as we get to this.
    2. Uncertainty, anxiety: See defs above; of course, central for Gudykunst & Kim’s model!
    3. Mood, attitude, perception of the other: Basically, any other element that marks the person as individual. This filter is relevant because it reminds us (as we will see in other models) that the *individual is not the same as the culture to which she or he belongs.* It is good to keep in mind that individuals can be different from cultures.
  • Environmental: All of the communication occurs in an environmental context. This includes
    1. Situation/location: Physical location (bar, classroom) as well as the communication context (joking episode, football game cheering)
    2. Geography/climate: For example, communication might occur differently in a heat wave than in a more temperate climate.
    3. “Interaction potential”: That is, in what ways does the context influence the ability to communicate? Some contexts (an interview) encourage more ritualized and formal communication than others (greetings on the quad); and some (watching a movie at the theatre) encourage less interaction than others (having a malt at the local malt shop).
    4. What is not included: Unfortunately, the model (as written) leaves out several important contexts, such as the historical context (do the communicators come from groups with a history of rivalry or intergroup hatred), economic context (are the groups from different economic groups, especially if one group uses or oppresses the other), and social context (what are social relations currently between groups of which the communicators are members?)



IV. Samovar & Porter’s Model of Intercultural Communication  

Unfortunately, the newer editions of S&P’s text do not include this model (it’s now in the 4th edition). But the model is nice, especially if you are working with younger audiences, because of its simplicity.



In this model, the three people are three different individuals (as compared to a 3rd-culture model, which I will show you, but which we will not apply). The “3rd-Culture” perspective looks at how two individuals (or a class, or an organization) create their own culture from elements of both of the first cultures (like an intercultural marriage or a blended family). But in this model, the three figures represent three different individuals.


This model has three simple points (making it great for a younger audience):

  • Cultures vary in how different they are from each other. This is illustrated by both the distance of the shapes (top two are closer than bottom), but also in similarity of shapes (top two are more similar geometrically than 3rd)
  • Individuals are not the same as cultures. In each case, the individual (figure within the figure) does not look exactly like the culture (outer figure). However, individuals are shaped to varying degrees by their cultures (some of us look more like our “culture” than others do).
  • Cultures (and individual perception) shape the way we process and create messages. Even if we hear a message from another culture, because we often do not have the symbols or meanings to understand it, we have the tendency (or need?) to “shape” it by our own culture to understand it.



Gudykunst, W. B., & Kim, Y. Y. (2003). Communicating with strangers: An approach to intercultural communication (4th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Martin, J. N., Nakayama, T. K., & Flores, L. A. (2002). A dialectical approach to intercultural communication. In J. N. Martin, T. K. Nakayama, & L. A. Flores (Eds.), Readings in intercultural communication: Experiences and contexts (2nd ed., pp. 3-13). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Samovar, L. A., & Porter, R. E. (1991). Communication between cultures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.