2.4.0: Communication Competence

In this section, we address how to improve intercultural communication competence, discuss the value of switching your communication code based on context, and reflect on intercultural relationships. 


2.4.1: Effective Communication: Intercultural Communication Competence

Intercultural communication competence (ICC) pertains to your ability to appropriately and effectively communicate in cultural and co-cultural contexts. Below are five key guidelines for improving your ICC.

  1. Observe the situation without making judgments. When communicating with other (co)cultures, our first judgment about ”those people” is often mistaken and/or based on stereotypes. Observing, non-judgmentally, can help us to understand others’ mindset and minimize biases and preconceptions.
  2. Tolerate ambiguity. When communicating across (co)cultures, there are many situations that are ambiguous and make us feel uncomfortable. Patience and perseverance are very important qualities of the competent communicator.
  3. Practice perception-flipping. All of us behave as we do because we believe our ways are valid and, often, superior. Before criticizing someone else’s behavior, we should try flipping our perception to see the other person’s point of view. In other words, put yourself in their shoes.
  4. Reframe our questions. If we ask ourselves ”How can they be so rude?” or ”Why are they so insensitive?!” we are expressing a negative assumption about the other person. Reframing these questions to, ”What is the reason behind their behavior?” prevents us from getting trapped in our own assumptions and allows us to explore the other’s frame of reference without bias.
  5. Cultivate motivation and view communication as an opportunity for personal growth and development. This is especially important for members of dominant groups who often have more power and privilege in situations. This power creates an imbalance and it is often the members of nondominant groups who are expected to conform and adapt to the behaviors of the dominant group. Regardless of our co-cultural groups and identities, we should all develop motivation to be more competent communicators.


2.4.2: Contextual Communication: Communication Codes

Image: rawpixel, Pixabay license
(Image: rawpixelPixabaylicense )

Communication Codes: Communication codes are guidelines, rules, and norms for how to interact and behave in communicative interactions, based on context. For example, think about what is considered the ‘norm’ in U.S. America for greeting someone. A handshake? A hug? How does the type of greeting change based on context? For example, if you are greeting a friend you might hug them or do a fist bump. But if you were at a business meeting, you would likely give someone a handshake. Think about all of the ‘rules’ for handshakes: How long do you shake someone’s hand? How far apart should you stand? Where should look? Does the picture above seem to be following these rules- why or why not?


Remember that communication is contextual, and the cultural context is an important aspect of communicative interactions. Differences in culture and co-culture inform beliefs, values, attitudes, and thinking, and likewise inform behaviors and ‘norms’ in our communicative interactions. Because of this, it is important to understand that there are communication codes operating in any given interaction. A code is a socially constructed, historically transmitted, system of symbols, premises, rules, and meanings pertaining to communicative conduct (Covarrubias, 2002). In other words, a code is a set of rules associated with conduct, a guideline for what is acceptable (or not acceptable) in particular situations, and for what a person should (or should not) do.

 The purpose of a code is for members and individuals in a cultural/co-cultural group to communicate effectively so that they understand one another and behave in appropriate ways. Culture and co-culture inform the communicative system—or communication code—that is operating in a given interaction. Since one group may have a set of shared symbols that differs from another group, the groups may attribute different meanings to the codes. To be a competent communicator, we need to observe the cultural and co-cultural context to determine what codes should be employed to create shared meaning in an interaction.


2.4.3: Reflective Communication: Intercultural Relationships

Relationships are frequently formed between people with different cultural identities, and may include friends, romantic partners, family, and coworkers. These relationships have both benefits and challenges. For example, some of the benefits include increasing cultural knowledge, challenging previously held stereotypes, and learning new skills (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Intercultural relationships also present challenges, however. The dialectics discussed earlier affect our relationships. The similarities-differences dialectic in particular may present challenges to relationship formation (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). While differences between people’s cultural identities may be obvious, it takes some effort and reflection to uncover commonalities that can form the basis of a relationship. Perceived differences in general also create anxiety and uncertainty. Negative stereotypes may also hinder progress toward relational development, especially if the individuals are not open to adjusting their preexisting beliefs. However, by reflecting on similarities and differences, and understanding the values and dialectics mentioned in this chapter, tensions can begin to balance out, and uncertainty and anxiety can lessen.



When engaging in intercultural communication, it is important to avoid ethnocentrism, which is the belief that your culture and your way of doing things is superior. When we do this, we view our position as normal and right and evaluate all other cultural systems against our own. Ethnocentrism shows up in small and large ways: the WWII Nazi’s elevation of the Aryan race and the corresponding killing of Jews, Gypsies, gays and lesbians, and other non-Aryan groups is one of the most horrific ethnocentric acts in history. However, ethnocentrism shows up in small and seemingly unconscious ways as well. In U.S. American culture, if you decided to serve dog meat as an appetizer at your cocktail party you would probable disgust your guests and the police might even arrest you because the consumption of dog meat is not culturally acceptable. However, in China “it is neither rare nor unusual” to consume dog meat (Wingfield-Hayes). In the Czech Republic, the traditional Christmas dinner is carp and potato salad. Imagine how your U.S. family might react if you told them you were serving carp and potato salad for Christmas. In the Czech Republic, it is a beautiful tradition, but in America, it might not receive a warm welcome. Our cultural background influences every aspect of our lives from the food we consume to which classroom curriculum is emphasized over others.   

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