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Cross-cultural or intercultural?

Okay, okay, so this post probably needs a ginormous, flashing red Pedant Alert. But c’mon — terminology matters, right? I mean, just a little bit, you know? A smidgen?

Well anyway, if you’ve got this far: I’m wondering if there’s any difference between cross-cultural and intercultural and how important it might be…

The two terms sound pretty synonymous at first glance — and I’m not especially interested in altering that perception! I’m more interested in how well the language I use reflects my own perspective and whether my language is as useful as it can be.

Tamie and I have been saying for some time now that we’ll be doing cross-cultural work, and I’ve never really used the term intercultural at all. Might one be a better fit than the other?

We’ll be working in Tanzania and, although we’re from Australia, we’ll be exploring a Tanzanian model of university ministry. Although we may well have something to offer from an Australian perspective, we’ll be seeking to work with Tanzanian students on Tanzanian terms. We speak of this as a partnership, by which we mean a genuinely two-way relationship, a relationship of real cooperation, a relationship in which we ourselves will be listeners and learners as much as anyone else.

Whatever shape this work will take, what’s central to it is that two-way relationship. So, come to think of it, cross-cultural actually sounds a bit one-directional — as if what matters is crossing from here to there, as if what matters is our perspective as the ones doing the crossing. It might suggest that when we cross over, we somehow remain unchanged!

Intercultural, however, sounds more two-way and more integrative. It implies two cultures working together, such that the end product is neither exactly one nor the other. It reflects that notion of full-fledged, two-way partnership.

I found this little article helpful, too. Mari González explains that both terms have their uses: cross-cultural refers to the comparison and contrasting of cultures, while intercultural refers to the meeting and interaction of cultures. She cites Lustig and Koester’s definition, which fits superbly with our own work: intercultural communication is “a symbolic, interpretative, transactional, contextual process”.

For me at least, there is a useful difference in terminology here. It also makes sense that our training college has labelled itself in terms of intercultural studies.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. Yes, I think you’ve described the difference clearly. “Crosscultural” refers to people crossing cultural barriers to meet people whose cultures are different from their own. Intercultural refers to the way in which cultures influence each other.

  2. Good post Arthur, I think it is really important to define the use of language within a domain. I had my first Cross Cultural Management lecture last night, and there were extensive readings about defining the word ‘value’, and the class was about a framework for defining ‘culture’.

    I must admit that the word intercultural has not yet appeared in the readings, notes, or in class. But the definition you cite: “a symbolic, interpretative, transactional, contextual process”, seems to be very much the objective of the course, from a personal development perspective.

    With regards to personal development, three barriers to Cross/Intercultural ability were identified: self-referencing; parochialism; and ethnocentrism. It was suggested, and I’m still working this through, that you can learn to overcome the first two, but that it is not possible to ever be free of ethnocentrism. You can mitigate its effects, but it is too deeply engrained to ever give up.

    So I really like the term intercultural because it acknowledges that there will always be an “symbolic, interpretative, transactional, contextual process” where cultures intersect. Although you can never be free of your parent culture, you will be influenced by other cultures, as they will be by you.

  3. I think you’re right about never being free of ethnocentrism, Dan. In the past, I’ve been quite worried about trying to shed my own cultural values, especially as we head to Tanzania. And part of being intercultural is being open to that (hence, the importance of combatting parochialism!) But I was rebuked and encouraged by Steve Maina (of CMS NZ – he’s Kenyan though) that part of what we will offer in Tanzania is our Australianess – because it’s part of who we are and has worth as part of a two way exchange and ongoing process.

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I agree, Dan — although it must involve us being changed (what a challenge; what an opportunity!), we can’t really expect to uncreate our own culture in the process.

  5. Intercultural is a helpful way to think of this – we think of interpersonal relationships, and there is a whole field emerging of inter-organisational relationships. One thing that I have found helpful to realise at least the following two things:
    Firstly, we all belong to a variety of groups (family of origin, school/uni, ethnicity, religious, sporting, national, gender etc), each of which have a ‘culture’ and all of which together are resources which we can use to function in the world. Now we draw on these cultures in differing ways, to differing extents, at differing times, depending on the context (largely relational) in which we find ourselves.
    Secondly, be brutally honest and admit that by definition we always think that ‘our way of doing things’ ie our culture, is the best way of doing things. If we thought there were a better way, we would be doing it! So we need humility before reality to answer the question, ‘in this context, what is the best way of doing things?’

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