THE COMPLEXITY OF INTERCULTURAL
COMMUNICATION IN CROSS-CULTURAL
Aalborg University, Denmark
In this article an analytical frame model is presented, by means of which one can
describe and understand the contents of important elements in an intercultural
situation. The model accepts as fact that all individuals are affected by more than one
culture at a time, even if by varying amounts, and introduces - for the purpose of being
able to cope with this - the concepts of 'Cultural Categories' and 'Cultural Hierarchies'.
In order to be able to describe and understand each of the involved cultures in a
specific intercultural situation, three dimensions of culture are worked with: 'The
Horizontal Cultural Dimension'; 'The Vertical Cultural Dimension' and 'The Cultural
Dimension of Time'. These concepts, as well as the relations between them, are
synthesized and illustrated in an analytical Model.
Keywords. Analytical frame model, cultural categories, cultural hierarchies,
horizontal and vertical cultural dimensions, cultural dimensions of time
I. Introduction and the Concept of Culture
When talking about "intercultural communication" and "cross-cultural management",
we more or less have to accept that culture does exist, at least as an abstract concept or
as an abstract "unit".
As a unit one can analyze and try to understand a culture, which may have vague or
undefined borderlines separating one culture from another. These borderlines - which
might move from time to time and from situation to situation - can, however, be crossed
for various reasons, such as in connection with all kinds of intercultural co-operation,
international tourism, cross-cultural management, etc. And intercultural communication,
of course, is important in all of these situations.
One of the basic statements for this paper, therefore, is as follows: It is meaningful -
from an abstract as well as from an empirical point of view - to consider "culture" as a
continuously changing unit, the contents of which can be analyzed and compared with
the contents of other cultures.
My understanding of culture will be covered by the following definition:
Culture is the philosophy of life, the values, norms and rules, and actual
behavior - as well as the material and immaterial products from these - which
are taken over by man from the past generations, and which man wants to
bring forward to the next generation - eventually in a different form - and
which in one way or another separate individuals belonging to the culture
from individuals belonging to other cultures
By basing this paper - as well as my ongoing research on culture, intercultural
communication, and cross-cultural management - on the above statement and the
presented definition of culture, I first of all refuse to be characterized as a member of
one specific scientific school, as I consider the study of culture far too complex to be
studied only from the viewpoint of one specific scientific school, or to be based on one
I believe that one can base his or her work on different paradigms and a differing
understanding of culture depending on the situation and the purpose.
By focusing on the dynamics of culture and on the basic philosophy of life, the values
and norms "....which are taken over by man from the past generations, and which man
wants to bring forward to the next generation - eventually in a different form...", I find
myself in agreement with Clifford Geertz, when he defines culture as "...an historically
transmitted pattern of meanings...." (in "The Interpretation of Culture", p.89). When I
add to the basic philosophy of life, the values and norms” the "...rules and actual
behavior, as well as the material and immaterial products from these", I also agree with
Geertz and the following part of his definition:
"..embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in
symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and
develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life."
I will come back to this later as I consider the basic philosophy of life and values as the
core culture of any culture. However, I also consider the manifestation of this core
culture in expressed meanings, behavior, structures, and material and immaterial
products - or as one might say, the symptoms or symbols of the core culture - as more or
less equally important parts of the culture.
They are important
partly because the manifest components of the culture are an important part of the
conscious elements of the life of people belonging to a particular culture, i.e.,
what we see, touch, hear, etc.;
partly because the manifest part of the culture is that part in which we first
register similarities and/or differences between various cultures, i.e, how we eat,
work, speak, etc.;
and partly - but not insignificantly - because we have only the manifest culture as
a kind of gateway to the understanding of other peoples’ core culture, or even our
own core culture.
To me, therefore, culture consists both of "shared meanings" as they are conceptualized
in the basic philosophy of life and values among a group of people, and of the way in
which these shared meanings are visualized or manifested in people's social
interactions, as well as in the results of those interactions.
However, I also find myself linked to a phenomenological tradition because I fully
accept as fact that one can only understand other cultures through one’s own culture -
compared to one's own cultural foundation or through a cultural “lens”; and that one's
own cultural foundation is influenced by interaction with people from other cultures in
the same way as their cultural foundations are influenced by their interaction with me.
Finally, I find myself in agreement with a functionalistic understanding of culture. I also
see culture as a particular grouping of people's conscious or unconscious attempts to
find a way - maybe from among different ways - to meet their social and physical needs
as individuals or as an organization -
even as a nation - under certain environmental conditions. We see this from
anthropological studies (e.g., studies of the Samoa people in Polynesia and of the Inuit
people in the Arctic) and from studies of organizational cultures in different social and
My definition of culture is a general definition that might be accepted for various social
units and in differing situations and, therefore, for our study of cross-cultural
management as well as intercultural communication.
I see many different places or areas in which cross-cultural management occurs and in
which cross-cultural or intercultural communication plays a large role:
Management of organizations based in countries with different cultures to one's
own, e.g., Danish companies operating in Japan, Vietnam, South Africa, or
Management of organizations employing people from different cultures, e.g.,
IBM, Shell, Volvo, Maersk Line, etc.
Management of international organizations, e.g., United Nations, European
Union, World Health Organization, etc.
In order to understand cross-cultural management and intercultural communication as
abstract concepts as well as empirical phenomena, we need to create theories and
analytical models enabling us
to perceive and understand important elements of culture as well as the
interrelations between them.
to perceive and understand the complexity of cultural studies as well as the
complexity of cross-cultural studies.
Below I will elaborate on the first of these two claims.
2. Important Elements of Cultures
In regard to the problem of how to determine which observations or elements of a
particular culture are the most important ones and deserve deeper study, we must accept
that this cannot be decided irrevocably, as that is a function not only of
the culture in focus for the study,
but also of
the aim of the study,
the cultural foundation of the researcher or the actor,
the research methods and techniques.
We need, therefore, to reflect a little more on each of the following four factors:
1. In connection with empirical studies, might it create difficulties to delimit and define
the culture we want to study? For example: How do we define a Danish culture? Is
Danish culture the same for everyone living in Denmark or only the culture of people
born in Denmark, whether they are living in Denmark or elsewhere? Does the Danish
culture include everyone living in Greenland and the Faeroe Islands as possessions of
the Kingdom of Denmark? And what about the people on either side of the border
between Germany and Denmark?
2. What is the actual purpose of the study? Do we only wish to "understand" the other
culture in order to know more about the people? Or do we wish to know them better in
order to try to change part of their culture in such a way that they a) might wish to buy
our products? b) might fit better into our organization? or c) fit better into our way of
living, as we often want immigrants to do?
3. By being aware of the influence of the cultural actor himself, I am not only thinking
of the influence of the national culture of the actor (as European studies of African
cultures in the last century were very much influenced by the general European view of
Africans) but also of the actor's own scientific paradigm and his professional
background as such. (I will look further into this problem later on.)
4. By mentioning the influence of the many different research methods and techniques
such as interviews, observations, and readings of existing reports, I am considering the
fact that each method and technique focuses more specifically on some elements of the
culture and less on others, which then gives alternative pictures of the culture in focus.
My understanding that all cultural studies are unique studies, depending on factors such
as the four mentioned above, leads to the conclusion that no cultural or cross-cultural
study can claim to be the study or to show how a particular culture must be seen and
understood as an objective fact! We have to conclude that each cultural study - and each
cross-cultural study - has to be considered as only one study among many, and that the
results of each study have to be seen as a result of the four factors mentioned above, to
which a fifth factor could possibly be added:
5. The resources available for the study, which might include some way of studying the
culture while excluding others.
For individuals, whether they are researchers or others, who have to rely on cultural
studies made by other people - something many of us have to do many times in our
lifetime - it is advisable, therefore, to
find out as much as possible about the background of such studies (factor 1-5), as
well as to
read as many different studies based on as many different paradigms or research
schools as possible, or to talk with persons who have a differing knowledge of the
The different studies might vary considerably, but there may also be some overlapping
between them, which might lead to equality and cultural understanding on a higher
So much for my first claim regarding theories and models for cultural and cross-cultural
studies; now a few comments regarding the second claim.
3. The Complexity of Cross-Cultural Studies
The complexity of cross-cultural studies, as well as cultural studies, are especially
related to the following observations or "facts":
the relativity of each culture
- the cultural hierarchy
the co-incidence of the cultures
- the cultural categories
the changeability of each culture
- the cultural dynamic
the ethical problems related to cross-cultural studies
- what can we allow ourselves to do in other cultures?
For these reasons, I strongly believe that we need theoretical and analytical models for
cultural and cross-cultural studies formulated as frame models, or as a kind of skeleton,
where each researcher or cultural actor can relate to one other with his own data,
observations, and experiences when trying to create an understanding of a particular
cross-cultural situation, according to his or her needs, as well as to the four factors
mentioned above. My presentation of such an analytical frame will begin with the
discussion of the first two of the four factors in the complexity of cross-cultural studies,
the relativity of the cultures and the co-incidence of the cultures.
Then I will present an analytical frame for how one might study and understand a
culture as an abstract unit at a given point in time - a static model consisting of two
(a) the Horizontal cultural dimension, and
(b) the Vertical cultural dimension.
Then I will turn to the third of the four factors, the changeability of each culture.
In doing so I will turn the static model of culture into a dynamic model of culture by
introducing the third cultural dimension into the model,
the Dynamic cultural dimension.
Finally I will place these three "cultural dimensions" and the complexity factors
together into an analytical frame for cross-cultural studies.
The fourth of the four factors, the ethical problems related to cross-cultural studies, will
be left out of this paper due to space limitations.
3.2 The relativity and co-incidence of culture
The definition of what is to be considered a culture is very relative, as the individual
considers himself a part, or a member, of different cultures in different situations. He
can also be considered by others as a member of a different culture, depending of the
situation and the character of their intercultural relations.
This situation is due to two different but interrelated aspects of the complexity of cross-
the relativity of the cultures, and
the co-incidence of the cultures.
When speaking of the relativity of cultures, we might refer to "national culture" or
"macro culture" (like the Geert Hofstede-concept of "Culture" when talking about
Danish, Swedish, and other cultures). Both the individuals themselves and others might
consider them to be representatives of different layers of culture within the category of
macro culture, e.g., my personal situation as a Dane, as a Scandinavian, or just as a
European, or even as a "northern Jydlander".
This can be illustrated in the following way:
In this way we can talk about a cultural hierarchy within a specific category of culture
consisting of different layers of culture (Kuada and Gullestrup, 1998).
By category of culture I mean:
A set of interrelated units of culture which, at a general (or higher) level of aggregation,
can be meaningfully described, analyzed, and understood as one distinct cultural unit,
which can then be broken down into its component units (cultural dimensions) for more
detailed analysis for specific purposes.
And by layers of culture I understand:
A number of units of culture within a given cultural category, which together can be
meaningfully described as a distinct cultural unit at a higher level of aggregation. This
unit forms, together with other units at the same level of aggregation, another cultural
unit at a still higher level of aggregation within the same cultural category.
In this way - theoretically as well as empirically - we have to count a hierarchy of
different layers within a certain category of culture. And we never know whether the
people involved in a cross-cultural relationship consider one another to be at the same
layer in the hierarchy.
The complexity of cross-cultural relations is also caused by the fact that people are not
only to be considered as members, or part, of one category of culture, but of many
different cultural categories at the same time. This can be referred to as the co-incidence
This means that even though we want to analyze differences in macro/national cultures -
like Hofstede's studies - we also have to recognize the fact that people simultaneously
reflect other cultural categories than the macro/national culture, each of them with their
own hierarchy of cultural layers.
When considering culture - as well as cross-cultural relations and management - in this
way, one might expect that individuals, or groups of individuals, have to be understood
according to a number of potential cultures in a number of different hierarchies within
different categories of culture. Of the many different possible cultures, the one which
could be expected to be the most important for understanding the people involved in the
cross-cultural relations will, of course, depend on the actual situation and might change
However, the intercultural actor, or manager, will have to predict which of the actual
cultural categories and layers in the relevant hierarchy he considers to be the potentially
relevant culture - or cultures - and which cultures he might try to understand according
to this assessment.
Each of these potential and/or relevant cultures then has to be analyzed as an empirical
unit in accordance with the analytical, theoretical cultural frame model or other models.
As mentioned before, a particular culture might be described and understood at a given
time by means of two cultural dimensions, the horizontal and the vertical.
The horizontal cultural dimension
Common to all living creatures is the fact that their survival as individuals, or as a
species, depends on the relationship between their own fundamental biological needs
(e.g., the need for food, the need for protection against the climate, and the need for a
possibility to bring up new generations) and the opportunities offered to them by the
natural and social environment surrounding them.
If more than one human being is present at the same time in nature, man will try to
fulfill his or her fundamental needs in a kind of joint action, which may be characterized
by social cooperation and solidarity or by some kind of oppression and exploitation.
Even though the natural conditions are the same, the actual ways of fulfilling the
fundamental needs and in which the joint action is organized may, thus, vary
considerably over time and space and from one group of people to another - or from one
culture to another. So one might be able to observe differences and variations in the way
in which the individual cultures try to fulfill their fundamental human needs.
At the same time, however, it will also be possible to observe a certain pattern in the
tasks or functions that make up the central parts, or the central cultural segments, in this
human joint action. In this connection it is meaningful to operate with eight such
cultural segments which are all manifested in any culture, but which may individually
and in relation to each other manifest themselves in very different ways.