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JoAnne Stein

IPC 491

Intercultural Communication Training: An Overview

The primary purpose of this essay is to explore the significant issues pertaining to

intercultural communication and intercultural communication training. This includes

outlining a definition of intercultural communication, providing a brief history of

intercultural communication training, outlining current issues in this area of study, and

providing an overview of the content involved in training programs.

Intercultural communication can be defined as “the symbolic exchange process

whereby individuals from two (or more) different cultural communities negotiate shared

meanings in an interactive situation” (Ting-Toomey, 2005, p. 39). This definition

suggests that intercultural communication is simply interpersonal communication that

takes place between people from different cultures. However, such a definition leads to

the need to define what a culture is. The aforementioned definition states that individuals

“negotiate shared meanings.” This implies that what separates cultures are the different

symbols used to communicate among individuals in that culture. Ting-Toomey (2005)

provides a definition of culture that supports this by stating that it is “a learned system of

meanings—a value-laden meaning system that helps you to ‘make sense’ of and explain

what is going on in your everyday intercultural surroundings” (p. 27).

Yet another definition states the intercultural communication is “a symbolic

exchange process between persons of different cultures” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 21).

This definition as well indicates the importance of symbols and various meanings when

communicating. It can be inferred that what complicates communication between


individuals from different cultures is that the symbols used to communicate have

different meanings which causes confusion and difficulty communicating.

Although a single definition of culture has not been agreed upon by all the

scholars researched, these two definitions provide an effective means of explaining

culture in the context of intercultural communication. Furthermore, intercultural

communication training strives to teach trainees how to effectively communicate in

intercultural situations. This is accomplished by teaching training participants about the

different meanings that are culturally constructed and complicate the communication


The goal of intercultural communication training seems to be generally agreed

upon by many intercultural communication scholars. According to Brislin & Yoshida

(1976), “intercultural communication training refers to formal efforts designed to prepare

people for more effective interpersonal relations when they interact with individuals from

cultures other than their own” (p. 2). Another goal is to “encourage constructive and

nonstressful interaction between members of different cultures” (Brislin & Pedersen,

1976, p. 2). Ting-Toomey (1999) states that the goal is “to create shared meanings

between dissimilar individuals in an interactive situation” (p. 21).

All of these goals seem to express a similar idea, maintaining that the primary

goal is to facilitate effective communication. These goals also support the idea expressed

in the definition that indicates the importance of symbols, acknowledges the different

symbols present in various cultures, and the need to understand these symbols in order to

communicate effectively. This is articulately summed up by Wiseman & Shuter (1994) in

the statement that intercultural communication training “[encompasses] all activities


designed to facilitate effective interactions between culturally different persons” (p. 153).

Another view states that a good training program should have the following four

goals: “enjoyment and benefit”, “attitudes of hosts toward sojourners”, “people’s own

goals”, and “stress reduction” (Brislin & Yoshida, 1994, p. 6-10).

Enjoyment and benefit refers to the idea that a training program should strive to

be pleasant, perhaps even fun, and benefit its participants. The attitude of hosts towards

sojourners indicates the importance of relationships between the participants. Having a

positive and healthy interpersonal relationship between participants “allows skills transfer

to take place” (Brislin & Yoshida, 1994, p. 8). A good training program also shows an

awareness of people’s own goals and “provides information that will help people achieve

their goals” (Brislin & Yoshida, 1994, p. 9). This will also ease the conveyance of

information to the audience. If participants feel they are benefiting from the program and

learning something that will benefit them personally, the training program will be more

effective due to a more receptive audience. Finally, stress reduction is a very important

goal of any intercultural communication training program.

As a goal, stress reduction wisely notes that “the goal should be its reduction

rather than its elimination” (Brislin & Yoshida, 1994, p. 10). This is important to realize

because no matter how much one studies another culture, no matter how many hours are

spent in training, one can never be fully prepared to enter another culture. It is nearly

impossible to fully prevent culture shock, and having a realistic expectation for a training

program is necessary for the success of the program.

Lastly, it is important to be aware of another goal of intercultural communication


training: to minimize culture shock. York (1994) explains that culture shock is a feeling

of anxiety that one gets when one loses “all familiar signs and symbols of social

intercourse” because it is “these signs or cues” that determine the “ways we orient

ourselves to the situation of daily life” (p. 177). This definition of culture shock

acknowledges the importance of symbols in communication and indicates that it is

important to understand cultural symbols and differences in order to have effective


Based on the goals of intercultural communication training, it is important to

know which elements of cultural meaning must be known in order to facilitate effective

intercultural communication. Throughout the literature that has been written on

intercultural communication, almost all scholars agree upon a set of cultural dimensions

that categorize cultures throughout the world. These dimensions are: individualism vs.

collectivism, content specific vs. content diffuse, sequential time vs. synchronic time,

short-term time vs. long-term time, universalism vs. particularism, neutral vs. affective,

achievement vs. ascription, internal vs. external, large power distance vs. small power

distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity vs. femininity (Kim, 1999, p. 14-47). It

is these cultural differences “that really ‘make a difference’ in intercultural encounters”

(Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 3). Dimensions such as these influence how someone from a

certain culture communicates. By understanding these dimensions and how they impact

communication, one can begin to communicate more effectively in intercultural contexts.

While there have been numerous volumes written on each dimension, I will

provide a brief outline of several of these dimensions.


First, individualism and collectivism indicates the tendency to emphasize the

importance of the individual or group within a culture. Individualistic cultures, for

example, emphasize “the importance of individual identity over group identity, individual

rights over group rights, and individual needs over group needs” while collectivistic

cultures emphasize “the importance of the ‘we’ identity over the ‘I’ identity, group rights

over individual rights, and in-group-oriented needs over individual wants and desires”

(Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 67).

Second, the power distance dimension illustrates “the extent to which the less

powerful members of institutions…accept that power is distributed unequally” (Ting-

Toomey, 1999, p. 69).

Third, the uncertainty avoidance dimension tells “the extent to which the

members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations and the extent to

which they try to avoid these situations” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 71).

Lastly, a “masculine” culture means that “gender roles are clearly distinct” while

a “feminine” culture means that “social gender roles overlap” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p.


In addition to the different cultural dimensions listed, there are other barriers to

effective intercultural communication. These include language, nonverbal signals such as

“gestures, postures, and other metamessages,” “preconceptions and stereotypes” of one’s

own or another culture, “a tendency to evaluate…the content of communication received

from others,” and the high levels of “anxiety that shrouds cross-cultural communication”

due to the fact that communicating interculturally is a highly unfamiliar experience for

most people (Brislin & Pedersen, 1976, p. 11-12).


Overall, this is only a brief outline of all the differences that are culturally

constructed and that affect how one communicates. Such cultural differences influence

how an individual thinks about themselves, others, and the world around them. They also

attach different meanings to different things. If this meaning is not known to the person

they are communicating with, there is a misunderstanding and effective communication

cannot take place. Intercultural communication training attempts to analyze these

differences and determine those necessary to study in order to understand how culturally

different individuals communicate.

Interestingly enough, the field of training is also a relatively new area of study.

Kohls (1995) explains that “while learning and education have been with us for a very

long time, training is a relatively new activity” and “has only been considered a field

since about 1965” (p. 3). Briefly, training is a “field of expertise in and of itself, divorced

from the content of any particular training program” (Kohls, 1995, p. 3). In other words,

the field of training studies how to best transfer knowledge about a topic to an audience.

In addition, an effective trainer does not need to be an expert in a certain field in order to

effectively communicate information about a topic to an audience. Kohls (1995) sums

this up by stating, “training is the master discipline which makes it possible to transfer

other disciplines” (p. 3).

A more in depth analysis reveals that the field of training is very broad and there

are many topics to be considered. For example, there is a debate between whether a

trainer should take the role of an experiential trainer or a traditional trainer. The

experiential trainer “focuses on the process of learning—learning how to learn” while the

traditional trainer “focuses on teaching…content, facts and information” (Kohls, 1995, p.


As the field of training is relatively new, the specific area of intercultural

communication training is consequently a young area of study as well. One researcher

outlined several events that have contributed to the popularity and newfound need for

intercultural communication training programs. York (1994) cites three main stages in

the development of training. First, there was a transfer of technology between the United

States and their global allies after World War II (York, 1994, p. 59). A second stage

involved the “drive to transfer American life abroad” during the 1960s when the Peace

Corps “was formed to help initiate cultural change abroad” and to “help unfortunates” (p.

59). Programs like the Peace Corps meant Americans had to enter new cultures and it

was gradually realized that there was a need to understand the host culture in order to be

effective in ones mission. Initially, programs like the Peace Corps “were based on the

assumptions that certain cultural outcomes and styles were inadequate for survival in the

modern world and that these outcomes could be remedied by the infusion of middle-class,

white, American culture” (York, 1994, p. 59). However, the third stage was the

realization that the emphasis should not be on “exporting American culture, or adapting

to the local culture, but on finding a ‘match’ between cultures” (York, 1994, p. 60).

In addition to the stages mentioned, there is also the question of globalization and

the increasing disappearance of borders in business and international trade. According to

Ting-Toomey (1999), “successful business today depends on effective globalization” and

“effective globalization…depends on dealing with a diverse workforce” (p. 4).

Overall, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected and as a consequence,


people from various cultures are interacting with people from various other cultures on a

more frequent basis. While one can easily argue over the existence of globalization or

the need for intercultural communication training, the point of this essay is not to debate

the issue but merely provide an overview of the field.

Intercultural training as a specific field of training has its own issues and debates.

To illustrate this point, anyone studying this field will come across the argument for

culture-specific versus culture-general training approaches. Other issues emphasizing the

depth of this field exist but are too numerous to outline in an introductory survey of the


The field of intercultural communication training encompasses numerous topics

that make up an effective training program and indicate the qualifications necessary in a

trainer. Several topics include the characteristics, the structure and content, the

motivating factors of a training program, and the evaluation of training programs.

York (1994) states that “all cross-cultural training is united by five core

characteristics” no matter what the content is” (p. 66). First, the training that takes place

“occurs within a limited time” (York, 1994, p. 67). Second, “the goals and outcomes of

training are tied to events people find distressing and confusing in a new culture;” third,

“training is trainee-centered;” fourth, the motivations of trainees and “their intentions for

success” vary from program to program; and fifth, the training may be culture-general or

culture-specific (York, 1994, p. 67).

By understanding these core characteristics, one can begin to design a training

program based on them. After analyzing the various characteristics, one can determine

the best approach for the program based on the needs of the participants.

The debate over how training programs should be structured is also a factor to be

considered when designing a program. So far, six different types of training have been

identified. These are (1) information-oriented training, (2) attribution training, (3)

cultural awareness training, (4) cognitive-behavioral training, (5) interactive training, and

(6) experiential training (York, 1994, p. 103).

There have been countless works that address the issue of types of training and

which is the most effective. The six types mentioned are the most commonly referenced

one but there are more in existence. The pros and cons of each are numerous and can be

reviewed along with the individual needs of the program participants to determine which

approach is best.

The prerequisite context for training programs is often some sort of conflict,

whether past, present, or anticipated in the future. Fowler & Blohm (2004) state that

“training is frequently requested to solve an existing identified problem or to prevent

future problems” (p. 41). Therefore it is important to acknowledge that “difficulties of

some kind are the motivating factors for many training programs” and that, consequently,

the training “should be framed as a safe haven” (Fowler & Blohm, 2004, p. 41).

In sum, it is important to realize the context of the training program in order to

design an effective program. A trainer should know the history of a problem if one exists

and then approach the situation with care. If the goal of the program is to prevent future

problems, the training program must be adjusted to obtain this objective.

In addition, there is the issue of qualifications needed in a trainer in order to

effectively facilitate a training session. One training guide lists several areas of

competence. These are: “area knowledge of the target country,” “living experience in the

target country,” “a positive attitude toward the country and its people,” “the experience of

having lived through culture shock,” “a fundamental knowledge of basic American values

and implicit cultural assumptions and how to articulate them,” “experience as a trainer,”

and “interest in training for content as well as process” (Kohls, 1995, p. 19).

The evaluation of training programs can almost be considered another field in and

of itself. After one has spent so much time analyzing the needs of the participants, what

the best training program is, what content to include, and how to communicate the

content, there still remains the question of whether the training was successful.

With intercultural communication training it is important to realize that the

definition of a successful program will vary from culture to culture. Therefore, it is

impossible to list universal attributes to measure the success of a program. Nonetheless,

program evaluation is a very important aspect of the training process. Success can be

assured through needs assessment and analysis of the specific needs and desired

outcomes of a training program. But the process of measuring effectiveness of training is

a complex process and involves many different methods not to be discussed at this time.

In conclusion, intercultural communication training encompasses the fields of

communication and training separately. It requires a definition of culture and an in depth

analysis of cultural differences that affect communication. The training aspect involves

numerous aspects that contribute to the overall success of a training program and has just

as many aspects available to measure effectiveness. After reviewing the various elements

of intercultural communication training, one can now begin to analyze each aspect in

depth and acquire more detailed information. While this essay does not include an

overview on all aspects of the field, it provides a brief overview of some of the main

points and provides a starting point for further research.

Works Cited

Brislin, R. W. & Pedersen, P. (1976). Cross-Cultural Orientation Programs. New York:

Garnder Press, Inc.

Brislin, R. & Yoshida, T. (1994). Intercultural Communication Training: An

Introduction. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc.

Fowler, S. M., & Blohm, J. M. (2004). An Analysis of Methods for Intercultural

Training. In D. Landis, J.M. Bennett & M.J. Bennet (Eds.), Handbook of

Intercultural Training. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc.

Kim, H. (1999). Transcultural Customization of International Training Programs. New

York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Kohls, L. R. (1995). Training Know-How for Cross Cultural and Diversity Trainers.

Duncanville, TX: Adult Learning Systems, Inc.

Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating Across Cultures. New York: The Guildford


Ting-Toomey, S. (2005). Understanding Intercultural Communication. Los Angeles:

Roxbury Publishing Company.

Wiseman, R. L. & Shuter, R. (Eds.). (1994). Communicating in Multinational

Organizations. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc.

York, D. E. (1994). Cross-Cultural Training Programs. Westport, CT: Bergin &