What’s the difference between cross-cultural, intercultural, and multicultural? And, should we care?

  • What’s the difference between cross-cultural, intercultural, and multicultural? And, should we care?

    What’s the difference between cross-cultural, intercultural, and multicultural? And, should we care?

    First, there’s a difference.  

    Let’s start with the easy bit — let’s define cultural.  Logically, the word cultural is an adjective relating to culture.  But how do we define culture

    Geert Hofstede calls culture “the software of the mind.” 

    Hans Gullestrup explains, “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.”

    Everyone has a different opinion.  In my research, most international managers mention art, music, and corporate culture first.  Some include language, religions, and habits.  But those with cross-cultural training are quick to emphasize culture’s relationship to strategies, marketing, or other traditional business activities.  And, this only scratches the surface.  Digging further into culture deserves a blog of its own, …or a white paper, …or a book…so we’ll leave the definition of culture for now.

    Let’s focus on the differences in the prefixes — cross-, inter-, and multi-.  Just like the word “culture,” everyone seems to have a different take on these.  Rather than join the debate, or expand on these definitions, I’ve done the opposite.  This article cuts through the clutter and uses definitions from routinely accessed sources — the dictionaries.  In fact, the dictionaries were relatively consistent and seemed to capture the essence of the more complicated definitions in the scholarly papers.  

    With that settled, let’s compare terms.

    What does cross-cultural mean?

    According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, cross-cultural means “dealing with or offering comparison between two or more different cultures or cultural areas.”  This simple definition works as cross-cultural researchers study and compare cultures. Cross-cultural communication explores the different communication styles of cultural groups. 


    For example, a Swiss IT manager complained that the China IT team lied: “The Chinese tell us everything is fine when they’re having problems.  They lie.  Why don’t they just tell us the truth?” 

    Although both IT teams speak English, they use the language differently.  They have different communication styles.  The Chinese communicate negative information indirectly.  Saying “no” seems harsh and confrontational, so they avoid it.  Instead, to save face, they convey negative news by pausing, using body language, or a seemly unrelated story.  Their words may even say the opposite.  The Swiss IT manager is a direct communicator, so she listens to the words.  She doesn’t pay attention to the pauses or story, then labels the Chinese as liars.  If this Swiss IT manager responded by confronting the Chinese team, this communication issue could spin out of control.  

    Cross-cultural training explains these differences.  Understanding differences helps those involved to see communication differences as style differences, rather than character issues.  It also helps us translate verbal and non-verbal communications.  But what do we do with this information.  This is where intercultural training comes in.  

    What does “intercultural” mean?

    First, let’s make a distinction:  The study of different styles is cross-cultural, and the study of cultures interacting with one another is interculturalIntercultural is used to describe cultures meeting, clashing, and making adjustments.  According to the Oxford Dictionary intercultural is defined as “taking place between cultures, or derived from different cultures.” 

    In his book, Cross-Cultural and Intercultural Communications, Gudykunst separates the two into separate parts of his book.  He explains that cross-cultural is the overall topic and intercultural is a “subset.”  “Cross-cultural communications is a prerequisite for intercultural communications.”  


    Let’s return to our example of the Swiss and Chinese IT teams.  Cross-cultural training explains differences, intercultural training offers processes and tools to adjust to those differences.  Intercultural studies help us build bridges, cross-cultural studies tells us where the bridges start and end.  Because they often overlap, workshops may be labeled under either or both terms.  For instance, I’ve called this training Cross-Cultural and Intercultural Training and Team-Building.  


    What does multicultural mean?

    Multicultural seems like a straightforward word, as it implies having to do with multiple cultures.  Unfortunately, its not quite that simple either.  The Oxford Dictionary, defines it: “for or including people of several different races, religions, languages, and traditions.”  The Webster Dictionary takes this one step further by “advocating” for multiple cultures, as this word is used by policy makers, and may be linked to quotas. 


    Multicultural, cross-cultural, intercultural definitions explained.

    In cultural training, multicultural normally describes the make-up of something, often a team.  For example, an HR manager may describe her domestic team as multicultural, because there are several nationalities on it.  I describe our Cultural Insight Framework as multicultural, as teams can may any culture onto it.  


    Are these terms important?

    Some believe passionately that terms are important and their definitions should be respected. 

    This is particularly difficult when working across cultures, as even the most mundane words have different meanings.  Let’s take the word football.  We all know what a football is, right?  Well no.  Even native English speakers don’t agree.  In the US, a football is oval shaped. In the UK, it’s round.

    So, why not listen to other definitions with an open mind.  And with this thought, here are a few alternative ideas to the definitions proposed above:

    • Atamaniuk, Aljona. (2014)  The terms “multicultural”, “cross-cultural”, “intercultural”. Meaning, differences, area of using.  https://www.grin.com/document/280911
    • Fries, Susan. (n.d.)  Cultural, Multicultural, Cross-cultural, Intercultural: A Moderator’s Proposal.  TESOL France.  https://www.tesol-france.org/uploaded_files/files/susan-fries.pdf
    • The United Church of Canada. (2011)  Defining Multicultural, Cross-cultural, and Intercultural. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ljubomir_Jacic2/post/Why_we_named_multiculturalism_in_Europe_interculturalism_in_Quebec_and_cultural_diversity_in_Brazil/attachment/59d6466bc49f478072eae6a5/AS%3A273834429616132%401442298623252/download/multicultural-crosscultural-intercultural.pdf

    With all this talk of terms.  I have to admit that I try to avoid extra terms and jargon.  They get in the way, cause confusion, or add an extra layer to communications.  These terms are particularly difficult because definitions vary.  Some people use them, some don’t, and many people use them interchangeably.  

    So, are these terms important?  For me, cultural training is critical for everyone working internationally, but the label doesn’t matter.  It’s more important to use the terms wrongly, than not to use them at all.


    Kimberly VanLandingham is the CEO, and trainer/adviser for European Market Link Sàrl.  She specializes in international communication workshops for technical, sales and businesses teams and leaders.  With over 20 years of corporate international business experience, working for  DuPont Company in technical, sales/marketing and global business management roles; Kimberly offers action-oriented, practical cross-cultural and intercultural training, without silly games.  Kimberly has a MA in cross-cultural communications, and a BS in electrical engineering and is on the board of SIETAR Switzerland (Society of Intercultural Education, Training, and Research)

    Painting by Mark Gear.

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