Intracultural, Intercultural, Cross-Cultural, and International Communication: What’s the Difference?

by Igor Ristić

Today I want to answer a question I’ve had myself, and one I believe other communication, sociology, anthropology, political science, international relations, and students of other related disciplines might have.

What is the difference between intracultural, intercultural, cross-cultural, and international communication?

They may all seem to be talking about the same thing, but when scheduling your classes, you might see one intercultural class, one cross-cultural class, and another international communication class. If you are already in a related class, you might be reading studies or chapters that use all of these terms.

From a communication perspective, these terms DO NOT represent the same thing. While they all might be underneath a similar roof, they describe entirely different rooms. The differences in the meanings have to do with the perspective researchers take when studying a certain phenomenon, and the type of research they decide to do. Also, the differences have to do with what factors are influencing the communication. Knowing the differences between these terms will help you in future class projects or in conversations with nerdy people such as this author (I’m blogging about definitions, can’t hide the nerdiness if I wanted to). At the very least, knowing these differences might help you at the local bar trivia night one day!

To answer this question, I turn to the textbook Intercultural Competence by Myron Lustig and Jolene Koester. They clearly define each term in Chapter Two of their text.

  • Intracultural Communication 

For this term, note the ‘intra’ as compared to the ‘inter’ I will discuss below. Intracultural communication describes communication between at least two people who are from the same culture or have culturally similar backgrounds. So, a conversation between two American citizens who both grew up on the farms of Georgia would be intracultural because they will essentially have the same background and cultural orientations.

  • Intercultural Communication 

Intercultural communication describes communication between at least two people who are different in significant ways culturally. For instance, a conversation between a man who grew up in Nepal and a woman who grew up in Micronesia would probably be an intercultural conversation because we could study how the different cultural backgrounds of the two people affect their communication strategies towards each other.

  • Cross-Cultural

Cross-Cultural communication IS NOT the same thing as intercultural communication. While intercultural communication deals with the interaction between at least two people, cross-cultural communication describes the comparison of communication styles across cultures. For instance, a paper about what happens when a Moroccan man speaks with a Hawaiian woman would be intercultural, but a paper comparing the communication patterns of people from Morocco with the communication patterns of people from Hawaii would be cross-cultural.

  • International Communication

This one is similar to intercultural communication because it also describes communication between at least two people who are from different cultures. However, topics concerning international communication don’t really look at how cultural differences affect specific interactions between two people because they are often focused on a larger picture. For instance, international communication might describe how government offices from the U.S. communicate with government offices from Turkey. Furthermore, they may describe communication between individuals who live in different cultures, but have similar experiences (e.g., email communication between friends who both studied together in the U.S. as exchange students but then went back to their own respective countries).

As with all things in the humanities, oftentimes concepts overlap with each other and change over time. For instance, one paper you write might easily talk about both intracultural and intercultural communication, or you may start a paper from the intercultural perspective and move up to a more general cross-cultural perspective. Also, as people change, the communication between them changes. Take the example of an intercultural friendship…it’s intercultural in the beginning because the two people might be from different cultures. However, if that friendship lasts for many years, they will learn enough about each others cultures to completely change the dynamic of the communication in their relationship and make it an interpersonal one instead.

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