11.2 Theories of Intercultural Communication

Learning Objectives

  • Compare and contrast the work of three cross-cultural theorists.
  • Explain the difference between low and high-context cultures.

Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars are two theorists studying the differences between cultures. Common to these approaches is the prominence of context, leading to a view of human interactions as dynamic and changeable, given the complexity of language and culture, as human agents interact with their environments. Intercultural communication is often associated with professional areas such as business, education, healthcare, or hospitality services. These are all areas where communication with those representing different cultures and languages is crucial and encounters between those representing different cultures are increasingly the norm.


Social psychologist Geert Hofstede (Hofstede, 1982, 2001, 2005) is one of the most well-known researchers in cross-cultural communication and management. Hofstede’s theory places cultural dimensions on a continuum that ranges from high to low and only makes sense when the elements are compared to another culture. Hofstede’s dimensions include the following:

  • Power distance: High power distance means a culture accepts and expects a great deal of hierarchy; low power distance means the opposite — the president and the janitor could be on the same level.
  • Individualism: High individualism means that culture tends to put individual needs ahead of group or collective needs.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: High uncertainty avoidance means a culture tends to go to some lengths to be able to predict and control the future. Low uncertainty avoidance means the culture is more relaxed about the future, sometimes showing a willingness to take risks.
  • Masculinity: High masculinity relates to a society valuing traits that were traditionally considered masculine, such as competition, aggressiveness, and achievement. A low masculinity score demonstrates traditionally considered feminine traits, such as cooperation, caring, and quality of life.
  • Long-term orientation: High long-term orientation means a culture tends to take a long-term, sometimes multigenerational view when making decisions about the present and the future. Low long-term orientation is often demonstrated in cultures that want quick results and tend to spend instead of save.
  • Indulgence: High indulgence means cultures that are okay with people indulging their desires and impulses. Low indulgence or restraint-based cultures value people who control or suppress desires and impulses.

These tools can provide excellent general insight into understanding differences and similarities across key below-the-surface cross-cultural elements. However, remember that people are still individuals who may or may not conform to the categories listed in Hofstede’s dimensions.


Fons Trompenaars is another researcher who developed a different set of cross-cultural measures. These are his seven dimensions of culture (Trompenaars, 2000.):

  • Universalism versus particularism: the extent that a culture is more likely to apply rules and laws to ensure fairness in contrast to a culture that looks at the specifics of context and at who is involved to ensure fairness. The former puts the task first; the latter puts the relationship first.
  • Individualism versus communitarianism: the extent that people prioritize individual interests versus the community’s interest.
  • Specific versus diffuse: the extent that a culture prioritizes a head-down, task-focused approach to doing work versus an inclusive, overlapping relationship between life and work.
  • Neutral versus emotional: the extent that a culture works to avoid showing emotion versus a culture that values a display or expression of emotions.
  • Achievement versus ascription: the degree to which a culture values earned an achievement in what you do versus ascribed qualities related to who you are based on elements such as title, lineage, or position.
  • Sequential time versus synchronous time: the degree to which a culture prefers doing things one at a time in an orderly fashion versus preferring a more flexible approach to time with the ability to do many things simultaneously.
  • Internal direction versus outer direction: the degree to which culture members believe they have control over themselves and their environment versus being more conscious of how to conform to the external environment.

Like Hofstede’s work, Trompenaars’ (2000) dimensions help us understand some of those beneath-the-surface-of-the-iceberg elements of culture. It is equally important to understand our own cultures as it is to look at others, always being mindful that our cultures and others are made up of individuals.


Stella Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory builds on some of the cross-cultural concepts you have already learned, such as example, individual versus collective cultures. When discussing face negotiation theory, face means your identity, image, and how you look or come off to yourself and others (communicationtheory.org, n.d.). The theory says this concern for “face” is common across every culture, but various cultures—especially Eastern versus Western cultures—approach this concern differently. Individualist cultures, for example, tend to be more concerned with preserving their face, while collective cultures focus more on preserving others’ faces. Loss of face leads to feelings of embarrassment or identity erosion, whereas gaining or maintaining face can mean improved status, relations, and general positivity. Actions to preserve or reduce face are called facework. Power distance is another concept that is important to this theory. Most collective cultures tend to have more hierarchy or a higher power distance when compared to individualist cultures. This means that maintaining the face of others at a higher level than yours is an important part of life. This is contrasted with individualist cultures, where society expects you to express yourself, make your opinion known, and look out for number one. This distinction becomes important in interpersonal communication between people whose cultural backgrounds have different approaches to facework; it usually leads to conflict. Based on this dynamic, the following conflict styles typically occur:

  • Domination: dominating or controlling the conflict (individualist approach)
  • Avoiding: dodging the conflict altogether (collectivist approach)
  • Obliging: yielding to the other person (collectivist approach)
  • Compromising: a give-and-take negotiated approach to solving the conflict (individualist approach)
  • Integrating: a collaborative negotiated approach to solving the conflict (individualist approach)

Another essential facet of this theory involves high-context versus low-context cultures. High-context cultures are replete with implied meanings beyond the words on the surface and even body language that may not be obvious to people unfamiliar with the context. Low-context cultures are typically more direct and tend to use words to attempt to convey precise meaning. For example, an agreement in a high-context culture might be verbal because the parties know each other’s families, histories, and social positions. This knowledge is sufficient for the agreement to be enforced. No one has to say, “I know where you live. If you do not hold up your end of the bargain, …” because the shared understanding is implied and highly contextual. A low-context culture usually requires highly detailed, written agreements that both parties sign, sometimes mediated through specialists like lawyers, as a way to enforce the agreement. This is low context because the written agreement spells out all the details so that not much is left to the imagination or “context.”

Key Takeaways

  • Whether a culture values individualism or the collective community is a recurring dimension in many cross-cultural communication theories developed by Hofstede,  Tromenaars and TIng-Toomey.


Face-Negotiation Theory. (n.d.). Communication Theory. Retrieved from http://communicationtheory.org/face-negotiation-theory/.

Hofstede, G. (1982). Culture’s consequences (2nd ed.). Newbury Park,       CA: Sage.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (Revised and expanded 2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Trompenaars F, and Hampden-Turner, C. (2000) ‘Building Cross-Cultural Competence,’ New Haven: Yale University Press.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Dingwall, J. R., Labrie, C., McLennon., & Underwood, L. (2021). Cross-Cultural Communication. Olds College/Libre Texts. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Communication/Introduction_to_Communication/Remix%3A_Professional_Communications_Foundations_(Dingwall_Labrie_McLennon_and_Underwood)/04%3A_Interpersonal/04.4%3A_Cross-Cultural_Communication

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book