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You Say 'Po-Tay-Toe', I Say 'Po-Tah-Toe': Crossing Boundaries in Communication

Theresa Young, ACWA's summer intern, is a rising junior at Denison University. She is an East Asian Studies major and speaks Japanese. During her coursework she has taken classes on intercultural communication and globalization. Theresa will be studying abroad in the fall of 2006.

Intercultural communication operates on the principle that every individual participates in a form of intercultural communication nearly every day and that it is unavoidable in the rapidly globalizing atmosphere that now exists. 

"Intercultural" as a term is not exclusive to race.  It encompasses such arenas as nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, place of residence and others.  The theory behind the principle of inevitable participation is that each group has its own code of communication, with different values and ethics.  What one group finds offensive in terminology may be perfectly acceptable to another group.

Intercultural communication does not attempt to create a universal language or dialogue among the many groups that interact with each other; it recognizes the impossibility of creating a mutually acceptable method of communication for all the cultural groups of the world and instead focuses on raising awareness and competency in negotiating the unavoidable difficulties that arise in communication.

A basic tenet of the discipline is that "common sense is not common to everyone."  Even more deeply, common sense within one cultural group is not the same and some individuals will have a different idea of what comprises common sense.  Operating from that assumption, the mechanics of intercultural communication become simple to understand and to practice.

Intercultural communication frequently addresses the issue of power. As much as the participants would like to believe they are equal, that is essentially impossible due to the dialectics described below. One person or persons in the exchange will always be at a disadvantage and the power shifts to the other person or persons.  Although power can shift throughout the exchange, the goal is not to gain power.  Rather, if you have power, the aim is to minimize the dominance you exert over the person and to understand that you are operating from a different perspective.

One scholar of intercultural communication said, "Power is the ability to make others inhabit your version of their reality."  This is perhaps the most concise definition of power available.

Intercultural communication also operates on dialectics.  A dialectic in intercultural communication is a method of argument that weighs contradictory ideas and arrives at a resolution of those contradictions.  These are the history/past-present/future dialectic, the culture-individual dialectic, the personal-contextual dialectic, the differences-similarities dialectic, the static-dynamic dialectic and the privilege-disadvantage dialectic.

The first dialectic deals with the fact that a cultural group is influenced by shared history and typically shares goals for the present and future; their perceptions of an event will take into account things important to their culture in history and in goals.

The culture-individual dialectic recognizes that a person may sometimes be in opposition to his or her own culture because personal desires are different from those typical of the culture.

The personal-contextual dialectic is closely related to the culture-individual dialectic, as it states that although something could be interpreted one way in a context it varies person to person, and each person carries his or her own context for communication.

The differences-similarities dialectic states that in every intercultural exchange there will be both differences and similarities and that it is possible to work with and around them in order to enrich the communication.

The static-dynamic dialectic recognizes that certain parts of an individual's personality are constant and will never change, while other parts are more fluid and will change and grow as the person learns more and gleans more experience in more areas.

The last dialectic, the static-dynamic, states that in any exchange there will be a position of advantage and disadvantage.  The advantage may be economic, it may be in numbers, such as four females and one male, or physical size.

Key to the study of intercultural communication is the identity of the participants.  There are two identities for each individual.  The individual will have an avowed identity, which is how that person perceives his or her own self.  It is possible that their avowed identity is different from the norm for that culture and it will certainly include the ways in which that person diverges from the dominant culture in his or her group.

The other identity is the ascribed identity, which is given to that person by those with whom he or she interacts.  Ascribed identity is how others perceive you as a person.  That identity may be similar to the avowed identity or in direct opposition.  Ascribed identities tend to include more ideas and characteristics that are influenced by stereotypes, both positive and negative, than do avowed identities.

The ultimate goal of intercultural communication is to achieve what is called unconscious competence.  There are four progressive stages of intercultural communication ability that one advances through based on experience in communicating with others.

The first is called "unconscious incompetence," a stage characterized by many blunders and possibly confrontations, all of which arise out of ignorance of the other person or people's culture.  In this stage, the "unconscious incompetent" does not realize anything is going wrong.

The next stage, called "conscious incompetence" has fewer blunders, though there are still mistakes, and the feeling that things are not going well.  The individual is aware of problems but does not know how to fix them, or where the problem is.

The next stage is "conscious competence," in which the participant realizes the potential hazards of intercultural communication and has committed to being an honest and non-judgmental interlocutor.  This stage typically has extremely careful speech and little information is actually exchanged due to sensitivity to the other person's beliefs and values.

The last stage, called "unconscious competence," has very few mistakes made, but with none of the hesitancy of the previous stage.  In this stage, the individuals are aware of the other's culture and recognize that sometimes opinions will be in opposition but understand it is due to differences in culture.  The participants are committed to a dialogue and an open exchange of information for the sake of education rather than conversion.  The way of speaking does not require thought and the conversation is easy and relaxed.


Martin, J., & Nakayama, T. (1999). Thinking dialectically about culture and communication. Communication Theory, 9, 1-25.

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