The Intercultural Person

I was recently told by one of my regular (and rare) readers of this blog when she saw me face-to-face at church that my blogs had finally gotten beyond her. She was referring to all the blogs I have been writing on the materials I have been reading from my Master’s degree coursework in International and Intercultural Communications. I assured her that I would be coming back up for breath sometime soon. Only 6 more weeks of this class to go. But I am not coming up for breath today. Instead, I am digging even deeper into the subject.

I am not sure if I have voiced it previously in my posts, but to date, for a course that is supposed to be about international communications, I have been somewhat disappointed to see how American-centric the materials are.  When they do touch subjects about intercultural issues, it always has this underlying idea that all problems are because of the dominance of America and Western culture, and that these issues were created by Westerners, that other cultures have not experienced these things, or not in such an extreme form, until the West came along and messed things up.

This sort of self-flagellation is not highly productive. It creates resistance by those who feel they are being falsely blamed. It also distorts history and gives a false view of the world around us.

But now my readings recently – the “extra readings” outside the main textbooks – have piqued my interest. Their topics are hitting on the intercultural topics I was hoping the course would hit. Of course, the article I am dissecting today is even worse for professional jargon than the text books (the text books actually are fairly straightforward and readable by comparison). So apologies in advance, oh regular reader, but hopefully I can make at least some of this make sense.

First, let me start by giving the Reference for the work, with the understanding that all the quotes will be from that work, unless otherwise noted:

Intercultural personhood and identity negotiation.. (n.d.) >The Free Library. (2014). Retrieved Jan 25 2015 from

Concept of Intercultural Personhood

In this paper, intercultural personhood is … a human mechanism that operates in the whole process of intercultural communication. We hold that intercultural persons are extensions of cultural-selves whose qualities lie in their openness to cultural others, their willingness to negotiate differences, the ability to reach intercultural agreements, the ability to integrate diverse cultural elements, as well as the potential to achieve identity extension and mutual growth.

Note here that the intercultural person remains a part of their own culture, but has a capability to see beyond their own culture and into others. Not only do they see differences, but they are open to them, without losing themselves in the other.

Effective intercultural communication requires both the openness to cultural others and the willingness to negotiate differences. To negotiate differences means that intercultural person tries to give up cultural stereotypes, prejudices or ethnocentrism, and aims at conducting dialogue with others on equal footing. … Ethnocentric communicators, who only view things from their own perspective, can hardly reach any true intercultural consensus… (I)ntercultural identity negotiation should be interpreted as a coordinated process of mutual informing, mutual learning and mutual compromising, in which negotiators endeavor to reach intercultural agreements.

This reminds me of the character Willard Neufsteiler in the Honor Harrington universe of Sci-Fi author David Weber.  The one remarkable trait he was known for was in always arranging deals and contracts that were mutually beneficial to both sides.  The win-win scenario. The intercultural person has that same mentality.

Intercultural negotiation is a long process that requires the negotiator’s patience. There are no shortcuts to intercultural relationships, no vicarious ways to learn how to relate to people of another culture; only actual contact with individuals over an extended period of time begins to build intercultural understanding (Huston, 1994)… People with diverse cultural backgrounds… see different worlds that are often incommensurable to each other (Foley, 2001). For example … high-context cultural members would also find it difficult to comprehend the information sent by low-context cultural members. Intercultural person breaks up rigid cultural boundaries, through which symbols from different cultures gradually penetrate into each other and form a new overarching system.

Integrating new elements into one’s own cultural script is an effective way to achieve identity extension… When foreign elements or ideas are incorporated into a local culture, people’s horizon will be broadened, and consequently they will acquire new cultural attributes. As the overlaps increase, people from different cultures begin to live in each other’s world. What is foreign will become localized; what is strange will become familiar; what is inappropriate or unacceptable may become acceptable or even popular.

The process described, is long, slow, and transformative.  The intercultural person stays a part of  his culture, but does not stay the same within that culture.  The function of being the bridge changes both him, and hopefully his culture and the culture he is reaching out to.

Development of an Intercultural Person

To be a creative intercultural person means to embark on a trip to cross one’s own cultural boundary and to open up new possibilities. Intercultural persons take their own culture as the platform from which they seek intercultural agreements and aim at promoting mutual understanding, mutual identification and mutual growth. They believe in relative autonomy of their culture but at the same time fully recognize the significance of interactions among cultures. On the one hand, they spare no effort to reach intercultural agreements; on the other hand, they strongly commit to maintaining their own uniqueness.

The intercultural person is not the cosmopolitan person. That person loses contact or understanding of their own culture and the cultures they are interacting with. To be intercultural you have to be firmly grounded in your own culture, yet not afraid to examine it with the same intense lense to you take to the cultures you are reaching out to.

In our opinion, intercultural person’s identity is embedded in his social life and historical experiences. It is further shaped by intercultural encounters. He/she is more an extended person than a person who lives on the border… Generally, the cultural values of the society in which he/she lives life or the society chosen to identify with constitutes the salient part of the identity. Other cultural scripts will only be activated when he/she is placed in the relevant cultural contexts. The most effective way to transcend local vision and achieve mutual growth is cultural integration. In integrating diverse cultural elements, intercultural persons localize the foreign, make the local intercultural and bridge cultural gaps. Thus, in enriching the original cultural inventory and transforming its values, intercultural persons share more common ground with others and assume a new extended identity–“identity-in-unity” (Yoshikawa, 1987, p.143).

This new identity offers people from diverse cultures a platform to negotiate differences and establish reciprocal relationships. In order to break up cultural boundaries and facilitate productive communications, intercultural persons have to finish two basic tasks: the first is to make their cultural uniqueness known, recognized, understood and appreciated by cultural others; the second is to absorb wholesome elements from other cultures and express them in their own way.

Note the use of the word reciprocal. The intercultural person is involved in a two-way process. If both sides have nothing of value to offer, nothing can be gained. My experience is that both sides might find the other has a legitimate way of seeing something that is equally valid in some cases, while in others each may find something worthwhile to borrow from the other.

Identity Negotiation Competence

In intercultural communication, each individual approaches the cultural other with his own patterned way of thinking and unique vision of the world. Communication will break down if two parties fail to establish a common ground and develop a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ethnocentric individuals tend to categorize strangers in terms of skin color, dress, accents, the cars they drive, and so forth (Gudykunst, 1995). In other words, they usually classify people with stereotypes. As a consequence, strangers’ identity is often frozen, misjudged or ignored. Intercultural person has acquired the knowledge of other culture and understands their own and others’ cultural values and patterns of behavior. This promotes a capacity to identify similarities and differences between cultures.

The author of this article puts a lot of weight on being a competent identity negotiator. After all, culture is basically an element of identity. The author provides a three-element system that the interpersonal person uses to effectively negotiate culture.

(First) Intercultural persons can create communication context that is familiar to others, respond to their counterparts with familiar cultural scripts, making them feel at home. When others find that their identities have been recognized and validated, they experience identity trust.

Secondly, intercultural persons are capable of promoting self-transformation, identity extension as well as mutual growth. As an integral part of identity negotiation process, intercultural transformation is a long struggle, through which individuals change their cultural orientations, redefine their self-images and enrich their cultural scripts.

(Finally) In integrating foreign elements and extending their identities, intercultural persons enhance mutual growth… Differences do not disappear with the development of intercultural communication, and they may become a source of conflict. But with the establishment of positive relationship, differences can be turned into valuable sources of cultural creation, for “we learn more from people who are different from us than from those who are similar to us” (Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2001, p.4).

While all of these are very beneficial ends, it does not happen easily. There has to be an openness in both cultures for the intercultural person to work effectively.  And the process is not always positive for the intercultural person himself. Misunderstandings can arise:

Intercultural personhood plays a key part in developing identity negotiation competence, but it sometimes produces negative impacts. The major ones are identity ambiguity and identity marginalization. Extension is a principal source of alienation (Hall, 1976). Intercultural persons identify with more than one culture, rejecting rigid cultural boundaries. They are often accused of being like a chameleon–changing identities contextually without fully identifying with any specific culture. Since joining mainstream society entails a high degree of assimilation, intercultural persons are confronted with the challenge of being marginalized by their own society.

We earlier mentioned the potential for cultural confusion on the part of the intercultural person. The author wants us to conclude by noting that the opposite danger is also true – that of the person’s home culture becoming confused about the intercultural person. Nontheless, I think this intercultural person is the role I am looking to explore and grow more into. I have often felt like I am at the same time at the core of my own culture’s historic sense of itself, and yet looking at it from an outside perspective when considering what it currently has come to. Am I a person out of  time, out of place, or exactly where I need to be?


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