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Intercultural, Cross-cultural and Multicultural – What do they mean and Why does it matter?


Cross-cultural, intercultural and multicultural don’t mean the same thing.

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they do, in fact, have very different meanings.

We're going to briefly look at what they mean, before talking about whether this difference in meanings really matters.

  1. First, we'll look at multicultural
  2. Second, intercultural
  3. Third, cross-cultural

Let’s start with 'multicultural'

'Multicultural' essentially describes the presence of diverse ethnic groups, and cultural traditions, within the same space.

It is a passive description that simply acknowledges the existence of many different groups living within their own cultural frameworks without sacrificing their own cultural identities.

Multiculturalism has characterised human societies for tens of thousands of years.

Take, for example, the Anglo Saxon communities established following the migration of Germanic Angle and Saxon tribes who migrated to Britain over 1.5 thousand years ago, or the Europeans who migrated to Australia, America and New Zealand hundreds of years ago, but who now make up the dominant ethnic identity of these countries.

These groups of migrating Europeans certainly didn’t sacrifice their own cultural identities to ease assimilation into the indigenous groups of the countries they eventually colonised. Instead, they retained their own cultures and occupied their own space.

'Intercultural', on the other hand, is a more ‘active’ description

This term moves beyond the cultural segregation inherent in the descriptions of multiculturalism and instead expresses interaction, communication and relationships across cultures.

So, whereas one description denotes silos, the other denotes collaboration.

Let’s use the example of intercultural training to further describe this.

Intercultural training endeavours to help learners from different cultural groups understand essential cultural frameworks so that they can interact and communicate effectively with their colleagues – regardless of cultural membership.

Intercultural efforts typically strive to create understanding, increase trust, build relationships and drive collaboration. For this reason, intercultural work is usually focused on teams or communities.

'Cross cultural' is less about the community or group and instead about specific responses to specific cultures

A project that is due to be rolled out across a number of different cultures might, for example, be reviewed to ensure the materials are suitable cross-culturally – (across all cultures).

Alternatively, an individual with responsibility for regular international business assignments may well gain cross-cultural skills to help them communicate and business relationships regardless of where they are in the world.

As such, cross-cultural matters are more about particular responses across different cultures – it’s not necessarily about bringing cultures together.

So, back to our initial question of, ‘do these differences in meaning matter?’

Well, essentially, we’d say yes. Whilst multicultural can describe segregation and even alienation, intercultural and cross-cultural describe collaboration and mixing.

The European migrants moving to the USA created a multicultural existence, as did the Brits migrating to Australia.

It doesn’t mean that these multicultural setups were positive or healthy.

Likewise, although many large cities are increasingly multicultural it’s not always a good thing as it’s often the case that migrating ethnic groups live in ghettos below the poverty line and with little support.

So, with multiculturalism being an increasing feature of our increasingly global world, and a term used in many settings, perhaps we should be making greater efforts to make interculturalism the subject of our discussions?

Intercultural, well-integrated teams and societies have an abundance of opportunity and potential.

Perhaps by understanding the meaning of multiculturalism and changing the narrative, we can move the conversation into a less passive and more active space.

Photo by fauxels from Pexels

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