[Here is a recent paper I wrote in the area of intercultural communication competence]


Intercultural Communication Competence




Richard L. Wiseman

To be Published in W. Gudykunst & B. Mody (Eds.),

Handbook of Intercultural and International Communication,

Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 2001.


            Intercultural communication (ICC) competence (or related constructs such as, effectiveness, success, adaptation) has been the focus of a number of studies since the term was probably introduced by researchers interested in overseas technical assistants and Peace Corps volunteers (Gardner, 1962; Hoselitz, 1954).  Since then, ICC competence has been investigated in studies with such diverse conceptual foci as sojourner adjustment, immigrant acculturation, intergroup contact, culture shock, cross-cultural training, social change, international management, and foreign student advising (cf. Benson, 1978; Brislin, 1981; Gudykunst, Wiseman, & Hammer, 1977, Landis & Brislin, 1983; Rogers, 1983; Stening, 1979).  The research in this area has been such that attempts to synthesize and report many of the findings have taken the forms of text books (Gudykunst, 1998; Lustig & Koester, 1999; Wiseman & Koester, 1993), a journal issue (Martin, 1989), chapters reporting the “state of the art” (Cargile & Giles, 1996; Chen & Starosta, 1996), and even a meta-analysis of a number of studies in the area (Bradford, Allen, & Beisser, 2000).

            The purpose of the present essay is not to duplicate extant reviews of the literature, nor is it to provide a new exhaustive review of the many studies on ICC competence.  Rather, the purpose of this essay is to delineate some of the choices (either explicit or tacit) that a scholar must make in an investigation of ICC competence.  These choices have been arrayed to correspond to the steps in designing a research study.  First, the essay will examine issues regarding the conceptualization of ICC competence—how is it to be conceived, defined, and identified.  Second, issues regarding meta-theory will be discussed—what is the nature of the concept (ontology), what is its importance (axiology), and what are the ways of knowing about it (epistemology).  At this point, a number of illustrative theories will be introduced to depict the influences of one’s meta-theory on the investigation of a  phenomenon.  Third, the essay will examine the choices one can make in actually studying ICC competence—methodological concerns such as unit of analysis, data collection method, and measurement tools.  Finally, posited interrelationships between ICC competence and other constructs will be discussed to provide the heuristic bases for future research. 

Conceptualization of Intercultural Communication Competence

            ICC competence has been conceptualized in a variety of ways.  Early in the history of scholarship on the construct, the conceptualizations varied according to the researcher’s theoretical orientation or specific sample being studied.  Some of these conceptualizations were labeled as cross-cultural adjustment, cross-cultural adaptation, intercultural understanding, overseas success, personal growth/adjustment, cross-cultural effectiveness, and satisfaction with overseas experience (see, for example, Guthrie & Zektick, 1967; Harris, 1975; Ruben & Kealey, 1979).   In the last two decades, there has been a growing consensus on a conceptualization of ICC competence.  As a reflection of this consensus and for the purposes of this essay, ICC competence involves the knowledge, motivation, and skills to interact effectively and appropriately with members of different cultures.  There are a number of implications entailed in this conceptualization.

Different Cultures

The conceptualization of culture has undergone considerable change in the field of ICC scholarship.  Some researchers take a more traditional approach at defining culture and typically use characteristics such as race, nationality, ethnicity, or geographic region to operationalized culture (e.g., Bradford, Kane, & Meyers, 1999; Dean & Popp, 1990; Oetzel et al., 2000).  Other scholars focus on culture as a “learned set of shared interpretations about beliefs, values, and norms, which affect the behaviors of a relatively large group of people” (Lustig & Koester, 1999, p. 30).  With this shift of focus, the operationalization of culture is not where members were born or the color of their skin, but on the commonalities in and interpretations of their behaviors.  Taking this tack, operationalizations of culture could include the elderly (Fox & Giles, 1993; Herek & Giles, 2000), individuals with physical disabilities (Braithwaite, 1991; Wiseman, Emry, & Morgan, 1987), individuals who are deaf (Shearer, 1984), sexual orientations (Herek, 1991), or genders (Tannen, 1990).  Certainly, the latter approach opens more sub-populations to investigation, however the problem becomes one of determining sufficient distinctive features to delineate different cultures.

            A number of theoretical solutions have been proffered to help resolve this problem.  One possible solution comes from Gudykunst and Lim (1986) who suggest qualitative distinctions based upon the salience of individual versus group characteristics in influencing the nature of individuals’ attributions and their communication.  If there is a greater preponderance of individual characteristics, the communication is considered more interpersonal; while if group characteristics predominate, the communication is considered intergroup.  Another possible solution is the reliance on cultural dimensions; for example, individualism/collectivism (Triandis, 1995), independent/interdependent self-construals (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), or high/low power distance (Hofstede, 1980).  With the use of these cultural dimensions, the operationalization of culture moves from a more typological and discrete format to one that is based on degrees of differences on cultural dimensions.  Finally, a third solution involves the symbolic interactionist principle of self-referencing, namely, the operationalization of culture is based on one’s own self-identity (Collier & Thomas, 1988).  With this approach, it becomes important to measure how communicators define their own identities, be those identities ethnic, social, or cultural.  While the measures of self-identities still need some refinement, several research studies have had success taking this tack at conceptualizing and operationalizing culture (e.g., Gao, Schmidt, & Gudykunst, 1994; Rubin & Hewstone, 1998).

Effectively and Appropriately

            What criteria should be used to judge ICC competence?   A growing number of communication scholars have embraced Spitzberg’s (1988) answer to this question: “Competent communication is interaction that is perceived as effective in fulfilling certain rewarding objectives in a way that is also appropriate to the context in which the interaction occurs” (p. 68).  In other words, competent communication consists of behaviors that are regarded as effective and appropriate.  Effective communication suggests that people are able to achieve desired personal outcomes.  To do so, competent communicators should be able to control and manipulate their social environment to obtain those goals.  This presumes that competent communicators are able to identify their goals, assess the resources necessary to obtain those goals, accurately predict the other communicator’s responses, choose workable communication strategies, enact those communication strategies, and, finally, accurately assess the results of the interaction (Parks, 1976).

            Appropriate communication entails the use of messages that are expected in a given context, and actions that meet the expectations and demands of the situation.  This criterion for communication competence requires the interactant to demonstrate an understanding of the expectations for acceptable behavior in a given situation.  Appropriate communicators must recognize the constraints imposed on their behavior by different sets of rules (Lee, 1979), avoid violating those rules with inappropriate (e.g., impolite, abrasive, or bizarre) responses (Getter & Nowinski, 1981),  and enact communication behaviors in an appropriate (e.g., clear, truthful, considerate, responsive) manner (Allen & Wood, 1978).

            The two criteria of effectiveness and appropriateness combine to influence the quality of the interaction.  In his recent formulation on ICC competence, Spitzberg (2000) suggested four possible communication styles that may result from the combinations of the extremes of the two criteria: (1) Minimizing communication is both inappropriate and ineffective, and would obviously be of a low communicative quality.  (2) Sufficing communication is appropriate but ineffective, that is, it is highly accommodating and does nothing objectionable, but also accomplishes no personal objectives.  Here, Spitzberg suggested that the sufficing style is sufficient to meet the basic demands of the context, but accomplishes nothing more.  (3) Maximizing communication occurs when an individual is effective in achieving personal goals, but at the cost of being highly inappropriate contextually.  This style may include verbal aggression, Machiavellian behavior, deception, the infringement of others’ rights, or the degradation of others.  (4) Optimizing communication occurs when interactants simultaneously achieve their personal goals and fulfill the normative expectations of the context.  While this two-by-two analysis of discrete, binary combinations of the two criteria may be a bit simplistic, it helps to provide insight into the dialectics of the competence criteria in social episodes.

To Interact

            We now come to the active aspect of our conceptualization of ICC competence.  When communicators interact, they are co-orienting and coordinating their behaviors (verbal and nonverbal) to accomplish social functions, obtain personal goals, and conform to the normative expectations of the situation.  To the extent that the communicators do these activities effectively and appropriately, they are considered competent communicators.

            There has been considerable variation in the foci on communicative behaviors across investigations on ICC competence.  In an early study, Ruben (1976) identified seven dimensions of communication related to one’s effectiveness in overseas assignments: display of respect, interaction posture, orientation to knowledge, empathy, role behavior, interaction management, and tolerance for ambiguity.  These general behaviors were subsequently operationalized in both self-report and observer measures, and applied to the evaluation of overseas technical assistance personnel (Kealey, 1989; Ruben & Kealey, 1979), Japanese student sojourners (Nishida, 1985), and ICC workshop participants (Hammer, 1984).

            In another early study, Hammer, Gudykunst, and Wiseman (1978) examined the intercultural effectiveness among American sojourners in terms of their educational experiences in other nations.  Based upon a measure consisting of 24 general behaviors posited to be instrumental in one’s intercultural effectiveness, a factor analysis of the sojourners’ responses determined three basic factors: ability to deal with psychological stress, ability to communicate effectively, and ability to establish interpersonal relationships.  Subsequent research found some support for the culture-general character of these factors, as well as some evidence for some culture-specific aspects (Abe & Wiseman, 1983; Gudykunst & Hammer, 1984; Hammer, 1987; Wiseman & Abe, 1984).

            A number of other research programs—with different results and sets of recommended communicative behaviors—could be reviewed (e.g., Harris, 1977; Hwang, Chase, & Arden-Ogle, 1985; Smith, 1966), however, issues of  comparability, consistency, and generalizability emerge.  Spitzberg and Kube (1988) recognized these problems and advocated an approach to reconciling these varying research foci.  One of the steps in this reconciliation involves recognizing that some behaviors are very specific and concrete (molecular) while others are more general and trait-like (molar).  Besides striving for consistency on the level of focus, Spitzberg (1989) also recommended consistency in the evaluation of the behavior being examined.  Based upon some of Lonner’s (1980) research on cross-cultural universals, Spitzberg suggested four dimensions: “Valence (i.e., evaluation/affiliation), Potency (i.e., power relations), Surgency (i.e., activity/intensity), and Socialization (i.e., the extent to which a person is cognizant of, and rational about, the larger cultural context and rules of conduct involved)” (p. 251).  Researchers should strive for consistency in terms of level of resolution of behavior (molar-molecular) and cultural members’ affect toward the behavior.

            Martin (1993) extended upon Spitzberg’s recommendation for consistency on the level of resolution of behavior by developing a three-level typology.  The most global type of behavior consists of high-order cognitive and behavioral processes, including global encoding/decoding skills, understanding cultural rules, and linguistic competence.  Research by Brislin (1981), Bond (1988), Pruegger and Rogers (1993), and Triandis (1977) are illustrative of investigations on high-order cognitive and behavioral processes.  The second type of behavior consists of mid-range constructs (similar to Spitzberg’s notion of molar concepts), including interaction management, social relaxation, empathy, assertiveness, sociability, politeness, and rule conformity.  Research on these molar concepts can be illustrated with studies by Chen and Starosta (1997, 1998), Collier (1988), Koester and Olebe (1988),  Spitzberg and Cupach (1989), and Wiemann (1977).   The third and most specific level of resolution for behavior consists of molecular overt behaviors; for example, head nods, facial expressions, proxemic orientations.  Molecular behavior has been examined by Coker and Burgoon (1987), Kowner and Wiseman (2000), Li (1999), Martin and Hammer (1989), and Milhouse (1993).   In order to enhance the comparability and thus the generalizability of findings regarding behavior related to ICC competence, researchers should be mindful of the levels of resolution for the behavior they are investigating and cultural members’ evaluations of those behaviors.

Knowledge, Motivation, and Skills

            ICC competence is not something innate within us, nor does it occur accidentally.  Rather, there are necessary conditions that must exist before we are consciously and consistently competent in our intercultural interactions.  Spitzberg and Cupach (1984) isolated three conditions: knowledge, motivation, and skills.  If an interactant is lacking one of these conditions, the likelihood of competent intercultural communication is significantly diminished.

            Knowledge refers to our awareness or understanding of requisite information and actions to be interculturally competent.  A knowledgeable communicator needs information about the people, the communication rules, the context, and the normative expectations governing the interaction with the member of the other culture.  Without this information, the communicator will invariably make misattributions, choose incorrect communication strategies, violate rules of etiquette, or cause the loss of face for self or other.  Further, the unknowing communicator may not be able to correctly ascribe the reasons for the errors or be able to remedy them.  To obtain the needed knowledge to competently communicate, individuals need to be sensitive to the feedback from others (Berger, 1979) as well as be cognitively flexible to accommodate that feedback (Gudykunst, 1992).  Thus, this knowledge component entails both the body of information one needs, as well as, the cognitive schemata needed to assimilate that knowledge in order to be competent intercultural communicators.

            Motivation refers to the set of feelings, intentions, needs, and drives associated with the anticipation of or actual engagement in intercultural communication.  Factors such as anxiety, perceived social distance, attraction, ethnocentrism, and prejudice can influence an individual’s decision to communicate with another.  If our fears, dislikes, and anxieties predominate our affect toward the other, we will have negative motivation, and we will be likely to avoid the interaction, even if we feel we have the requisite knowledge and skills to perform.  However, if our confidence, interest, likes, and good intentions predominate our affect toward the other, we will have positive motivation, and will seek out and engage in interaction with the other (Morreale, Spitzberg, & Barge, 2001).  Thus, competent communicators must learn to reduce the negative influences and increase the positive influences on their motivation to communicate with members of different cultures.

            Skills refer to the actual performance of the behaviors felt to be effective and appropriate in the communication context.  For Spitzberg (2000), skills must be repeatable and goal-oriented.  If a person accidentally produces a behavior that is perceived as competent, this would not be adequate, since the person may not be able to replicate the same behavior with the same effect.  The person needs to be able to perform the script fluently and with cause (i.e., an appropriate rationale for its performance).  This brings us to the notion that skills must be goal-oriented.  There must be some teleological basis for the performance, or else it is just behavior, not skilled behavior.  The goals may be personal, dyadic, social, or contextual.

            We will return to these three components—knowledge, motivation, and skills—later in this essay.  At this junction though, it is important to note the competent intercultural communication requires all three components.  Further, these three components can be influenced through education, experience, and guided practice, such that we can all learn to be competent intercultural communicators.

Meta-Theories and Theories

            Given the above conceptualization of ICC competence, we are now ready to discuss different meta-theories and illustrative substantive theories that aspire to explain or predict ICC competence.  A meta-theory is a set of assumptions that a researcher makes regarding the nature of the concept (ontology), what is  important about the concept and its relationship with other human phenomena (axiology), and how the concept should be investigated (epistemology).  While new meta-theories may emerge in the future or other distinctions among the extant meta-theories can be made, there seems to be some agreement that three major meta-theories characterize communication research: the covering laws, systems, and human action perspectives (Hawes, 1977; Infante, Rancer, & Womack, 1997).

            Of the three meta-theories, the covering laws perspective is the oldest and most frequent in communication theory and research.  There are a number of common assumptions made by covering laws scholars (Infante et al., 1997): (1) Phenomena can be known through empirical means; that is, they are observable, measurable, and quantifiable.  (2) There are regularities in our physical and social environments that can be observed or discovered.  These regularities often transcend time, culture, and situation, and are known as laws (Berger, 1977).  (3) Underlying these regularities is the notion of causality, namely, cause-and-effect relationships.  In order to explain or predict phenomena, we need to understand the causes or, at least, the antecedents to those phenomena.  (4) The goal of covering laws research is to discover regularities (laws) that have maximum generalizability. 

            The systems meta-theory was introduced to the communication discipline via the physical and biological sciences.  The central contribution of systems theory is the notion that communication process is an integrated system consisting of interdependent units working together to adapt to a changing environment (Monge, 1977).  A number of sensitizing concepts are important: (1) Communication systems are open systems, i.e., they interact with their social and physical environments.  (2) Communication is hierarchical, i.e., it consists of subsystems and suprasystems.  (3) Systems strive for balance or homeostasis. Changes in the environment or within the system create a drive in the system to restore balance.  (4) Systems are teleological, that is, they are programmed to obtain specific goals.  One strength of systems meta-theory is that it attempts to focus on a broad range of interactions and relationships within a communication event in order to better understand the event.

            The human action meta-theory represents a reaction against the strict logical positivism of the covering laws theory.  For human action theorists, reality is not discovered in an objective world, but rather, reality is a subjective experience.  In order to understand one’s communication, the researcher needs to understand the communicator’s perception of the event (Cushman & Whiting, 1972).  Thus, human action theorists focus on the actor’s interpretation of the communication event and the way the communication event is related to the actor’s goals.  The relationship between communication and the actor’s goals is usually depicted in terms of rules that associate goals with certain normatively-expected instrumental behavior.  The human action researcher attempts to explore actors’ meanings, interpretations, and the rules governing their behavior.

            These meta-theories provide a diversity of perspectives to assist scholars in better understanding communication.  As Pearce (1977) argued, “the effects of disciplinary diversity are favorable, provided that the various strands of the discipline are not insulated from each other. . . . [T]he ability to articulate meta-theoretical assumptions is necessary to exploit the value of disciplinary diversity and is best attained by generating a corpus of materials which formally examine the meta-theoretical alternatives available to theorists and researchers” (p. 3).  To illustrate the contributions of these various strands of meta-theories, we will now explore representative substantive theories for each of the three meta-theories.

Covering Laws Theories

            A number of substantive theories have emerged from the covering laws perspective.  Two of those theories concerned with ICC competence are Gudykunst’s (1993, 1995) anxiety-uncertainty management (AUM) theory and Ting-Toomey’s (1988; Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998) face-negotiation theory.  An exploration of these two theories will enlighten our understanding of the covering laws perspective as well as the construct of ICC competence.

            In Gudykunst’s (1993, 1995) anxiety-uncertainty management theory, effective communication is related to one’s ability to minimize misunderstandings with members of other cultures (i.e., “strangers”; cf. Simmel, 1908/1950).  To the extent that misunderstandings arise, we feel uncertainty about the other and the situation.  This uncertainty subsequently evokes anxiety within us, which, in turn, creates a drive to reduce our uncertainty and increase our mindfulness (Langer, 1989).  Consistent with the covering laws meta-theory, these basic processes are invariant across situation, culture, or time.

            The management of uncertainty and anxiety is the core of Gudykunst’s AUM theory.  This core mediates the influence of other variables and effective communication.  While uncertainty and anxiety are considered the basic causal influences on effective communication, other variables (e.g., self-concept, social categorization processes, motivations to communicate) are considered “superficial causes” (Lieberson, 1985).  Consistent with the covering laws meta-theory, Gudykunst carefully developed axioms hypothesizing causal linkages between these superficial causes and uncertainty/anxiety, and between uncertainty/anxiety and effective communication.  Research on these axioms has found support for the model (Gao & Gudykunst, 1990; Gudykunst & Shapiro, 1996; Hammer, Wiseman, Rasmussen, & Bruschke, 1998).

While a complete review of the elaborated model is beyond the scope of this essay (see Gudykunst’s chapter in this volume for an elaboration of the model), it is worth noting that cognitive, motivational, and behavioral factors impinge upon one’s levels of anxiety and/or uncertainty.  Once individuals feel sufficient levels of anxiety, they are in turn motivated to reduce their uncertainty via uncertainty reduction strategies (e.g., asking questions, disclosing).  By reducing their uncertainty in making predictions about strangers, they will presumably reduce misunderstandings and increase their ICC effectiveness.  Given the articulateness of the AUM theory, it should prove to be a heuristic source for future research.

Ting-Toomey’s (1988) face-negotiation theory is concerned with the relational and appropriateness dimensions of our communication.  Ontologically, competent intercultural communication involves issues regarding losing face and saving face.  Face refers to one’s sense of a favorable social self-worth, and facework consists of the communication “people use to regulate their social dignity and to support or challenge the other’s social dignity” (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998, p. 188).  It is felt that face and facework are universal phenomena, however, the actual strategies engaged in fulfilling face and facework vary culturally. 

To warrant the causal connections among the variables of face, facework, cultural dimensions, and contextual factors, Ting-Toomey (1994) has conceptualized competence in facework as the integration of three core dimensions, namely, knowledge, mindfulness, and communication skills in managing self-face and other-face concerns.  By knowledge, Ting-Toomey is referring to a deep-structure awareness of the nature and rules of the cultures involved in a particular situation.   This awareness would include the cultural members’ predispositions for face, relational goals, and communication strategies.  Mindfulness involves “attending to one’s internal assumptions, cognitions, and emotions and simultaneously attuning attentively to the other’s assumptions, cognitions, and emotions while focusing the five senses” (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998, p. 203).  We need to be more mindful of ourselves and others in order to effectively monitor our ethnocentrism and biases.  Ting-Toomey’s conceptualization of interaction skills is consistent with our conceptualization of ICC competence as noted above, in that interaction skills refer to “our abilities to communicate appropriately, effectively, and adaptively in a given situation” (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998, p. 204).  Interaction skills are operationalized as mindful listening, mindful observation, facework management, trust-building, and collaborative dialogue.  As can be seen in this brief review of Ting-Toomey’s face-negotiation theory (see Gudykunst & Lee’s chapter in this volume for more detail), competent intercultural communication emphasizes the relationships and appropriateness (axiology).

Systems Theories

            As noted above, the systems meta-theory conceives of communication as an open system consisting of interrelated subsystems, all working to achieve some goal or purpose.  Two substantive theories are representative of the systems orientation: Spitzberg’s (2000) model of ICC competence and Kim’s (1995) cross-cultural adaptation theory.    While the systems in the two theories vary in teleological intent, the systems are similar in their meta-theoretical orientation.

            Based on a significant program of research and theorizing, Spitzberg (2000) presented his systems model of ICC competence.  ICC competence is “an impression that behavior is appropriate and effective in a given context” (p. 375).  Thus, the two standards of appropriateness and effectiveness are goals for competent intercultural communication.  Three subsystems are operative: (1) the individual system is comprised of the characteristics, traits, skills, and predispositions of the communicators; (2) the episodic system includes “those features of a particular Actor that facilitate competence interaction on the part of a specific Co-actor in a specific episode of interaction” (p. 376); and (3) the relational system includes those aspects of competence that affect the span of a relationship rather than just that particular episode.  These systems are hierarchical in that each level is subsumed by another (i.e., the individual system is subsumed by the episodic system which in turn is subsumed by the relational system).

            For each of the three subsystems in Spitzberg’s model, the components of knowledge, motivation, and skills are perceived as influencing communicative competence.  At the individual level, communicator confidence, reward-relevant efficacy beliefs, and approach dispositions are positively associated with communicator motivation.  At the episodic level, Actor’s competence, attributed status, and fulfillment of Co-Actor’s expectancies are posited to increase the Co-Actor’s impression of the Actor’s competence.  Finally, at the relational level, mutual fulfillment of autonomy and intimacy needs, mutual attraction, mutual trust, and relational network integration are hypothesized to be positively associated with relational competence.

            Spitzberg (2000) emphasized that one subsystem is insufficient in obtaining ICC competence.  Even if a person is highly knowledgeable, motivated, and skilled, another from a different culture may reject your perceived competence and thus there would be a low probability of competent interaction (Bourhis, MoVse, Perreault, & SenJcal, 1997).  ICC competence is contingent on the optimal interrelationship of the individual, episodic, and relational systems.

            Young Kim’s program of research resulting in her cross-cultural adaptation theory spans nearly 25 years (Y. Kim,1995, 2001).  The theory attempts to (1) describe the process of cross-cultural adaptation and (2) explain the structure of the process and the key variables that influence the degree to which individuals adapt to new and unfamiliar cultures.  Because adaptation is a dynamic process involving both internal (intrapersonal) and external (social/environmental) variables, Kim advocates a systems approach at understanding the adaptation process since systems are best suited for representing the complex interrelationships involved in adaptation.

            Kim (1995) characterized adaptation as a three step process: stress-adaptation-growth.  Consistent with the systems meta-theory, a challenge to the homeostasis (balance) of the system is introduced in the form of stress on the new comer.  The new comer may feel culture shock, avoidance, hostility, or selective attention.  Stress motivates the person to adapt to the host environment in order to restore homeostasis.  This adaptation is accomplished through acculturation (learning) and deculturation (unlearning).  From these learning processes, adaptation occurs in the form of an internal transformation of growth.  The process of growth is not a simple linear one, but rather, a helical one characterized by ups-and-downs in the stress-adaptation process.  The major variables in this process are: host communication competence, host social communication, ethnic social communication, environment, and predisposition (see Gudykunst’s chapter in this volume for an elaboration of these systemic variables).  These five variables constitute the structure of cross-cultural adaptation and interact to facilitate or inhibit intercultural transformation.

Human Action Theories

The human action meta-theory focuses on actors’ meanings, interpretations, and the rules governing their behavior.  In the present case, we are interested in human action theories that explore actor’s meanings, interpretations, and rules for ICC competence.  Since this meta-theory is one of the most recent of the emergent paradigms, there are fewer substantive theories representative of the human action perspective.  However, two substantive theories should provide insight into this meta-theory as well as its approach to ICC competence: Collier’s (1988, 1996) cultural identity theory and Cupach and Imahori’s (1993) identity management theory.

            In Collier’s (1996) cultural identity theory, the constructs of culture and cultural identity are defined as concepts that emerge through interaction with others, and take the forms of patterns of meanings, interpretations, and rules for behaviors.  Consistent with human action meta-theory, the emphasis in on the subjective experience and one’s interpretations for behavior (Geertz, 1973).  Further, one’s cultural identity is negotiated along two dimensions of rules: a constitutive dimension (consisting of symbols, interpretations, and meanings) and a normative dimension (consisting of guidelines for behavior and competencies for conduct).  Individuals co-create and coordinate their meanings and rules in order to learn and enact their cultural identities.  Thus, competent intercultural communication requires that individuals understand the meanings, rules, and codes for interacting appropriately.

            Epistemologically, communication competence is identified by asking cultural members to identity appropriate, rule-following behavior and to describe outcomes that arise from conforming and violating those rules (Collier, 1989).  This approach presumes a principle in human action theory, namely, the “open souls doctrine” which suggests that individuals are mindful of their behavior and can explain the reasons for it (HarrJ & Secord, 1972).  The rules for behavior can vary in scope (breadth) and salience (relative importance).  Information on the sanctions for rule violations is helpful in providing evidence for the force or strength of the rule (Pearce & Cronen, 1980), as well as providing insight as to how behavior is deemed appropriate or inappropriate.  Procedurally, human action researchers ask cultural informants open-ended questions about their behavior, perceived (in)appropriateness, and rationales for their actions.  From this corpus of data, the action researcher then attempts to find patterns or themes that emerge from the text.  The strengths of human action research appear to be its heuristic value and its representational validity (i.e., the consistency of the results with the actors’ judgments).

            Another example of the human action meta-theory is Cupach and Imahori’s (1993; see also Gudykunst’s chapter in this volume) identity management theory.  Identity management theory is significantly influenced by the work of Goffman (1967) and is akin to Collier’s (1989) cultural identity theory.   According to Cupach and Imahori, identity “gives one a sense of one’s own ontological status and serves as an interpretive frame for experience” (1993, p. 113).  In contrast to interpersonal communication, intercultural communication poses additional complexity in the management of the actors’ identities since each actor possesses salient but separate cultural identities.  These salient and separate cultural identities need to be negotiated, maintained, and/or supported by both actors.  Based upon Brown and Levinson’s (1978) work on politeness, the management of cultural identities is a  form of facework.

            Ontologically, comm2unication competence is a matter of successfully negotiating mutually acceptable identities during the process of interaction.  Competent intercultural communicators must be able to reconcile three dialectical tensions: (1) supporting one’s own face or other’s face, (2) supporting competence face (e.g., ingratiation, empowerment) or autonomy face (e.g., respecting other’s privacy, independence), and (3) confirming other’s separate cultural identity (heightening cultural differences) or negotiating a mutually defined cultural identity (minimizing separate cultural differences).  The last dialectical tension is similar to communication accommodation theory’s notions of divergence versus convergence (Giles, Mulac, Bradac, & Johnson, 1987).  To the extent that communicators effectively and appropriately negotiate the three dialects, they are perceived as interculturally competent.  Further, it should be noted that face, facework, and dialectical orientations are never static, they are constantly in flux and must continually be renegotiated if the relationship is to stay healthy.

            Given this discussion of meta-theories and representative substantive theories, we are now ready to examine some of the decisions the researcher of ICC competence must make in terms of methodology.

Methodological Issues

            Methodology involves one’s decisions about what to investigate, how to design the line of inquiry, what data collection techniques to utilize, on whom to collect data, and what sense to make of the data.  Obviously, one’s conceptualization of the topic of research, one’s meta-theoretical orientation (ontology, axiology, and, especially, epistemology), and one’s particular substantive theoretical approach, all influence the choices the researcher makes.  This section of the essay explores some of the options available in making decisions about methodology.

            Lustig and Spitzberg (1993) proposed a creative approach at understanding methodological decisions using a set of journalist’s topoi (namely, What, Who, When, Where, and Why decisions in researching ICC competence).  In terms of what is being investigated, at least three issues need to be addressed: (1) the level of abstraction (i.e., microscopic interaction behavior, mezzoscopic behaviors [e.g., politeness rituals, speech acts], or macroscopic behaviors [e.g., conflict styles, empathy levels]), (2) the level of analysis (i.e., behaviors, social artifacts, individuals, groups, or cultures), and (3) the type of comparison made among the particular attributes or behaviors (i.e., typicality, variability, associations with other variables, or patterns of differences in behavior among individuals, groups or cultures).

            In terms of who is the locus of competence evaluation, Lustig and Spitzberg (1993) suggested the issue is one of whether to collect data from the actor, coactor, or an uninvolved observer.  The problem is that the perceptions of these three parties are often inconsistent (Jacobson & Moore, 1981).  The solution advocated is to let the researcher decide the perceptual locus, i.e., who is in the best position to make the perceptions.  If it involves internal attributions and psychological orientations, the actor may be in the best position, while if it involves public behavior, the coactor or uninvolved observer may be in the best position to make judgments.  In terms of the when issue, the decision is whether to conceptualize competence as an episodic or dispositional phenomenon.  Episodic phenomena are more situation- or context-specific, while dispositional phenomena tend to be viewed as cross-situational traits.  Another aspect of when to collect data involves whether to collect cross-sectional or longitudinal data.  Certainly if a researcher is interested in the process nature of competence (e.g., phases), longitudinal data would be preferable.

            Lustig and Spitzberg (1993) viewed the where issue as a contextual one.  Is ICC competence dependent on the particular context (e.g., business, academia, tourism), or does it transcend contexts (i.e., a universal trait)?  Hammer, Nishida, and Wiseman (1996) provided a cogent argument for accounting for the contextual effects on ICC competence.  Finally, in terms of the why issue, Lustig and Spitzberg (1993) admonished past researchers for not considering the cultural and social implications of their research on ICC competence.  If the researcher is attempting to design a training program, improve cultural relationships, or enhance an individual’s image, there will be implications for how to research the construct.  ICC competence researchers need to take these implications into consideration.

Constructs Related to Intercultural Communication Competence

            While it is beyond the scope of this essay to review all of the research demonstrating ICC competence’s relationships with relevant social and psychological constructs, it may be helpful for future researchers to provide a cursory review of some of the findings on these relationships.  As a means for organizing this brief review, the essay will consider constructs related to the knowledge, motivation, and skill components of ICC competence.

            The knowledge component of competence is conceptualized as the information necessary to interact appropriately and effectively, and the requisite cognitive orientation to facilitate the acquisition of such information.  In terms of the necessary information, research has found positive associations between ICC competence and awareness of the other culture (Wiseman, Hammer, & Nishida, 1989), self-awareness (Gudykunst, Yang, & Nishida, 1987), and host language fluency (Giles, 1977).  These forms of knowledge increase the intercultural communicator’s understanding of other and self in order to facilitate making accurate predictions and attributions.  Favorable cognitive orientations have been found in terms of open-mindedness (Adler, 1975), nonjudgmentalness (Ruben, 1976), self-monitoring ability (Snyder, 1987),  problem-solving ability (Brislin, 1981), and cognitive complexity (Wiseman & Abe, 1985).  These orientations facilitate perspective-taking and adaptation to new information.

            In terms of the motivation component of competence, a number of variables have been found to influence one’s affect toward other and intercultural communication.  Positive associations have been found between ICC competence and intercultural sensitivity (Chen & Starosta, 1998, 2000), positive affect toward the other culture (Randolph, Landis, & Tzeng, 1977), social relaxation (Gudykunst & Hammer, 1988; Sanders & Wiseman, 1993), and empathy toward other (Chen & Tan, 1995; Ruben, 1976).  A negative association has been found for ethnocentrism (Neulip & McCroskey, 1997; Nishida, Hammer, & Wiseman, 1998).  These evaluative elements (both positive and negative valence) seem to operate by changing the approach-avoidance predispositions to communicate interculturally.

            The final component—skill—of ICC competence reflects the needed behaviors to interact appropriately and effectively with members of different cultures.  Research has discovered several behaviors that are positively associated with ICC competence: being mindful (Gudykunst, 1992), intercultural adroitness (Chen & Starosta, 1996), interaction involvement (Cegala, 1984), recognition of nonverbal messages (Anderson, 1994), appropriate self-disclosure (Li, 1999), behavioral flexibility (Bochner & Kelly, 1974), interaction management (Wiemann, 1977), identity maintenance (Ting-Toomey, 1994), uncertainty reduction strategies (Sanders, Wiseman, & Matz, 1991), appropriate display of respect (Ruben, 1976), immediacy skills (Benson, 1978), ability to establish interpersonal relationships (Hammer, 1987),  and expressing clarity and face support (M. Kim, 1993).  These behaviors reflect the ability to communicate in an adaptive, flexible, and supportive manner.


            This essay has attempted to explore some of the issues involved in theorizing and researching ICC competence.  A researcher must make a number of decisions about the choice of a topic, its conceptualization, meta-theoretical orientations, substantive theories explaining the concept, and methodological decisions regarding the actual investigation of the concept.  Hopefully, this essay will assist the researcher in making these decisions carefully and mindfully.  With constructive research, productive findings and recommendations should result, thereby improving the communication and relations among the members of the cultures of our global village.


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