Culture, Communication, and Intercultural Relationships

Culture, Communication, and Intercultural Relationships



Culture, Communication, and Intercultural Relationships





  • Explain how relationships develop.
  • Identify some differences in how intercultural relationships develop.
  • Describe the stages of relational development.
  • Discuss how cultural differences influence the initial stages of relational development.
  • Describe cultural differences in romantic relationships.
  • Describe cultural differences in notions of friendship.
  • Understand relational differences between gay and heterosexual relationships.
  • List some of the characteristics of intercultural relationships.
  • Identify some of the benefits and challenges in intercultural relationships.
  • Suggest reasons people give for and against intercultural dating and marriage.
  • Describe some of the approaches partners take to dealing with differences in
  • intercultural marriages.
  • Explain how contexts influence intercultural relationships.



cognitive consistency 
complementarity principle 
compromise style 
consensus style 
exploratory phase 
intercultural relationships 
obliteration style 
proximity principle
relational learning 
romantic relationships 
similarity principle 
stability phase 
submission style


This chapter explores the role of communication in the development of intercultural relationships with others who are culturally different across class, race, gender, age, and sexual orientation. The influence of context (social, historical, political) on these relationships is also 


I.         Benefits and Challenges of Intercultural Relationships 
A. Benefits: Most people have a variety of intercultural relationships that may feature differences in age, physical ability, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, race, or nationality. 
1. Rewards of intercultural relationships are great, and the key to these relationships is an interesting balance of differences and similarities. 
2. Benefits include:

  • Acquiring knowledge about the world
  • Breaking stereotypes
  • Acquiring new skills

3. In intercultural relationships we often learn about the partner's language, cultural patterns, and history. This relational learning comes from a particular relationship, but generalizes to other contexts.
4. Building intercultural relationships provides information and experiences that may challenge previously held stereotypes. 
5. We may learn how to do new things (new games, new recipes, new sports). 
6. These benefits lead to a sense of interconnectedness to others and establish a lifelong pattern of communication across differences. 
B. Challenges: There are several ways in which intercultural relationships are unique, and these present particular challenges. 
1. Dissimilarities may be more obvious during early stages of the relationship and then have less impact as commonalities are established and the relationship develops. 
2. There seems to be an interplay between differences and similarities in intercultural relationships. 
3. Because differences are a given, the challenge is to discover and build on similarities. 
4. Negative stereotypes often affect intercultural relationships. 
5. People often experience anxiety initially in intercultural relationships. 
a. It is greater in intercultural relationships than intracultural relationships. 
b. It comes from being worried about possible negative consequences. 
c. Once someone has developed a close intercultural relationship, that person is more inclined to have others. 
d. The level of anxiety will be higher if: one or both parties has negative expectations because of negative stereotypes or negative previous experiences. 
6. Intercultural relationships often present us with the challenge to explain to ourselves, to each other, and to our communities. 
7. The biggest obstacles come from majority communities because they have less to gain from boundary-crossing friendships. 
8. In intercultural relationships, individuals recognize and respect differences.

II.        Cultural Differences in Notions of Friendship:  Friendships are seen in very different ways around the world.  Cultural differences in notions about friendships are related to ideas about identity and values.
A. Individualists tend to view friendship as more voluntary, individual-oriented, and spontaneous than collectivists.
B. In some collectivist cultures such as China, friendships are long-term and involve obligations such as quanxi and mutual economic support.
C. In some cultures, family and friend relationships are inextricably intertwined.
D. What most people in the world consider simply a “friend” is probably what a U.S. American would consider a “close friend.”
E. Barnlund (1989) found both that U.S. and Japanese students used the same words to describe characteristics of a friend (trust, respect, understanding, and sincerity), but ordered them differently.

  • U.S. students emphasized honesty and individuality.
  • Japanese students emphasized relational harmony and collectivism.

F. Collier (1996) found comparable differences among racial groups within the United States.

  • European American students felt that developing a close friendship took only a few months, whereas other groups felt that it took about a year.
  • There were also differences in what each group thought was important in close friendships:  “Latinos emphasized relational support, Asian Americans emphasized a caring, positive exchange of ideas, African Americans emphasized respect and acceptance and Anglo Americans emphasized recognizing the needs of individuals” (p. 315).

III.       Cultural Differences in Relational Development: Relationships develop in phases, including initial attraction, the exploratory phase, and the stability phase. Cultural differences affect relational development at each of these four stages. 
A. Initial Attraction: There are flour principles of relational attraction: 
1. Proximity: One of the most powerful principles of relational attraction in the United States is the proximity principle
a. People form relationships with people to whom they are in close proximity. 
b. We tend to be attracted to individuals from similar social, economic, and cultural backgrounds. 
c. Proximity is not as important in other cultural contexts. In some cultures, a person's background (family, ethnicity, religion, and so on) is more important than who he or she is as an individual. 
d. The structures of society often determine whom we come in contact with. 
e. The more diverse your daily contacts, the more opportunities you have to develop intercultural relationships. 
2. Physical Attraction: We are attracted to specific people because we like the way they look. 
a. In the United States physical attraction may be the most important aspect in the beginning of a relationship. 
b. Standards for physical attractiveness are culturally based. 
c. Everyone wants to believe that relational partners are chosen outside the influences of social discourses; however, our relationships are strongly influenced by social and cultural ideas about interracial, intercultural, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and intergenerational romance. 
d. Other people are influential in the development of our relationships through their support, silence, denial, or hostility. 
3. Similarity: According to the similarity principle, we tend to be attracted to people whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves. 
a. Finding that people agree with our beliefs confirms that we are right and provides us with cognitive consistency
b. People may seek partners with the same beliefs and values due to deep spiritual, moral, or religious convictions. 
c. Also, it is easier to successfully predict the behavior of people who are like us. 
d. The research is less conclusive, but there is some evidence that we may be attracted to people who appear similar to us in personality. 
e. We may perceive greater similarity with people whom we like. 
f. Similarity is based not on whether people are actually similar but on the discovery of a similar trait. 
g. When people think they are similar, they have higher expectations about future interactions. 
4. Complementarity: In intercultural relationships, we are attracted to persons who are somewhat different from ourselves. 
a. The complementarity principle suggests that the differences that form the basis for attraction may involve personality traits and may contribute to complementarity, or balance, in a relationship. 
b. Some individuals are attracted to people simply because they have a different cultural background. 
c. Most people seek a balance between novelty and predictability in their relationships. 
d. Most people are attracted to certain differences and not to others. 
e. Society accepts some relationships of complementarity better than others. 
f. This similarity-difference dialectical may operate differently in Eastern countries where levels of hierarchy shape interpersonal relations. 
g. It seems likely that both the similarity and complementarity principles operate at the some time in intercultural relationships. 
B. Exploratory Interaction: Cultural differences may come into play at the very beginning stages of relational development. 
1. There are different cultural rules for how to address strangers. 
2. Barnlund (1989) and colleagues found many differences in Japanese and U.S. American students' relational development. 
3. These differences may be due to different cultural patterns, such as preferences for high- or low-context communication. 
4. In high-context cultures, relationships will not easily develop without background or contextual information. 
C. The Stability Phase 
1. Friendships: As relationships develop more intimacy in this phase, friends share more personal and private information. 
a. Lewin (1948) suggests that there are three areas of information we self-disclose. 
i. The outer boundary includes superficial information about ourselves and our lives. 
ii. The middle circle includes more personal information-life history, family background. 
iii. The inner core includes very personal and private information, some of which we never share. 
b. These areas may correspond with relational phases: 
i. In the orientation phase, superficial information is shared. 
ii. In the exploratory phase, personal information is exchanged. 
iii. In the stability phase, more intimate information is disclosed. 
c. The most cross-cultural variation in Lewin's studies was in the degree to which the outer area was more or less permeable. 
d. There are also cultural variations in how much nonverbal expression is encouraged. 
2. Romantic Relationships: Some intimate relationships develop into romantic relationships
a. Cross-cultural studies suggest both similarities and cultural differences in romantic relationships. 
b. Gao (1991) identified common themes of openness, involvement, shared nonverbal meanings, and relationship assessment between Chinese and U.S. American students. 
c.  Gao also found that the U.S. students emphasized physical attraction, passion, and love, whereas the Chinese students stressed connectedness to families and other relational connections.
D. Gay and Lesbian Relationships: Little information is available about cultural differences in gay relationships. 
1.  Homosexuality has existed in every society and in every era, and Chesbro (1981) suggests that in the majority of cultures outside the United States homosexuality is not considered problematic behavior. 
2.  There are several areas where gay and straight relationships differ: the role of same-sex friendships, the role of cross-sex friendships, and the relative importance of friendships. 
3.  Same-sex friendships may play different roles for gay and straight males in the United States because typically U.S. heterosexual men turn to women for their social support and emotional intimacy. 
4.  Earlier in the United States and in many countries male friendships have often closely paralleled romantic love. 
5.  This also seems to be true for gay men who tend to seek emotional support in same-sex friendships. 
6.  The same pattern does not hold true for women because both gay and heterosexual women seek more intimacy in same-sex friendships. 
7.  Sexuality may play a different role in heterosexual and gay friendships. 
8.  In heterosexual relationships, friendship and sexual involvement sometimes seem mutually exclusive. 
9.  In gay and lesbian relationships, friendships often start with sexual attraction and involvement but last after sexual involvement is terminated. 
10. There is a clear distinction between "'lover" and "friend" for both gay men and women. 
11. Close relationships may play a more important role for gay people than for straight people because of the social discrimination and strained family relationships. 
12. Many romantic relationship issues are the same for both heterosexual and gay couples; however, some issues (permanent relationships, relational dissolution) are unique to gay and lesbian partners. 
13. Same-sex relationships, like heterosexual relationships, are very much influenced by the cultural and legal contexts in which they occur.

IV.      Relationships Across Differences
A. Intercultural Relationship Dialectics: A dialectical way of thinking about relationships will help us avoid stereotyping relational differences. Martin, Nakayama, and Flores (1998) have extended Baxter's (1993) relational dialectics to include: 
1. Differences-Similarities Dialectic: Real, important differences do exist between various cultural groups, and these affect intercultural relationships. Similarities also exist, and successful relationships occur, when both these notions are considered at the same time. 
2. Cultural-Individual Dialectic: Communication in relationships is both cultural and idiosyncratic. 
3. Privilege-Disadvantage Dialectic: Being sensitive to power differentials is important and usually less obvious to those in more powerful positions. 
4. Personal-Contextual Dialectic: We frequently use different communication styles with people in different contexts. 
5. Static-Dynamic Dialectic: People and relationships are constantly in flux, responding to various personal and contextual dynamics. 
6. History/Past-Present/Future Dialectic: To understand relationships, it is important to consider the contexts in which they occur, including the historical context. 
B. Communicating in Intercultural Relationships: Although intracultural and intercultural relationships share some similarities, they have some unique characteristics that can guide our thinking about communicating in these relationships. 
1. In the research of Sudweeks (1990) and colleagues, several themes emerged as important to intercultural relationships: competence, similarity, involvement, and turning points. 
2. Language is important and may challenge intercultural relationships even when people speak the same language. 
3. Although dissimilarity may account for initial attraction, it is important to find similarities in relationships that transcend cultural differences. 
4. Time has to be made for the relationship. 
5. Intimacy of interaction is important, and so are shared friendship networks. 
6. Turning points were important to intercultural friendship development, such as doing favors for each other, self-disclosure, and so on. 
C. Intercultural Dating and Marriage 
1. Lampe's (1982) study showed that people gave similar reasons for dating within and outside of their ethnic groups: they were attracted to each other physically and/or sexually. 
2. The variations occurred in reasons for not dating. 
a. Reasons given for not dating within one's group were lack of attraction and so forth. 
b. Reasons given for not dating outside of one's group were no opportunity and never thought about it. 
3. Other studies suggest that negative attitudes from families influence one's decision not to date outside one's own ethnic group. 
4. Martin, Bradford, Chitgopekar and Drzewiecka (2003) found results similar to Lampe’s.

    • 60% of students said they had dated interculturally, with Mexican Americans more likely to date interculturally than African Americans or Whites.
    • 80% of the White students grew up in all-White neighborhoods.
    • Those who dated interculturally were more likely to have grown up in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and more likely to have family members who had also dated interculturally.
  • The likelihood of dating interculturally is influenced by family attitudes, geographic context, social status, and larger social discourses.

D. Permanent Relationships

    1. In spite of substantial resistance to interethnic and interracial romantic relationships, increasing numbers of people are marrying across ethnic and racial lines.
    2. Increasing numbers of multiracial people are likely to erode structural barriers to intermarriage.

3. Major concerns of intercultural relationships include pressures from family and society and issues around raising children. 
a. Sometimes these concerns are intertwined. 
b. People in intercultural marriages tend to have more disagreements about how to raise children and are more likely to encounter opposition and resistance from their families about the marriage. 
4. Romantic love is also influenced by society, and certain groups have been made to seem as if they are more attractive and acceptable as partners. 
5. Romano's interviews of people who had married spouses from other countries identified challenges in these marriages. 
a. Challenges they shared with intracultural couples were friends, politics, finances, sex, in-laws, illness and suffering, and raising children. 
b. Challenges that seemed exacerbated in intercultural marriages were values, eating and drinking habits, gender roles, time, religion, place of residence, dealing with stress, and ethnocentrism. 
6. Romano also found that most intercultural couples have their own systems for working out the power balance in their relationships, which can be categorized into four styles: 
a. Submission style: The most common style, with one partner submitting to the culture of the other and abandoning or denying his/her own. This model rarely works because people cannot erase their cultural backgrounds. 
b. Compromise style: Each partner gives up certain parts of his or her cultural beliefs and norms to accommodate the other. 
c. Obliteration style: Both partners deal with the differences by attempting to abandon their own cultures and forming a new third culture with new beliefs. This is difficult because it is hard to be completely cut off from your own cultural background. 
d. Consensus style: The most desirable model; it is based on agreement and negotiation. Neither person permanently tries to abandon his/her cultural ways but may temporarily suspend them to adapt to the context. This requires flexibility and negotiation. 
6. She suggests that couples planning intercultural relationships should prepare carefully for the commitment.

V.        Contexts of Intercultural Relationships: It is important to consider intercultural relationships in the contexts in which they emerge.
A. History is an important context for understanding intercultural relationships. 
B. The dialectical tension rests, on the one hand, between the social, political, and economic contexts that make some kinds of intercultural relationships possible and, on the other hand, the desires and motives of the partners involved.



Questions from the Text

1. What are some of the benefits of intercultural relationships? 
2. What factors contribute to our forming relationships with some people and not with others? 
3. How is the development of intercultural relationships different from that of intracultural relationships? 
4. What challenges do intercultural couples face when they decide to make their relationships permanent? 
5. What are the advantages of taking a dialectical perspective on intercultural relationships?

Additional Questions

1. How do social and cultural influences affect decisions about who you will form relationships with? 
2. How are gay relationships different from and similar to heterosexual relationships? 
3. How do media influence the formation of intercultural romantic relationships? 
4. What challenges are different for intracultural and intercultural married couples? 
5. What are some reasons for choosing not to date interculturally? 
6. How do cultural differences influence the formation of friendships?



1. Relationship Formation Exercise: The purpose of this exercise is to help students explore how and with whom they tend to form relationships. Form groups of four to six students and ask them to identify and record responses to the following questions: 
a. Why do we develop relationships with other people? 
b. How did you get to know your friends and romantic partners? 
c. How do we form relationships with people with whom we want to become friends? 
d. How do you get to know people who are different from you? Are these relationships different from those characterized by similarity? 
e. What are some of the criteria we use to determine who we want to form friendships with and with whom we don't want to be associated? 
Students should keep track of their answers, and after 15 minutes instruct each group to report back to the class. You might write different types of responses on the board and ask students to identify the main patterns.

2. Defining Friendship Exercise: This exercise helps students explore the definition and characteristics of friendship. Instruct students to form groups of four to six students and come up with a definition of friendship. Explain to them that this definition needs to be broad enough to distinguish a friendship from an acquaintanceship. Suggest that before they form their definition they should identify differences between friendships and acquaintanceships and generate a list of characteristics found in friendships. After the students have identified their definitions, they should share them with other groups in the class. This may motivate a class discussion on characteristics important to friendships and some cultural differences in how friendships are defined.

3. Physical Attraction Exercise: The object of this exercise is to encourage students to explore what characteristics constitute physical a1:tractiveness and where their notions of physical attractiveness come from. You will need six to eight pictures of males and females from magazines or catalogues per group. Divide your students into groups of four to six individuals (mixed males and females). Give each group a set of pictures and ask them to work as a group to rate the attractiveness of each person in the pictures on a scale of 1 to 10 and to explain their rating by listing the characteristics of the person they consider to be attractive/unattractive. Instruct the students to think about these characteristics and where they got the idea that these characteristics were considered to be positive/negative. At the end of this activity, lead a class discussion exploring the following questions: 
a. Did everyone in the group agree about what characteristics were considered attractive? If there were differences/similarities, why do you think they existed? 
b. Did male and female members of the group have the same ideas about what characteristics made men/women attractive? 
c. What are some of the sources that inform our notions of attractiveness?

4. Cultural Variations in Relationships Assignment: The purpose of this assignment is to encourage students to become familiar with relationship differences in a specific culture. The assignment may be modified to work as a term or chapter assignment depending on the number of issues you assign students to investigate. The assignment could also be given as a group project. Instruct the students to choose a national or cultural group they are interested in studying. Then suggest they investigate the following questions to study relationships in the culture: 
a. Who do members of the culture consider to be! part of their family? 
b. What are some differences in the roles and responsibilities of specific family members as compared with your culture? 
c. Are family members encouraged to stay in the same house/area as their family after adolescence? 
d. What are the cultural norms and taboos regarding dating and meeting people of the opposite sex? 
e. How are marriage proposals conducted in the culture? 
f. What is a typical wedding like in the culture? 
g. How do members of the culture view divorce? 
h. If divorce occurs, what are the rights of each partner? 
i. What is the general opinion of the culture toward homosexuality? 
j. How are the general perspectives of this culture the same/different from yours regarding gender roles?

5. Intercultural Relationships Interview Assignment: This assignment focuses on exploring the challenges of forming intercultural relationships. Assign students to interview someone from their own culture who has lived for an extended period of time (minimum of 4 months) in a foreign country or someone from another country living in the United States. Advise them to follow the suggestions and guidelines given for the Cultural Adjustment Interview Assignment in Chapter 8 and use the following questions as a basis for the interview: 
a. How did you feel about meeting members of the culture for the first time? 
b. What information best prepared you to interact with them, and where did you get it? 
c. Before you met members of the culture, what did you expect them to be like? 
d. Did you encounter any surprises when you began interacting with members of the culture? 
e. How would you describe the experience of forming relationships with members of this culture? Was your experience different or similar to forming relationships with members of your own culture? 
f. Did you notice differences or similarities to your own culture in how friendships were formed with members of the opposite sex? 
g. Did you notice differences or similarities to your own culture in the expectations and norms for friendships with members of the same sex? 
h. What advice would you give to people unfamiliar with the culture about forming relationships with members of this culture?

6.  Intercultural Relationships Interview Assignment Variation: This assignment is similar to the previous assignment in that it focuses on the challenges of intercultural relationships. However, this assignment asks students to interview a person who is in an intercultural romantic relationship such as marriage, going steady, or some other form of a committed relationship. Encourage the students to view "intercultural" broadly to include persons of different religions, different class or economic groups, persons with and without disabilities, gay/lesbian/bisexual couples, and so on. Have the students summarize the interview data in a two- to three-page paper. Advise them to follow the suggestions and guidelines given for the Intercultural Interview Assignment in Chapter 8 and use the following questions as a basis for the interview: 
a. What cultures/religions are they members of? 
b. How did they meet? 
c. How long have they been in the relationship? 
d. What attracted them to each other? 
e. What role did culture/religion play in their attraction to each other, if any? 
f. What are the strengths of their intercultural relationship? 
g. What are the challenges of their relationship? 
h. Do they see the strengths and challenges as different from those found in same-culture relationships? 
i. How have friends and family displayed their support or lack of support for the relationship? 
7.  Intercultural Relationships Video Assignment: The idea of this assignment is to encourage students to explore the unique challenges and rewards of intercultural relationships. The video for this assignment can be shown during class time or students can choose from a list of popular videos that highlight intercultural relationships. After viewing the video, students should be assigned to write a one- to two-page paper answering the questions from the previous assignment. Some suggested videos are:

  • Jungle Fever
  • Mississippi Masala
  • Fools Rush In
  • The Joy Luck Club



1. Halmani. Distributed by Chicago, IL: California Newsreel, 1988. This video tells the story of a Korean grandmother who comes to the United States to visit her daughter, American son-in-law, and granddaughter. It re,counts the generational and cultural differences she encounters. (30 minutes)

2. Hot Water: Intercultural Issues Between Women and Men. Distributed by Washington, DC: NAFSA Association of International Educators, 1996. This video examines cultural differences in the relationships between women and men. Cultural variations discussed include perceptions of dating, intercultural marriage, and homosexual relationships, as well as nonverbal differences. The video also suggests some safety issues for men and women who sojourn in other countries. (27 minutes)

3. The Politics of Love in Black and White. Distributed by San Francisco, CA: California Newsreel, 1993. This is a documentary video in which college students discuss interracial relationships and their experiences with and feelings about interracial dating and marriage. (32 minutes)

4. In My Country: Gender Perspectives on Gender. Distributed by Orem, UT: Utah Valley State College, Behavioral Science Department. This is a two-part video that explores dating, marriage, and other relationship issues and cultural influences.

Source: http://highered.mheducation.com/sites/dl/free/0767430131/87997/Chapter10.doc

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