Intercultural Communication, Adaptation and

views updated


Millions of immigrants and refugees change homes each year—driven by natural disaster and economic need; seeking better hopes of freedom, security, economic betterment; or simply looking for a more desirable environment in which to live. Numerous others temporarily relocate in a foreign land in order to serve as diplomats, military personnel, or as employees on overseas assignments for other governmental and intergovernmental agencies. Peace Corps volunteers have worked in more than one hundred nations since the inception of that organization in 1960. Researchers, professors, and students visit and study at foreign academic institutions, and missionaries travel to other countries to carry out their religious endeavors. An increasing number of the employees of multinational corporations work overseas, while individual accountants, teachers, construction workers, athletes, artists, musicians, and writers seek employment in foreign lands on their own.

Individuals such as those mentioned above face drastic, all-encompassing challenges as they attempt to construct a new life in a foreign country. They find themselves straddled between two worlds—the familiar culture from their homeland and the unfamiliar culture of their new host society. Despite having varied circumstances and differing levels of engagement and commitment to the host society, all resettlers begin a new life more or less as strangers. They find that many of their previously held beliefs, taken-for-granted assumptions, and routinized behaviors are no longer relevant or appropriate in the new setting. As a result, they must cope with a high level of uncertainty and anxiety. The recognition of verbal and non-verbal codes and the interpretations of the hidden assumptions underlying these codes are likely to be difficult.

Acculturation, Deculturation, and Stress

Once strangers enter a new culture, their adaptation process is set in full motion. Some of the old cultural habits are to be replaced by new ones. Most strangers desire and seek to achieve necessary adaptation in the new environment, especially those whose daily functions require them to establish what John French, Willard Rodgers, and Sidney Cobb (1974) referred to as a relatively stable person-environment fit. The adaptation process unfolds in two subprocesses, acculturation and deculturation, and involves the accompanying experience of stress. As they gradually establish some kind of working relationship with a new culture, these uprooted people are compelled to learn (acculturation) at least some of the new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, as well as the linguistic and other elements of the host communication system. As new learning occurs, unlearning (deculturation) of some of the old cultural habits has to occur—at least in the sense that new responses are adopted in situations that previously would have evoked old ones.

The acculturative and deculturative experiences, in turn, produce a substantial amount of internal stress caused by temporary internal disequilibrium. Researchers such as Kalervo Oberg (1960) and Adrian Furnham and Stephan Bochner (1986) have examined the stress phenomenon and employed, in doing so, the term "culture shock" and other similar terms such as "transition shock," "role shock," "language shock," and "cultural fatigue." In varying degrees, the phenomenon of culture shock is a manifestation of dislocation-related stress reactions. The manifestations include irritability, insomnia, and other psychosomatic disorders, as well as an acute sense of loss, insecurity, impotence, loneliness, and marginality. Such a state of flux is also met by defense mechanisms such as selective attention, cynicism, denial, avoidance, and withdrawal. The concept of culture shock is further extended by researchers such as Judith Martin (1984) and Bettina Hansel (1993) to include reentry shock-the difficulties, psychological and otherwise, that an individual may experience upon returning home.

As difficult as they may be in some cases, culture shock experiences serve as the very force that drives strangers to learn and adapt. It is through the presence of stress that strangers are compelled to strive to achieve the level of learning and self-adjustment that is necessary in order to meet the demands of the environment and to work out new ways of handling their daily activities. In a study of Canadian technical advisors (and their spouses) who were on two-year assignments in Kenya, Brent Ruben and Daniel Kealey (1979) found that the intensity and directionality of culture shock was unrelated to patterns of psychological adjustment at the end of the first year in the alien land. Of particular interest is the finding that, in some instances, the magnitude of culture shock was positively related to the individuals' social and professional effectiveness within the new environment (i.e., the greater the culture shock, the greater the effectiveness). Based on this finding, Ruben (1983) conjectured that culture shock experiences might, in fact, be responsible for (rather than impede) successful adaptation. Peter Adler (1987) echoed this point when he stated that culture shock is a traditional learning experience that facilitates a psychological change from a state of low self-awareness and cultural awareness to a state of high self-awareness and cultural awareness.

Host Communication Competence

At the heart of the experiences of acculturation, deculturation, and adaptive stress is what Young Yun Kim (1988, 1995) identifies as the stranger's host communication competence, or the ability to communicate in accordance with the communication codes, norms, and practices of the host culture. For the natives, such competence has been acquired from so early in life and has been so internalized in their personal communication system that, by and large, it operates automatically and unconsciously. For strangers, however, many elements of the same competence must be newly acquired, often painstakingly, through trial and error. Until they have acquired an adequate level of host communication competence, they are handicapped in their ability to function in the host environment. The degree to which a given stranger acquires the host communication competence, in turn, reflects his or her overall functional fitness, while the lack of such competence manifests itself in various forms of miscommunication, social inadequacies, and, in some cases, marginalization.

In explaining host communication competence, Kim identifies three dimensions of elements—cognitive, affective, and operational. Cognitively, a competent communicator is knowledgeable in the host language and culture, including the history, institutions, laws and regulations, worldviews, beliefs, norms, and rules of social conduct and interpersonal relationships. The knowledge of the host language, in particular, means not just the linguistic knowledge (e.g., phonetics, syntax, and vocabulary) but also the knowledge about the pragmatic uses of the language in everyday life (e.g., the many subtle nuances in the way the language is used and interpreted by the natives in various formal and informal social engagements). The verbal and nonverbal codes and rules of the host culture define the local communication rules about "correct" behavior. These rules enable the natives to make sense of events, activities, and actions that occur within their society. Communication rules function as directives that govern the flow of messages from one person to another and limit the possibilities of actions of the participants. Such rules identify how a given social goal may be achieved and render the behavior of each person more or less predictable and understandable to others. Communication rules apply to all levels of behavior, both verbal and nonverbal, as well as formal and informal. Some rules are explicitly coded within the written or spoken language, as in the case of grammatically correct writing or organizational rules and regulations. Most other rules, however, are implicit, and these deal largely with the nature of interpersonal relationships such as involvement and intimacy, dominance and status, and cooperation and accommodation. In each situation, from asking a friend for help to seeking to resolve a conflict in a relationship, nonverbal behaviors reflect the cultural rules and elicit specific responses that often have measurable social consequences. The affective (i.e., emotion) dimension of host communication competence involves what Maureen Mansell (1981) referred to as the "expressive response" that engages strangers in personally meaningful interactions with the natives. The affective competence allows strangers to co-participate in the emotional and aesthetic experiences of the natives—from the experiences of joy, excitement, humor, triumph, and beauty, to sadness, boredom, sarcasm, and despair. The affective competence thus leads to an empathic capacity and a sense of belonging in the host environment. Conversely, strangers who lack affective competence are likely to feel distant and alienated because they lack the genuine interest in experiencing the local culture and in developing close relationships with the natives. Underpinning this affective competence is an attitudinal readiness toward the host environment that is affirming and respectful. Affective competence further helps strangers to understand the often subtle and hidden meanings embedded in various messages from the host environment, thereby enriching their intercultural experiences.

Closely linked with cognitive and affective competence is operational (or behavioral) competence, or the ability to express one's ideas and thoughts externally in accordance with the host cultural communication system. No matter how competent someone may be cognitively and affectively, his or her interactions with the host environment cannot be successful without a corresponding operational competence. Operational competence thus enables a stranger to choose a right combination of verbal and nonverbal actions to meet the demands of everyday interactions—such as managing face-to-face encounters, initiating and maintaining relationships, seeking appropriate information sources, and solving various problems they may encounter. Ultimately, it is such operational competence, along with cognitive and affective competence, that makes strangers' life activities effective in the host environment.

Host Social Communication

Host communication competence is vitally and reciprocally linked to participation in social communication activities of the host society. On the one hand, strangers' social communication activities are directly constrained by the level of their host communication competence. On the other hand, each intercultural encounter offers the strangers an opportunity to cultivate the ability to communicate with the natives. The primary mode of social communication is face-to-face interpersonal communication, through which strangers obtain information and insight into the mindsets and behaviors of the local people as well as their own taken-for-granted cultural habits. Interpersonal communication activities often provide strangers with needed emotional support and points of reference for checking, validating, or correcting their own thoughts and actions.

In addition to experiencing interpersonal communication processes, strangers participate in the social processes of the host environment via a wide range of communication media, including radio, television, newspapers, magazines, movies, art, music, and drama. By engaging in these forms of communication, strangers interact with their host culture without having direct involvement with specific individuals, and thereby expand the scope of their learning beyond the immediate social context with which they come into contact. In transmitting messages that reflect the aspirations, myths, work and play, and issues and events that are important to the natives, the various public communication media explicitly or implicitly convey the worldviews, myths, beliefs, values, mores, and norms of the culture. The adaptation function of mass communication is particularly significant during the initial phase of resettlement. During this phase, many strangers have not yet developed a level of host communication competence that is sufficient to forge meaningful interpersonal relationships with local people. The direct communication experiences with the natives can be intensely frustrating or intimidating to many strangers, as they feel awkward and out of place in relating to others and the immediate negative feedback they receive from the natives can be too overwhelming. Under such circumstances, the strangers naturally tend to withdraw from direct contacts and, instead, prefer media as an alternative, pressure-free communication channel through which they can experience the host culture.

Adaptive Change over Time

The cumulative and extensive engagements in the host communication processes bring about a gradual change in strangers over time. The learning and adaptation function of culture shock has been indirectly supported by other studies that have attempted to describe the stages of the adaptation process. Oberg (1979), for example, described four stages: (1) a honeymoon stage characterized by fascination, elation, and optimism, (2) a stage of hostility and emotionally stereotyped attitudes toward the host society and increased association with fellow sojourners, (3) a recovery stage characterized by increased language knowledge and ability to get around in the new cultural environment, and (4) a final stage in which adjustment is about as complete as possible, anxiety is largely gone, and new customs are accepted and enjoyed. This four-stage model of adaptive change is depicted by researchers such as Adrian Furnham (1988) and Michael Brein and Kenneth David (1971) in the form of the U-curve hypothesis (see Figure 1). Focusing on temporary sojourners' psychological satisfaction in the host culture, this hypothesis predicts that strangers typically begin the adaptation process with optimism and elation, undergo a subsequent dip or trough in satisfaction, and then experience a recovery. Researchers such as John Gullahorn and Jeanne Gullahorn (1963), as well as Brein and David (1971), have extended the U-curve hypothesis into the W-curve hypothesis by adding the reentry (or return-home) phase to illustrate the fact that the sojourners go through a similar process when they return to their original culture.

Research findings on the U-curve process have been mixed. In a study of groups of Swedes who had spent time in foreign countries, Ingemar Torbiorn (1982) reported that the subjects' satisfaction level followed a pattern similar to the U-curve. After about six months in the host country, satisfaction was significantly lower than it had been at arrival. Toward the end of that year, satisfaction slowly started to increase. Other studies have reported, however, that sojourners do not always begin their life in a new cultural environment with elation and optimism as described by the U-curve. Colleen Ward and her colleagues (1998) conducted a longitudinal study of Japanese students in New Zealand and found a more or less linear, progressive process of psychological adaptation; that is, adjustment problems were greatest at entry point and decreased over time.

Building on psychological models such as these, Kim (1988, 1995) has created a model in which the adaptation process is explained in terms of a stress-adaptation-growth dynamic—a push-and-pull of competing psychological forces that leads to a gradual transformation of the individual (see Figure 2). This model highlights the continuous draw-back-to-leap nature of the psychological movement that underlies the adaptation process, which is at once progressive (i.e., an increase in integration of previously distinct subunits) and regressive (i.e., a weakening or even a breakup of a previously integrated entity). To the extent that stress is responsible for frustration, anxiety, and suffering, then, it is also credited as a necessary impetus for new learning and psychic growth. In this process of transformation, large and sudden adaptive changes are more likely to occur during the initial phase of exposure to a new culture. Such drastic changes are themselves indicative of the severity of adaptive difficulties and disruptions, as has been demonstrated in culture shock studies. At the same time, the higher the level of stresses stemming from resistance against change, the more powerful the fluctuations that eventually break through in the unfolding of adaptation and growth. The fluctuations of stress and adaptation diminish over time, and a calming of the overall life experiences takes hold. Accompanying this dynamic process are gradual increases in the stranger's overall functional fitness and in the person's psychological health in relating to the host environment. Also emerging in this process is a gradual shift in the stranger's identity orientation from a largely monocultural identity to an increasingly intercultural identity— one with a deepened self-awareness and an expanded capacity to embrace the conflicting demands of differing cultures and form them into a creative and cohesive whole.

Ideology and Adaptation

Traditionally, studies of cross-cultural adaptation in the United States have been largely grounded in the premise that it is a natural phenomenon and that at least some degree of successful adaptation is a goal that most, if not all, individuals who cross cultural boundaries want to achieve. This affirmative view of adaptation, reflected in the theoretical ideas described so far, results from the so-called assimilationist (or melting-pot) ideology, a mainstream American social philosophy that advocates the fusion of diverse cultural elements into a unified system of ideas and practices. In this perspective, adaptation is a matter of practical necessity for people who live and work in a new environment and who are at least minimally dependent on the local culture to achieve some level of psychological and social proficiency in their daily activities.

The assimilationist view and its expectation of cultural convergence, however, have been questioned since the 1970s, when the "new ethnicity" movement began as part of the civil rights movement in the United States. During this time, discussions have increasingly centered on the value of pluralism, leading many scholars to advocate the importance of ethnic and cultural minorities maintaining their cultural and linguistic identities. For example, the conceptualization by John Berry (1980, 1990) suggests the pluralistic nature of adaptation by focusing on the differing "acculturation modes" or identity orientations of individual immigrants rather than on the process in which they strive for a better fit in the host environment. Individuals' acculturation modes are assessed by Berry based on responses to two simple questions: "Are [ethnic] cultural identity and customs of value to be retained?" and "Are positive relations with the larger society of value and to be sought?" As depicted in Figure 3, Berry combines the response types (yes, no) to these two questions, and proposes four identity modes: integration (yes, yes), assimilation (no, yes), separation (yes, no), and marginality (no, no).

A more drastic departure from the traditional assimilationist perspective on adaptation has been taken by a number of "critical" (or "postcolonial") analysts. In sharp contrast to the premise of adaptation as a practical necessity and as a goal for individual strangers, critical analysts tend to view the stressful nature of cross-cultural adaptation as a consequence of power inequality that exists between the dominant group of a society and its ethnic minorities. Likewise, critical analysts such as Radha Hedge (1998) and Robert Young (1996) regard the stressful nature of the adaptation process as a form of oppression. Instead of viewing adaptation as a natural and practical necessity for non-natives, critical analysts tend to place a spotlight on the politics of identity and the perpetual struggle on the part of nondominant group members, including new arrivals, as victims. Based on interviews, for example, Hedge (1998) characterizes the experiences of a small group of Asian-Indian immigrant women in the United States in terms of their displacement and their struggling to deal with the contradictions between their internal identity and external "world in which hegemonic structures systematically marginalize certain types of difference" (p. 36).

It appears, then, that the pluralistic and critical interpretations of cross-cultural adaptation deviate from the traditional assimilationist perspective by suggesting that adaptation is, or should be, a matter of choice rather than a practical necessity. Pluralistic models accentuate variations in the psychological acceptance or rejection by individuals of the host society. Critical analysts move away further from the assimilationist perspective by advocating that cultural minorities must question the merit of adaptation or even reject the legitimacy of adaptive pressures under which they find themselves. These ongoing ideological disagreements, however, lose their relevance and significance in light of the extensive empirical evidence documenting the fact that most individuals do recognize and accept the reality of having to make adaptive changes in themselves when crossing cultural boundaries. To them, the driving force is not an ideological aim but a practical necessity to meet everyday personal and social needs. Instead of engaging in the abstract question about the nature of their relationship to the host society, their primary concern is to be able to function well in that society.

It is in this sense that the theories, concepts, and related research evidence highlighted in this entry serve as an intellectual template for individual immigrants and sojourners who strive to help themselves for their own adaptive ends. People learn, for example, that stressful experiences of learning cultural habits (i.e., acculturation) and unlearning cultural habits (i.e., deculturation) are unavoidable if people are to achieve a level of fitness in the new milieu. To accelerate this goal, people need to recognize the host environment as a partner and engage themselves in its interpersonal and mass communication activities. People also must recognize the tremendous adaptive capacity within themselves. This internally driven motivation is essential for anticipating and withstanding the challenge of culture shock, so as to undertake the task of developing a sufficient level of host communication competence. Such has been the case for many people who have ventured through new experimental territories and achieved a new formation of life. Their individual accomplishments bear witness to the remarkable human capacity for adaptation and self-renewal.

See also:Intercultural Communication, Interethnic Relations and; Interpersonal Communication; Nonverbal Communication.


Adler, Peter. (1987). "Culture Shock and the Cross-Cultural Learning Experience." In Toward Internationalism, eds. Louise Luce and Elise Smith. Cambridge, MA: Newbury.

Berry, John. (1980). "Acculturation as Varieties of Adaptation." In Acculturation: Theory, Models, and Some New Findings, ed. Amado Padilla. Washington, DC: Westview.

Berry, John. (1990). "Psychological Acculturation: Understanding Individuals Moving Between Cultures." In Applied Cross-Cultural Psychology, ed. Richard Brislin. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Brein, Michael, and David, Kenneth. (1971). "Intercultural Communication and the Adjustment of the Sojourner." Psychological Bulletin 76(3):215-230.

French, John, Jr.; Rodgers, Willard; and Cobb, Sidney.(1974). "Adjustment as Person-Environment Fit." In Coping and Adaptation, eds. George Coelho, David Hamburg, and John Adams. New York: Basic Books.

Furnham, Adrian. (1988). "The Adjustment of Sojourners." In Cross-Cultural Adaptation, eds. Young Yun Kim and Willim Gudykunst. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Furnham, Adrian, and Bochner, Stephan. (1986). Culture Shock: Psychological Reactions to Unfamiliar Environments. London: Mathuen.

Gullahorn, John, and Gullahorn, Jeanne. (1963). "AnExtension of the U-Curve Hypothesis." Journal of Social Issues 19(3):33-47.

Hansel, Bettina. (1993). "An Investigation of the Re-Entry Adjustment of Indians Who Studied in the U.S.A. " Occasional Papers in Intercultural Learning, No. 17. New York: AFS Center for the Study of Intercultural Learning.

Hedge, Radha. (1998). "Swinging the Trapeze: The Negotiation of Identity among Asian Indian Immigrant Women in the United States." In Communication and Identity across Cultures, eds. Dolores Tanno and Alberto Gonzalez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kim, Young Yun. (1988). Communication and Cross-Cultural Adaptation: An Integrative Theory. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Kim, Young Yun. (1995). "Cross-Cultural Adaptation:An Integrative Theory." In Intercultural Communication Theory, ed. Richard Wiseman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Martin, Judith. (1984). "The Intercultural Reentry:Conceptualization and Directions for Future Research." International Journal of Intercultural Relations 8(2):115-134.

Mansell, Maureen. (1981). "Transcultural Experience and Expressive Response." Communication Education 30:93-108.

Oberg, Kalervo. (1960). "Culture Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments." Practical Anthropology 7:170-179.

Oberg, Kalervo. (1979). "Culture Shock and the Problem of Adjustment in New Cultural Environments." In Toward Internationalism: Readings in Cross-cultural Communication, eds. Elise Smith and Louise Luce. Cambridge, MA: Newbury.

Ruben, Brent. (1983). "A System-Theoretic View." InInternational and Intercultural Communication Annual, Vol. 12: Intercultural Communication Theory, ed. William Gudykunst. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Ruben, Brent, and Kealey, Daniel. (1979). "Behavioral Assessment of Communication Competency and the Prediction of Cross-Cultural Adaptation." International Journal of Intercultural Relations 3(1):15-27.

Torbiorn, Ingemar. (1982). Living Abroad: Personal Adjustment and Personnel Policy in the Overseas Setting. New York: Wiley.

Ward, Colleen; Okura, Yutaka; Kennedy, Anthony; and Kojima, Takahiro. (1998). "The U-Curve on Trial: A Longitudinal Study of Psychological and Socio-cultural Adjustment During Cross-Cultural Transition." International Journal of Intercultural Relations 22(3):277-291.

Young, Robert. (1996). Intercultural Communication: Pragmatics, Genealogy, Deconstruction. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Young Yun Kim

About this article

Intercultural Communication, Adaptation and

Updated About content Print Article