In 1987, with only a few years of experience of teaching English in the United States, I went to China to teach a summer enrichment course for native Chinese teachers of English.  I used all the best practices that I knew, and worked closely with the other American instructors in my group.  Most of what I did in my classroom was easy to understand, but there were occasions when my students were baffled by the cultural aspects of teaching English–and frankly so was I!

How do you explain Halloween?  As a child, I appreciated the free candy and spend lots of time thinking about what I “are going to be” each year.   The origins of Halloween are a bit murky, somewhat controversial, and well-beyond the realm of what I studied in school.

Consider the phrase “how are you?” This is a common American greeting much like the Chinese greeting of “have you eaten?”   Both are questions that aren’t answered.    Why?  In the United States, greeting questions are followed by small talk about the weather or hometowns, but we rarely discuss how we “are”.  Personal conversations are usually left for another time and place.

Over the years, I would ponder my experiences teaching overseas.  If all cultures developed the ability to communicate, why do we see things so very differently?  What purpose did communication serve in a culture?  How did some cultures develop ways in which to share and negotiate meaning that my culture did not?   Can I truly communicate with someone that doesn’t share my dominant culture?  What does competent intercultural communication “look” like?

Communication theorists, anthropologists, and others have given us tools to develop an awareness of our own thinking so we can to understand others whose culture may be different from our own.  This text starts with some basic reasons for studying intercultural communication and then reviews some fundamental principles of the communication process.  After that, we look at foundational principles of cultures and how those ideas directly overlay onto the fundamental principles of communication.  The second half of the book covers some common contexts in which intercultural communication often occurs.

More than thirty years after my first international adventure, I still think about those first Chinese students that changed the course of my life.  So have all these years of studying, teaching, and intellectual curiosity made me more a more competent communicator?  Every individual’s life experience is rich, diverse, and complicated, so communication competency—though important—can only take us so far.  I prefer to embrace the idea of cultural humility.

Cultural humility (1998) is a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique in developing communication relationships.  It acknowledges that each one of us “is a unique intersection of various aspects of culture” (ret. 8/10/19).  The ideas behind cultural humility include:

  • It is impossible to learn all culture. In other words, we cannot know everything, but we can become more familiar with the cultures we encounter regularly.
  • Knowledge of a culture does not create “mastery” of that culture.
  • Being open to learning and/or suspending judgement when communicating can help avoid miscommunication and confusion.

My goal for this book was first, and foremost, to make studying intercultural communication more affordable for students, but once the class is over, my goal is that you continue to grow in cultural humility while creating your own space in which to become a competent communicator.  Intercultural communication is a life skill that I hope that you will continually build upon as you meet new people and find yourself in new situations. May you find joy in the journey.


Tervalon, M., & Murray-García, J. (1998, May). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Retrieved from

Vanderhoef, D., Conteh, P., & Benbenek, M. (n.d.). Perspectives on culture and communication. Retrieved from


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