Taking Multiplicity Seriously- New Concepts for intercultural communication

NB: An updated version of this article has been published in the journal ‘Interculture’:


Paper presented at the Sietar Europe Conference in Tallinn, september 2013

Introduction: the omnipresence of culture (1)

Discussion of ‘culture’ has become mainstream in many domains of our societies (2). Whether it is on issues like migration and multiculturalism, international business or cooperation, development aid or even the behavior of people working in the financial world (3): it seems the influence of cultural factors is no longer a blind spot in the understanding of our social reality.

Yet, the dominant approach to  culture frequently carries many shortcomings. While the original concept of ‘culture’ as once introduced by anthropologists has been extensively criticized by social scientists for being monolithic and static, ‘culture’ is still generally perceived as a force that creates uniformity among its members and is very resilient to change. While most intercultural researchers, trainers and consultants agree that culture is indeed dynamic and heterogeneous, the concept of culture they apply still bears many resemblances to the traditional version.
To create approaches to cultural differences that do justice to the complexity of our social world, it is time we take the multiplicity of culture seriously. In this article I will summarize my own findings, experiences ideas about an approach that takes cultural multiplicity, as opposed to uniformity, as a starting point.

The problems of cultural uniformity

It is safe to say that we live in a world that is more culturally aware than ever before. Interculturalists have made a huge contribution to the recognition that there are many ways to perceive the world, different traditions with meaningful ideas and that human creativity can create a great variety of life, working and communication styles. Intercultural research, training and consultancy has achieved that a great deal of organizations, from multinational companies to NGO’s, are aware that they operate in a world where cultural diversity is a reality.

The Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam (4) – a knowledge centre for international and intercultural communication- has been one of the first providers of cultural awareness training in The Netherlands. With a background in the extensive Dutch colonial past, it nowadays hosts a training centre for anyone working in an intercultural situation, be it employees of multinational companies, NGO’s operating internationally or public officials working with multicultural clients in The Netherlands. Although it is our experience that many people find it very helpful and important to learn about cultural differences, we are also confronted with the limitations and sometimes undesirable consequences of the status quo of intercultural training and advice. The root of many of those consequences lie partly in the way that culture itself is being conceptualized in intercultural training.

Virtually all models and methods of intercultural communication stress uniformity in their conceptualization of cultures. ‘Culture’ is then presented as an invisible force  that unconsciously guides people’s behavior, with different layers of which the deepest ones are almost resilient to change, affecting  large groups of people in an almost identical way so that it distinguishes them from other groups. Misunderstandings in intercultural situations can then be effectively explained by looking at the cultural backgrounds of the participants and how their deeper value systems are unconsciously steering their perceptions, expectations and behavior. Whereas this approach definitely has its merit, it also comes with some considerable dilemmas and pitfalls, both practically and theoretically.

First of all, the emphasis on uniform cultures can lead to stereotyping. Descriptions of norms, patterns and styles then become descriptions of individual people, that in many cases will not conform exactly to the image that was created. Information about Dutch, British or Chinese culture creates an image of the Dutchman, the Briton or the Chinese. In many cases, these descriptions take place on the national level, something that has been common since the days of early nation-building.  The idea that countries have a unique ‘national personality’ or Volksgeist was developed and cultivated by Herder’s Romanticism movement and legitimized a primary identification of people with their country over regional, religious or class identifications.  In other words: the idea of national unity in terms of values and behavior was politically constructed. Today, ‘national culture’  is in many cases still our starting point for thinking and talking about differences between people. This can lead to descriptions of intercultural encounters where people seem to be no more than the bearers of their national traits (5).

Most of the widely used models of cross- or intercultural communication revolve around cultural dimensions that take the nation-state as a starting point: national cultures are categorized  on the basis of several dimensions, where the cultural profile of a country is created on the basis of the average ‘scores’ on these dimensions (6). But essentially the dimensions will tell you exactly this: an average. The dimensions then, are not very helpful in explaining the behavior of the considerable amount of people that do not behave ‘averagely’, leave alone provide advice on how to interact with them. It is generally accepted (also among interculturalists) that cultural differences are in reality in no way confined to national borders, as regional, company and class differences create a variety of behavior within, or sometimes across, nation states. However, this variety is rarely the starting point of any intercultural analysis.

Not only can the stereotypes that people create on the basis of cultural generalizations prove inadequate when applied in a specific situation, but they will in some cases encourage people to  replace their culturally shaped basic assumptions with one-dimensional and simplistic categories of others. In my experience, this does not always mean an advancement in open mindedness or empathy towards others, leading to conclusions like: “ Participative management doesn’t work with Indians. They’re used to hierarchy, so it is best to boss them around”, or “Since Moroccans are from a shame culture, you need to humiliate them to change their behavior”(7). Nowadays, the emphasis on nationality is sometimes replaced by an emphasis on ethnicity or religion, especially in discussions of diversity and integration. The stereotyping effect is the same, when discussions revolve around the Muslim or even the immigrant.

Another undesirable consequence of the emphasis on cultural uniformity is that it can leave little space for people to connect. Attention for cultural differences is frequently associated with building bridges between people and bringing people closer together. Unfortunately, it can also have the opposite effect, as became painfully evident to me in a training once. After my colleague and myself had been explaining the employees of a research institute that their foreign employees could sometimes interpret or experience things differently, one of the participants that had opposed us the whole morning said: ‘You know, I get it, there are cultural differences. You see, I grew up here in Amsterdam, and when I used to pass by in this neighborhood, I used to see women sitting by the playgrounds, watching their children. Nowadays when I’m here, I also see women, but now they wear veils. So they have this whole different culture, and that’s fine. But I just don’t feel like making such an effort, to really plunge into their culture. So I rather just let it be’. People that believe that they ‘belong’  to a singular cultural tradition, can tend to overlook the things that they have in common with others. This lack of space for connection extends from connections between people to connections within people. Many of my training participants over the years have been children of mixed parents, individuals that grew up and lived in several countries or children of immigrants that identified with several countries and traditions at the same time. I have found many of them having problems recognizing themselves in a worldview of separate, monolithic cultures.

Perhaps the most pressing shortcoming of the dominant understanding of culture is that it provides little help when it comes to the interaction between people of different cultural backgrounds. This is no large surprise considering the fact that the academic field that has had most attention for the role of culture, anthropology, focused on investigating and presenting people’s behavior in their original cultural context. Interesting as that is, it does not explain much about how people go about outside of this context, when they interact with people of other backgrounds (8)  This is even more apparent in the field of ethics, where the norm of ‘cultural relativism’ was once applied to argue for the autonomy of colonized people (9). This falls short in a world where people interact physically, mentally or digitally all over the world and tolerance and respect as an approach to other values seems to fall short. The world is no longer an archipelago of distinct and exclusive cultural islands, if it ever was at all.

In my experience, many interculturalists are aware of these dilemmas and pitfalls. For instance, we frequently make sure that we warn people that there will be individual or subcultural exceptions to the cultural generalizations that we use in an effort to avoid stereotyping. Yet unconsciously, we continue to confirm a discourse that emphasizes a homogeneous, static and exclusive understanding of culture, while offering some nuances and warnings afterwards. Personally, I have found myself in situations where I was explaining rather what culture is not, and how we should not go about it, instead of what we should do. I believe it is time that we as interculturalists start taking the multiplicity within cultures seriously by putting it more central in our conceptualization of culture. In the rest of this article, I will explore an alternative approach to culture based on multiplicity instead of uniformity, and its’ implications for intercultural training and consultancy.

Towards multiplicity

What would it take to take multiplicity and not uniformity within cultures as a starting point? If we accept that cultures are not uniform, coherent entities to which exceptions are thinkable, but in reality host a variety of positions, perspectives and concerns, then how can we ever say anything meaningful about cultures? We could express an endless amount of differences and nuances within our ‘own’ cultures whereas at the same time experience a sense of belonging and familiarity that makes us feel ‘at home.’ How to reconcile these two seemingly opposing perspectives?

The German interculturalist Stepahie Rathje (10) offers a way out of this dilemma by claiming that it is exactly the sense of normality with inherent differences that expresses culture. Culture then creates cohesion in spite of differences or even conflicts that we feel familiar with; it is not a mold that creates completely uniformity, but rather the glue that keeps differences together. Obviously, there can be dominant or common behaviors or views within a group, but to be part of that group one does not necessarily need to share them: being used to them is more than enough. So whereas going camping and eating raw herring can be considered common behavior in The Netherlands, I do not need to actually engage in these activities to feel just as ‘Dutch’ as people that do. Feeling that these behaviors are ‘normal’ is fortunately enough for me to feel at home.
Rathje gives the clarifying example of a person visiting Thailand, where she sees an election poster of a political party. Even if someone would explain to her in detail the slogans on the poster or even the position and ideology, this would still not give her a sense of familiarity or normality with Thai culture and society, not even if she would agree with it fully. In her ‘own culture’, she would obviously also not agree with all political parties that are present. Yet she would understand how they relate to one another, hence experiencing a sense of normality with the differences in political views available. In the words of cultural historian Klaus Hansen: “We recognize [...] [divergent] points of view, and when we hear them, we know that we are at home” (11).

A key element of acknowledging the multiplicity of cultures would be to acknowledge the multiplicity of people.  If we see cultures as entities that are comprised of many different elements, this means that the members of those cultures consequently have memberships of more identity groups than just their national or ethnic belonging (12). This means that people, depending on their class- or political position for instance, can take up very different positions within their national culture.  Instead of only accounting for the ‘primary collectivity’ of nationality or ethnicity, ‘multicollectivity’ can be assumed in any human being. This means that it is a natural, even empirical phenomenon that people are members of several groups and consequently have several identities and  even loyalties. Children of mixed parents, immigrants and ‘third-culture kids’ may be more extreme examples of this, but essentially everyone needs to function in a diverse array of social environments where values, expectations and behavior may differ. Dealing with cultural differences then, starts with dealing with the different identities, roles and sides we carry within ourselves. At the same time, an acknowledgement of the multicollectivity within all people opens up the space to see to see similarities and differences in any individual encounter; neighbors with different ethnic backgrounds could  focus on the shared neighborhood and living concerns instead of the differences in ethnicity that potentially divides them.

Lastly, accepting multiplicity would also mean a multiplicity of outcomes. Of course discussion of culture will involve mention of general patterns and the prediction of certain behaviors and outcomes. Frequently, however, there seems to be a tendency to desire and provide exact and definite answers about cultures: the Chinese would always choose money over leisure time, Arabs would never accept a woman as their superior and the Dutch will always give you direct and honest feedback. In practice, cultures do not always give exact guidelines about how to handle, but several scripts that can be followed (or not) depending on the specific situation and individual. Sometimes a Chinese person can prioritize spending more time at home, many Arabs will accept a female boss (even if it was only out of strategic concerns) and, most certainly, there are many situations where the Dutch will shy away from telling others what they are really thinking.

What characterizes intercultural interactions is the lack of a sense of familiarity or normality, leading to a sense of strangeness. The approach of  Gudykunst and Kim, who consequently describe intercultural communication as communication between strangers is helpful in this regard. Their research has shown how the experience of strangeness leads to anxiety and uncertainty, preventing an effective interaction (13). This strangeness is a gradual concept and in the end a subjective one: for some, going to a Turkish grocery shop down the street can feel extremely alien and unexpected, for others, it can be part of the daily routine. ‘Strangeness’ is not limited to international or interethnic  contact: an interaction between with a person of a different nationality, but a similar educational background may not be experienced as ‘intercultural’, whereas talking to a neighbor with the same nationality but working in an unfamiliar job environment might well be.
Talking culture in multiples: avoiding single stories

What are the consequences for us as interculturalists, if we are to take the concept of cultural multiplicity seriously? First of all, we will have to be conscious about how we talk culture, and have to develop the habit of talking about countries, groups, and countries in multiples. Considering how the world is organized today and the legal structures supporting the status of the nation state, it is unavoidable in many cases to talk about ‘countries’ when talking or thinking about culture. It is neither possible nor necessary to avoid talking about national cultures at any cost. Rather, an effort should be made to show the many different sides and faces of a country, preventing what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie in an inspiring TedX talk calls ‘single stories’(14). Stories that only show one side of a culture, group or person create stereotypes, and ‘the problem with stereotypes’, Adichie says, ‘is not necessarily that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete’.

By making an effort to tell many different stories about countries, cultures and people, we can adversely try to understand other cultures or groups by seeing them in the light of multiple traditions, patterns, and positions. I once overheard a conversation after a yoga class, where the instructor was talking to some students about his upcoming trip to Russia where he would give workshops and seminars about the  his yoga methods. One of the students loudly exclaimed that she just could not imagine Russians being interested in yoga at all. The teacher (conforming in this case to the stereotype of the wise yoga-teacher) replied: ‘You probably say that because of the Russians that you’ve met abroad, staying in all-inclusive hotels, spending their time drinking and partying. But there is also a different side to Russia, with a long tradition in for instance arts, ballet and poetry; this is where yoga tends to connect to better.’

Teaching people about a culture then, does not mean showing them a singular consistent pattern, but rather showing them the interrelations, connections or conflicts between the different groups and positions within a culture. This implies that people need not only be understood through their conformity to the average or norm in their group, but through their membership of other meaningful groups and the specific position they take within their broader (national) culture. Instead of just considering this as an exception to the (statistical) norm, this can be understood as part of an ongoing discussion within society where people have different positions and concerns depending on (for instance) class and education level. For example: a football trainer I once talked to was puzzled by the work ethic of his new Japanese player, that lacked the discipline and modesty he expected to find in a Japanese player. A trainer with years of experience in Japan responded unsurprised: football players, he said, were frequently part of a subculture that rebelled against the conformity and hierarchy they experienced in the broader Japanese society.

Many of the concepts and dimensions applied can still be helpful in understanding a culture, but instead of making a one-sided account of ‘individualism’, we can explain to what degree this relates to education level. Instead of explaining ‘power distance’, we can explore how this is experienced depending on one’s class position. ‘Explaining ‘ a culture then is not so much giving someone a key, to unveil the hidden secrets so that everything will fall into place, but rather a compass that helps them navigate between all the different currents and make sense of the differences and inconsistencies they come across. Considering the multiplicity of outcomes it means that there not always definitive answers to questions about how best to behave in another culture; I have personally found that the most truthful and helpful answers to questions about a culture always begin with ‘it depends…’

The multiplicity within countries and cultures extends to the differences within communities. Immigrant communities for example, are frequently presented as internally homogeneous. In reality, the differences in generation, education and socio-economic position between and within communities have urged many leading researchers of integration and multiculturalism to speak of ‘superdiversity’ (15). Instead of seeing debates among Turkish Dutch(wo)men around such issues as gender roles and sexuality as conflicts between representants of ‘true’ Turkish culture and ‘integrated’ Turkish-Dutchmen or -women, it would make more sense to see them as conflicts between people with different perspectives within  an ethnic community, comparable to the differences in perspective between a middle-class Amsterdammer  and an orthodox Christian from the Dutch ‘Bible belt’ area.

Assuming multiplicity means that people are not taken as ‘representatives’ of their cultural group, but as individuals, that are obviously shaped by their culture’s socialization while at the same time having their own unique position in it. From this point of view, one most always be skeptical if people can truly speak in the name of a community or culture, and wonder what specific perspective or concern people claiming to do so represent. Multiplicity then also means a multiplicity of interpretations and experiences of ‘cultural’ traditions, views and customs. It would see culture, whether on a national, regional, class- or group level, as a dialogue in flux rather than a story written in stone.

Culture in(ter)action

What then, does it mean to interact and communicate in today’s interconnected world?  How is one to walk the talk of the multiplicity approach? If intercultural encounters are characterized by a sense of strangeness or unfamiliarity, the challenge of dealing with cultural differences is to create a sense of normality or familiarity. Dealing with cultural differences is then not so much  a matter of one side adapting to the other, but rather creating a connection and a common space to interact effectively. Since culture, on whatever level, can essentially be seen as a sense of familiarity with inherent differences, intercultural competence is consequently the capacity to create a new common culture in interaction (16).

Knowledge about the ‘other culture’ can be helpful to create normality and familiarity with a culture or society at large but is not always fruitful in direct interactions. Dutch people working with the Japanese frequently wonder how to perform the perfectly correct bow to greet, while their Japanese counterparts are focusing on stretching out their hand. Knowledge of interaction codes in different segments of Japanese society is then less helpful then the skills to deal with the confusion and strangeness in the interaction and the ability to normalize the situation and create a connection and common ground.
Instead of just teaching people about the differences between cultures, an investment should be made in those competences, strategies and approaches that help people deal with differences in general. In many ways, this frequently means learning about oneself at least as much as about the supposed cultural other. One way of addressing this is to be aware of one’s own pattern of response to feelings of strangeness and finding ways to manage it.  Research by Dutch psychologists Karen van der Zee and Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven identified five intercultural ‘competences’ on the basis of the Big Five personality traits that help predict to what degree people respond to intercultural situations with avoidance, withdrawal or even aggression, compared to taking a more explorative, problem-solving approach (17). Even though it is ambiguous whether all of these competences- cultural empathy, open-mindedness, emotional stability, flexibility and social initiative- can be developed, creating awareness of one’s own tendencies around experiences of strangeness can help to manage them- if even it means knowing what kind of situations to avoid or minimize. Training programmes can be developed to include simulations or exercises that involve experiencing cultural strangeness and finding ways to overcome it.

In order to understand intercultural interactions and solve or prevent possible misunderstandings, one needs to develop the skill to ‘scan’ the situation from a  broader framework. If cultures are not the all-encompassing straightjackets they are sometimes taken for, this means a lot will depend on the specific  individual  and circumstances under which the interaction takes place. Aforementioned research by Gudykunst and Kim showed that applying broad generalizations to situations creates an increase of feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, since the stereotypes this leads to are too often challenged by reality. This is not to say that generalizations can never be helpful, but it is the more specific generalizations that are relevant. One is  not just interacting with someone from China, but also with someone with small or extensive travel- experience, someone from a small rural farming town or from an urban intellectual family, someone from Hong Kong or mainland China.  This can help create a framework to interpret the other person’s feelings and actions, but this framework should constantly be tested against reality, in order to prevent the creation of new, this time more specific, stereotypes. The ‘scanning’  also means we have to look at a situation from a broader framework than just that of a meeting of cultures (18). It is crucial to develop a more extensive sensitivity for the specific context around the interaction. One could take into account for instance the role of language, power differences, and the broader organizational or societal background to which people meet, and the images and mutual expectations that these factors bring into play (19). For instance: a building corporation that invites the representatives of the local mosque to a brainstorm meeting about the neighborhood , does not only face possible differences in cultural perspectives, but also potential language barriers, unease because of the harsh political discussion about Islam, and inexperience with the specific interaction rules of a brainstorm meeting. Such a broader framework provides more options for understanding the situation but also for interventions, in this case: explaining or setting the rules for the brainstorm, adjusting the choice of vocabulary or paying an effort to reassure or welcome the guests.

The recognition of the multiplicity of identities is also an important element of creating mutuality and commonality. Recognizing one’s own multicollectivity as well as others’, brings the possibility of approaching a situation from different roles and identities, as well as addressing different roles and identities in the other person. This not only reduces the anxiety and uncertainty in intercultural situations, as Gudykunst and Kim have shown, it also creates the space for  mutual concerns.  A beautiful example of this is the following case, from my Dutch colleague Edwin Hoffman (20). A father of Moroccan descent who refused to have his daughter participate in mixed swimming classes at school, was eventually pressed charges and filed to court by the schoolboard.  As long as they discussed the matter on the basis of their diverging cultural and religious views, no progress was made.  Only when the man was approached as a father that is somehow worried about his daughter, did they manage to create a constructive dialogue. By interacting as a father and a teacher, finding common concerns was much easier than by approaching each other through their diverging ethnic or religious identities.
That brings us to the question of ethics. Ethical or moral questions and dilemmas created by the interaction between different cultural views, cannot always be resolved on the basis of tolerance, relativism and understanding. Frequently, controversial practices or traditions are defended with arguments of tradition and custom, both by minorities as well as majorities (21). One can wonder what the exact purchase of arguments based on ‘culture’ is, if one considers the multiple and dynamic nature of the concept. If cultural traditions change, and if different members of communities can have divergent views of things, then what actually is the value of an argument  that a tradition should be preserved to all costs for the sake of ‘culture’? The multiplicity of culture exposes that in the end, it is people themselves reproducing, re-interpreting or even refusing the practices of their current and previous group members. This means that is possible and sometimes necessary, to create dialogue on cultural practices both within and between communities. This is not to say that arguments on the basis of culture or religion should be swept aside as irrelevant, but that to bring ‘culture’ into the debate should  not be the end, but just the beginning of the conversation.

Conclusions: A New Challenge

Changing the way a basic concept is used and applied is not easy. In the public debate and in common sense discussion, a conceptualization of culture as a single-shaped ‘thing’ is widely available. Such a concept has the lure of simplicity, and it is tempting even for interculturalists to build upon such easy-to-understand previously acquired notions . Yet, I believe that it should be the tasks of interculturalists especially, to challenge the way people think about cultural differences. The  main task for interculturalists is perhaps no longer to make people ‘aware’ that cultural differences can be relevant to them, but to refine their understanding of them while  providing them with realistic approaches to reconcile them.

I have tried to explore an alternative approach that stresses multiplicity and its implications, but I will be the first to agree that there remains much more work to be done by reseachers and practicioners to further develop such an approach.
A multiplicity- point- of- view could enable intercultural researchers to provide more refined analyses of interactions between people, so that we could understand with more detail the interplay between variables like ethnicity, gender, age, social class and professional background in intercultural encounters. For intercultural trainers and advisors it would be a great challenge to find approaches that on the hand accept the complexity of today’s world, but on the other hand provide feasible guidelines.

1.   I am most grateful to Maarten Bremer, Deborah Abrahams and Alice Johansson for their constructive feedback to earlier versions of this article. Although your contributions were very helpful, all flaws in this article remain mine only.
An excellent overview and discussion of the (over)use of the concept of ´culture´ in several societal domains is provided by Pal  Nyiri and Joanna Breidenbach ‘s ‘Seeing Culture Everywhere’
2.  On the website of The Guardian, there is a weblog by Dutch journalist and anthropologist Joris Luyendijk where he describes his ethnographic study to the behaviors of bankers: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/joris-luyendijk-banking-blog
3. www.kit.nl

4. This can make case descriptions of intercultural misunderstandings strangely reminiscent of jokes that start with something like ‘An Irishman, a German and an American walk into a bar…’
5. For example the models of Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Richard Lewis and Dean Foster
6. As was even an official policy suggestion by a Labour party alderman in Utrecht, The Netherlands, a few years ago to counter criminal behaviour by Dutch-Moroccan youth.
7. Bennett, 2005
8. Van Asperen, 2001
9. Rathje, 2009

10. Hansen, in: Rathje, 2009.
11. The idea of multicollectivity connects well  to the concepts of multiple identities and intersectionality as developed by critical theorists like Stuart Hall and Patricia Hill Collins
12. Gudykunst & Kim, 1996
13. http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html
14. E.g. Vertovec 2006, Blommaerts 2011 , Prins 2013, Crul 2013
15. Rathje, 2007
16. Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2000
17. The metaphor of intercultural communication as ’scanning’ was coined by my former colleague Nico Vink in his book ’Dealing with differences’
18. Edwin Hoffman’s TOPOI model offers a comprehensive method to analyse situations from a broad framework of possible factors leading to miscommunicaton. Edwin is currently working on an English publication about his model.
19. Hoffman, 2013
20. An example of the culturalization of a discussion by the ethnic majority is the tradition of Zwarte Piet on ‘Sinterklaas’, the main Dutch Children’s holiday. People dress up like Zwarte Piet, who is  Sinterklaas’ assistant, by painting their faces black, using lipstick to make big red lips and wearing curly wigs. The argument that this is interpreted by many as having offensive historically shaped racist notions, is easily dismissed by claiming that this happens to be ‘culture’ and is off limits to be discussed.

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