19 Intercultural Communication Styles

Intercultural Communication Styles

Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • understand task vs. relationship, individualism vs. collectivism, and hierarchy vs. equality;
  • understand how Canadian values influence expectations for students in college.


Why Is This Important?

Our beliefs and values are culturally specific. What we believe depends on what we experienced as we grew up. Although these values feel like the correct or the only way to behave, people from other cultures will have different values that they also feel are correct. As we increase our awareness of the values that we hold, we can adapt our behaviours when working with people who hold different values from ourselves in order to complete tasks and achieve success together.

Cultural Values

Values and beliefs are some important, yet invisible, aspects of culture. Our values impact that way we interact with each other and a difference of values can lead to miscommunications and misunderstandings.

As you read about values, consider the following:

  • Which of the values listed are important to you?
  • What would it look like to interact with someone who has different values?
  • What can you do to bridge these differences?

Task vs. Relationship

Cultural values surrounding the task and relationship dimensions are strongly tied to how we interact with each other. In relationshiporiented cultures, people are valued for who they are. Their personality, character, appearance, behaviour, and family ties are all part of the picture. Social relationships take priority over professional relationships. Family commitments take precedence over work and school commitments. Achievement is measured by friendships, peer recognition, and respect. Criticism is rare and usually interpreted as negative.

Cultures with a strong task orientation want to get the job done quickly and correctly the first time. Tasks are more important than social relationships and family commitments. Achievement is measured by accomplishment, possessions, and power. Professional recognition is determined by expertise. Constructive criticism is welcomed.

Multiple Perspectives

Task vs. Relationship in Canada

Communities in Canada tend to be more task oriented. This means that college students are generally expected to:

  • take responsibility for working on tasks quickly and efficiently;
  • take the initiative to ask clarification questions if more information is needed to complete the task;
  • complete work first before socializing and building relationships;
  • prioritize attending class, completing assignments, and studying for tests over personal relationships.
Students working together in a park.
Students working together in a park. Image Source: Pexels

Individualist vs. Collectivist

Individualism vs. collectivism anchor opposite ends of a continuum that describes how people define themselves and their relationships with others. Individualism refers to people’s tendency to take care of themselves and their immediate circle of family and friends, perhaps at the expense of overall society. In individualistic cultures, what counts most is self-realization. People are rewarded for taking initiative and completing tasks on their own. In individualistic cultures, competition is the fuel of success.

In an individualistic culture, workers are expected to perform certain functions and have clearly defined responsibilities. People are expected to complete their assigned tasks, regardless of their ability, and it is assumed that individuals work better alone. Even when working on teams, credit is given to the specific tasks each group member has performed. Efficiency and productivity are valued above attitude.

In collectivistic cultures, tasks are assigned to a group and individuals generally defer to group interests over individual interests. When working in teams, credit is given to the group as a whole for task completion. Consensus decision making is preferred. Individuals are thought to perform better in groups. Loyalty to superiors is more valued than efficiency and performance.

Individualism and Collectivism at College

Individualist and collectivist values impact expectations at college. Collectivism is marked by structured relationships where individual needs are subservient to the group. Solidarity, harmony, and equal distribution of rewards among students is expected. Modesty is valued, norms are set by the average student, and failure is seen as unfortunate but not dire. Success is seen as something linked to family, classmates, and society as a whole.

In collectivistic classrooms, education is seen as a tool for strengthening the country rather than for the betterment of an individual. Working together is not seen as cheating, but rather a happy by-product of good relations. Fast learners are expected to help slow learners.

Conversely, individualism is marked by loose relationships and ties that are forged according to self-interest. Status and grades are based on individual success. Competition is encouraged, norms are set by the best students, and failure is perceived as fairly significant.

In individualistic classrooms, education is seen as a tool for getting ahead. Students are responsible for their own learning. Academic progress is measured through individual assessment and reported as individual grades. The learning relationship is primarily between the teacher and the student, not the classmate group. If a student needs help, they ask the teacher questions. Students are taught to be more engaged in discussions and arguments. Schools encourage students to become independent thinkers. An academic task has value in and of itself so getting one’s work done is important. Relationships with other students is secondary. In certain situations, helping others could be cheating.

Multiple Perspectives

Individualism in Canada

Communities in Canada tend to be more individualistic. This means that college students are generally expected to:

  • take initiative to manage their time and get tasks done;
  • work in groups but get marked individually for tasks;
  • complete individual assignments alone;
  • give credit when using outside sources.

Because individuality is emphasized, when students copy other people’s work without giving credit, they may be charged with plagiarism and this may result in a lower or zero grade in an assignment or even removal from a course. It is important to understand the academic policies at your college so that you can be sure to meet the expectations.

Hierarchy vs. Equality (High Power vs. Low Power)

The hierarchy-equality dimension, also referred to as power distance, helps us understand how people with different levels of power and status should interact with one another. Communication across power divides can be difficult, especially when there are cultural differences in how power is viewed or expressed.

Cultures that practice hierarchy, or high power distance, feel that organizations function best when differences are clearly observed, and there is no confusion as to who the boss is and who the worker is. Managers may reject assistance from subordinates, but willingly consult with their peers. Subordinates may compete for the attention of their superiors, while avoiding disagreements. Education signals greater social status, although being average means a lack of power. Leaders in high power distance cultures are expected to resolve conflict, while subordinates are expected to support the conflict resolution process. Overall, in high power distance cultures, the division between superior and subordinate is clear.

Cultures that practice equality, or low power distance, feel that power differences should be minimized. Managers accept the support of subordinates, with subordinates expecting to have some voice or power in the decision-making process. Subordinates are relatively unthreatened by disagreeing with superiors, therefore are more likely to cooperate rather than compete with each other. Education signals accomplishment, whereas being seen as average means acceptance and inclusion. In low power distance cultures, managers and workers expect to work together to resolve conflict.

Multiple Perspectives

Equality in Canada

Communities in Canada tend to be more equality focused. This means that college students are generally expected to:

  • share the workload equally with group members regardless of their gender or background;
  • address instructors using their first names;
  • reach out to instructors, program managers, and college staff to ask for information;
  • show equal respect to people in all power positions;
  • be creative and share new ideas when interacting with people in all power positions.


Reflect on the following questions:

  • Which value, task completion or relationship building, was more important in your home culture? How is this different from Canada?
  • Which value, individualism or collectivism, was more important in your home culture? How is this different from Canada?
  • Which value, hierarchy or equality, was more important in your home culture? How is this different from Canada?

How can you adapt to Canadian values when working with people who have different cultural values?

Key Takeaways

When interacting with people from different cultures, it is important to consider how each person’s culture may influence their expectations in regard to the values of task vs. relationship, individualism vs. collectivism, and hierarchy vs. equality. Develop an awareness of your own values and consider how to adapt them to meet the expectations of college students in Canada.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from Intercultural Communication for the Community College by Karen Krumrey-Fulks, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.