21G.019 | Spring 2005 | Undergraduate, Graduate

Communicating Across Cultures


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

It has become commonplace knowledge that globalization is one of the major forces shaping our world. If we look at the spread of information, ideas, capital, media, cultural artifacts - or for that matter, people - we can see the boundaries and borders that have historically separated one country or one group from another are becoming more and more permeable. For proof of this close to home, you need only to look at the composition of the MIT student body: Approximately 25% are from 107 different countries.

“Communicating Across Cultures” is designed to help you meet the challenges of living in a world in which, increasingly, you will be asked to interact with people who may not be like you in fundamental ways. Its overarching goals are to help you become more sensitive to intercultural communication differences, and to provide you with the knowledge and skills that will help you interact successfully with people from cultures other than your own. We hope the course will accomplish those goals by exposing you to some of the best writers and scholars on the subject of intercultural communication, and by giving you a variety of opportunities to practice intercultural communication yourself. As you read this syllabus, we hope you get a sense of our commitment to making this course a rewarding experience for you.

Specific Course Goals

There are seven objectives we hope to accomplish during the semester. They are:

  1. Understand the role of communication in culture. Although coming from different perspectives, philosophers, anthropologists, sociolinguistics, and communication experts have all examined the role of communication in creating and maintaining culture. We will begin the course by looking at this fundamental connection between culture and communication.

  2. Recognize cultural variables. Every culture is confronted with a series of questions it tries to answer in a variety of ways. (Some examples of these questions include: Is change positive or negative? What is the nature of authority? Is doing important or is being important?) Since obviously we will not be able to study every culture, we will develop ways of thinking about and identifying cultural variables that appear through communication. The goal is to give you a framework that will enable you to analyze and understand the cultures with which you will have contact.

  3. Familiarize yourself with the communication norms, rituals, and taboos of other cultures. Through a series of case studies in the second half of the course, you will have the opportunity to learn about the specific communication practices that exist in six countries. If some members of the class are from those countries, we hope they will become “informants” to add to our knowledge.

  4. Learn about barriers to intercultural communication, adjustment to other cultures, and culture shock. We will work to identify those communication behaviors that can interfere with effective intercultural communication. We will also discuss the stages people go through as they adjust to other cultures, and ways to minimize culture shock.

  5. Practice performing communication activities as they would be done in other cultures. After exploring how speaking, listening, and communicating nonverbally differ from culture to culture, we will go on to look at how persuading, motivating, constructing an argument, problem solving, decision making, negotiating, and resolving conflicts also vary. In-class exercises will give you the chance to practice these kinds of communication skills as they are performed in other countries.

  6. Learn how differences in intercultural communication manifest themselves in different professional settings. Through presentations and reports you will create in intercultural teams, you will look more closely at the role intercultural communication plays in business, education, health care, diplomacy, the arts, etc.

  7. Increase sensitivity to your own cultural background and its impact on how you communicate, increase knowledge of ethical issues in communicating interculturally, and increase sensitivity to communicating with people from different cultures. If we achieve objectives 1-6, then reaching these goals will follow naturally.

Course Format

The course is divided into two sections. The first component (Lectures 1-9) focuses on understanding the roots and manifestations of intercultural communication. The latter part of the course (Lectures 10-21) examines six specific cultures in order to understand differences in the communication styles of their members, and how those differences are linked to cultural variables.

The course will be conducted as a seminar/workshop: that is, it will be highly interactive with most course time devoted to discussion, exercises, and student-presented reports. The course is designed to take advantage of the rich cultural diversity of the MIT community. Please make every effort to come to class since much of the success of the course - as well as the benefit you will derive from it - will depend on your own participation.


The four assignments in “Communicating Across Cultures” are designed to achieve three goals:

  1. to allow you to work with the main themes of the course and to delve more deeply into those ideas you find particularly interesting;
  2. to ask you to explore your own cultural communication style; and
  3. to provide you with the opportunity to learn firsthand about different communication styles and to try out different styles and techniques.

The assignments, and their point value are:

assignments percentages
Cultural Self-Assessment 10%
Book Essay 20%
Team Presentation 25%
Team Report 30%
Class Participation 15%

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2005
Learning Resource Types
Activity Assignments
Written Assignments
Presentation Assignments