Intercultural, Multicultural or Cross-cultural? What’s the difference?

As more and more is being written about different cultures and working amongst them, there are certain words that keep popping up. Terms such as multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural communication are used almost interchangeably.

Is there a difference between them? If so, what is it? 

In fact, each of these terms diverge slightly from each other. The distinctions are small but significant and what words we choose to use can send important signals.

So, let’s clarify the meaning of the words multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural.  


Multicultural is a term that essentially describes the presence of different cultures within the same space but without much interaction between those cultural groups. People exist alongside one another, but no not necessarily engage or interact with one another.  For example, in a multicultural neighbourhood where different cultural groups coexist, people may frequent ethnic grocery stores and restaurants, but without really interacting with their neighbours from other cultures.

The term multicultural is then a passive description that simply acknowledges the existence of many different cultural groups, all with their own cultural frameworks and their distinct cultural identities.

It’s called multicultural communication when people from different cultural backgrounds, with different ways of communicating, are present but without having any influence on or adapting to each other.  

Multicultural communication is the prerequisite for the other two types of communication, cross-cultural and intercultural. So, let’s move on to the next term.


The term cross-cultural primarily refers to the comparison of different cultures, contrasting them against each other and identifying differences and similarities. Examples of cross-cultural explorations can be when you want to understand variations between your own and other cultures on a specific aspect, for instance how leadership is approached or how business negotiations are conducted.

The term cross-cultural can also refer to “across all cultures”. For example, let’s say you have a product that will be rolled out across several different cultures then you might refer to it as a cross-cultural product launch.   

When it comes to communication, cross-cultural communication is therefore about comparing and identifying the diverging communication styles of people from various cultural backgrounds. It’s not by definition about bringing cultures together and it does not actually focus on what happens in the interaction between them.

The term cross-culture is often confused with intercultural—but the two words are not interchangeable. Let’s see why.


Whereas multicultural and cross-cultural are more passive descriptions of situations where different cultures exist alongside each other and are compared, the term intercultural implies an active description of the actual interaction between people. It focuses on what happens when people from different cultures meet.

The term implies collaboration and a quest for mutual understanding between cultures and as such it moves beyond the cultural segregation inherent in the descriptions of multicultural and cross-cultural relations.

Intercultural communication is subsequently a communicative interaction between people from different cultural groups. It highlights the mutual exchange of ideas and cultural perspectives and the development of a shared meaning for effective collaboration. In such an interaction, everyone involved has the possibility to learn from each other, develop and grow together.

Let’s summarise

Let’s review in short, the meaning of the three different terms. Multicultural refers merely to the existence of different cultural groups in the same space. Cross-cultural focuses on comparisons between cultures and of identifying differences and similarities. Lastly, intercultural addresses the actual relations and interactions between individuals and groups with various cultural backgrounds.

Why we use the term ‘intercultural’

At BBi Communication we choose to use the term intercultural when describing what we do, developing intercultural competence.  The reason is that we focus on what happens in the actual interaction when people from different cultures meet and how it is a situation that requires active participation. We recognize that intercultural communication is a two-sided process where everyone involved needs to assume responsibility for reaching a successful outcome.

What’s more, we believe that only when focusing on the active exchange and mutual relationship-building, the essence of the term intercultural, can we discover and harness the benefits of cultural diversity.