Intercultural vs Multicultural: why this difference matters
As I start this blog about cultural diversity and relationships beyond borders, it feels important to give some definitions of two key concepts.
You might find definitions boring, but I promise that these two will give you a better understanding of your relationship to other cultures.
Nowadays, the term “multiculturalism” is used extensively to describe the coexistence of cultures in our countries, cities or communities. But what does it really mean? And why is it different from “interculturalism”?
It turns out these words matter because they reflect two different visions of society.
Let me explain…
I decided to use the definitions of the Spring Institute which are clear and easily understandable.
“Multicultural refers to a society that contains several cultural or ethnic groups. People live alongside one another, but each cultural group does not necessarily have engaging interactions with each other.”
As you can read, “multicultural” is mostly defined by the juxtaposition and coexistence of multiple cultures. It is not necessarily a positive element because it might mean that there is no communication or interaction between these cultures. Rather it can describe segregation and even alienation.
Here are some examples of multiculturalism:
- In most European countries, you will find multiculturalism because migrations lead to societies where multiple cultural identities coexist.
- At the Olympic Games, you can talk about multiculturalism because many countries and cultures are represented. It doesn’t mean that they interact with each other.
- In some neighborhoods, you might find ethnic grocery stores and restaurants from various countries without people interacting with their neighbors.
Now, when you refer to something “intercultural”, the ideas of interaction and relationships are fundamental.
This is how the Spring Institute defines it:
“Intercultural describes communities in which there is a deep understanding and respect for all cultures. Intercultural communication focuses on the mutual exchange of ideas and cultural norms and the development of deep relationships. In an intercultural society, no one is left unchanged because everyone learns from one another and grows together.”
In this case, the focus is on relationship building, deep connections, interactions, mutual respect, and learning from one another.
Some examples of interculturalism can be:
- Sharing your life with a foreigner and learning from each other’s culture (read Paola and Friedrich’s story to know more)
- Working with international colleagues and understanding their ways of communicating to be more efficient
Whereas multicultural refers to a passive situation, intercultural describes an active behavior where each individual learns from another.
Now, do you see why these differences matter? Promoting a multicultural society does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of cultural differences. Instead, you should play an active role in learning more about your foreign neighbors.
This is why I will mainly use the term “intercultural” on this blog to talk about mutual respect and understanding across borders.