Liisa Salo-Lee

Review: Oyvind Dahl, Human Encounters. Introduction To Intercultural Communication

Oxford: Peter Lang. Series: Interdisciplinary Communication Studies, New Pathways (Series editor: Colin B. Grant). 2016, 316 pages

This book provides an introduction to intercultural communication and is primarily targeted to undergraduate students. It serves however as an overview of the research focuses of intercultural communication to anyone interested in this increasingly topical academic field. The approach of the book is interdisciplinary, with the major emphasis on Linguistics and Communication Sciences. Insights from other scientific fields, Semiotics and Cross-cultural Psychology in particular, are interwoven in the discussions throughout the book.

The book is at an interface between theory and practice which is one its strengths. While the theoretical part introduces the reader to the essential theories and concepts in the field, the applied and practical aspects of the book offers original and fruitful materials for the practical work and the discussions in the classroom contexts. The author´s own background as an experienced teacher, lecturer and trainer in various countries and continents, is reflected especially in the numerous examples which illustrate the theoretical issues in an excellent fashion .On the theoretical level, the author is facing the same challenge than others working today in the field of intercultural communication: an ongoing paradigm change which has brought forth plenty of scholarly criticism and questioning of earlier studies and conceptualizations. This applies above all to one of the core concepts of intercultural communication studies, namely the concept of ´culture´. Without going too deep into the theoretical problematic of the different positions and argumentations, the author discusses the dilemma of the “essentialist” concept of culture of many earlier studies (“culture is something we have”) and the “dynamic” concept of culture (“culture is something we do”) of the newer studies, and distinguishes between what he calls a “descriptive” and “dynamic” understanding of culture respectively. The studies of Geert Hofstede, very influential in intercultural studies and their applications on international business in particular, are mentioned as one example of the “descriptive” approach, with focus on cultural differences and cross-cultural comparisons of groups. For the “dynamic” approach, several examples are given, including the “postcultural” perspective by a Danish researcher Iben Jensen who defines culture “as multiple practices that are performed and negotiated in different social relations” (p. 28).

The conceptual searches of the in-between state of the paradigms are reflected throughout the book. Dahl offers in many places both the “descriptive” view of the cultural analysis and then the “dynamic” perspective to, for instance, particular intercultural incidents of his cases. This seems to be a workable solution to this problem in the book. For the researchers in the field the search for adequate cultural analyses and terminological conceptualizations is however still going on. In addition to the distinction of “descriptive” and “dynamic” views of culture, a deeper discussion on the different stages of cultural analysis could have been included in the theoretical part of this book. For example, Friedman (2014) identifies two waves of cultural analysis in the last few decades. The first wave of cultural analysis (from the beginning of 1980´s) focused on collective meaning systems of groups (e.g. ethnic, national, organizational). The second wave of cultural analysis (around the 2000´s and ongoing) focuses on various processes of cultural construction. Culture is no longer viewed as something someone has but rather something which people create (Salo-Lee & Crawford 2017). Thus, in research, unit of analysis focuses on individual, and acknowledges that individuals can and do make use of their cultures in various and creative ways. In his book, Dahl is presenting some options and combination possibilities for cultural analyses: process analysis, semiotic analysis, and hermeneutic analysis. This gives the readers the idea of the multiple challenges and viewpoints that understanding the influence of culture, and other factors can introduce for understanding of a particular situation and intercultural interaction. The overarching question throughout the book is “How to deal with the challenges of cultural complexity”?

From the didactic point of the view, he book is well structured to be used as a textbook. Chapter 1 “Understanding in a Global World” sets mutual understanding as the main aim of a successful intercultural communication. “Each and every true understanding is by nature oriented towards finding an acceptable interpretation of life phenomena” (p. 11). Dahl emphasizes the importance of interaction and authentic dialogue, and cherishes the value of the “golden moments” (to understand that one does not understand) as getting new insights and inspirations to acquire new knowledge. The subsequent chapters 2 and 3 (“Culture: Something We Have or Something We Do?” and “Communication is Creating Something Together”) deal with issues related to intercultural communication and communication theories, conceptualizations and models. Chapters 4-6 (“Process Analysis: Building bridges”, Semiotic Analysis: Interpreting Signs” and Hermeneutic Analysis: Understanding”) takes the discussion to the concrete challenge of cultural analysis and present, among others, the author´s own models: “Dahl´s cultural filter model” (p.76) and Dahl´s semiotic model of analysis (p. 97). In both models, the dynamic aspect of interaction and cultural negotiations is being emphasized. As in most of the introductory level textbooks, also the micro-level of interaction, i.e. verbal and nonverbal communication, are discussed, albeit in a rather traditional way (Chapter 7 “Verbal Communication” and Chapter 8 “Non-Verbal Communication”), however complemented again with Dahl´s own colorful examples. The last chapters of the book 9 – 11 (“Identity: Who Am I?”, “Context and Reality: Why Are They Doing This”? and “To Understand Oneself and Others”) goes back and deepens the macro level of intercultural communication, i.e. focusing on, for example, on values and ethical questions. Finally, the question of understanding oneself and the others rounds up the initial enquiry in the book.

To understand and analyze the complexities involved in any intercultural encounter today, insights from different approaches and perspectives are needed. One of the current challenges in intercultural communication research is hence, for example, how to operationalize these insights into methods of cultural analysis and how unify the various complementary approaches, such as micro- and macro-level studies, within the intercultural communication field. In his book, targeted mainly to undergraduates, Dahl does not specifically focus on the challenges that intercultural communication researchers are currently facing. Nevertheless, for a teacher of intercultural communication, the book offers various possibilities to focus on and pick up issues which seem relevant for the respective target audience and the current context. It can be used as a textbook both in higher education as well as in, for instance, vocational educational institutes. The richness of cases and examples may inspire the students to see intercultural communication as an everyday life phenomenon and encourage them to reflect upon and find similar instances in their own intercultural encounters as well.


Friedman, V. (2014). Negotiating Reality: Intercultural Communication as Constructing Social Space. In: S. Poutiainen, ed., Theoretical Turbulence in Intercultural Communication Studies. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 9-27.

Salo-Lee, L. & Crawford, (2017). Intercultural Communication Study in Finland. In: Y.Y. Kim, ed., Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication (online).