Ethnic diversity has become an increasingly salient and significant social issue in many societies around the world. Even as individuals of differing ethnic backgrounds live and work more closely than ever before, issues of ethnicity continue to invoke intense and often volatile responses. Young Yun Kim’s contextual theory of interethnic communication addresses a full spectrum of behaviors displayed by individuals at their grassroots-level encounters with people who are ethnically different from them.

Applying a psychological perspective, Kim defines interethnic communication as an event, or a series of events, that occurs whenever at least one of the participants sees himself or herself and an interaction partner according to ethnic group categories. In this approach, not all communication encounters between individuals of dissimilar ethnicities are to be considered interethnic in character. The term ethnicity is broadly employed as a social category associated with some combinations of common national origin, race, religion, culture, and language. Ethnicity thus differentiates one group from another based on extrinsic ethnic markers such as physical features and speech patterns, and intrinsic ethnic markers, including cultural norms, beliefs, values, and thought patterns.

This theory grew out of Kim’s research on the cross-cultural adaptation phenomenon of cultural strangers striving for a successful functional and psychological relationship with the host environment. During the 1980s and 1990s, Kim broadened her cross-cultural adaptation research to include the general phenomenon of interethnic communication involving all individuals living in an ethnically diverse society, regardless of their native-born or foreign-born backgrounds. Several initial theoretical papers on interethnic communication were published in the 1990s, followed by a formal presentation of the theory in 2005.