Communication & Culture

Human Family
 by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends
than we are unalike.
We are more alike my friends
than we are unalike.

  • A system of ideas, values, beliefs, customs, and language that is passed from one generation to the next and that sustains a particular way of life.
  • We learn our culture through communication.
  • Culture becomes internalized through continuous conscious and unconscious learning.
  • Groups with distinct ways of life can coexist in a single society or physical territory.
Dominant Culture:
  • Most societies have a dominant culture.
  • Traditional mainstream Western culture = European (white), heterosexual, Christian, land-owning, able-bodied males.
  • Mainstream culture tends to ignore traditions & customs of those outside the dominant culture.
  • Groups of people who live within the dominant culture but are also members of another culture that is not dominant. (subculture = inferior; co-culture = dual membership)
  • Race, Class (SES = Socio-economic Status), Gender, Sexual Orientation
  • Co-cultures have their own norms, expectations, values, forms of communication, etc. that the dominant, mainstream culture does not share.
  • Communication reflects & reinforces culture
Standpoint Theory:
  • A culture includes a number of social groups that distinctively shape perceptions, identities, and opportunities of members.
  • Race, class, gender, sexual orientation
  • Our experiences as members of particular social groups shape how we perceive the world and others.
  • Standpoints reflect power positions in society.
  • Those in power have a vested interest in preserving the system that gives them privileges. Members in dominant culture cannot see flaws in the system because it is working for them.
  • Those disenfranchised by the system are able to see inequities & discrimination.
  • Tendency to regard ourselves and our way of life as superior to other people & other ways of life
  • Ethno = ethnicity; centrism = center.  You literally make yourself the center of the universe.
  • Encourages negative judgments of anything that is different.
  • Cultural relativism recognizes that cultures vary in how they think and behave, in what they believe and value – it might seem wrong, but from their point of view, it is right & natural
Person-Centered Communication:
  • Recognize another person’s perspective & take that into account when you communicate.
  • Requires an understanding of both ours and another’s point of view.
  • Even if you don’t think the same way, you can still respect another person as the expert on her or his perspective.
  • Don’t assume we understand what others feel or think – when we claim to share what we haven’t experienced, we take away from others’ lives and identities.
    • Example: African American woman being told by white women that they understand her experiences as a black woman: “‘Sexism is the same as racism,’ or ‘I’m a minority too – I’m a red-head.’ Similar experiences should not be confused with the same experience; my experience of prejudice is erased when you identify it as ‘the same’ as yours.” Marsha Houston
    • It’s ok to say, “You know what, I have no clue what that’s like.”


Understanding Respect
Accept differences without approval No culture is intrinsically better than any other Acknowledge genuine differences
Still assume differences are wrong Different values, beliefs, communication styles come from different cultures Remain anchored in values & customs of own culture

Learning more about others increases understanding of others (and ourselves)


Notes adapted from: Wood, Julia T. “Adapting Communication to People and Contexts.” Communication Mosaics: A New Introduction to the Field of Communication – Custom Published for Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1998. 181-211. Print.


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