Cultural Membership and Interpersonal Communication
We can also exercise communication divergence if we shift our verbal and nonverbal comm unication away from other communicators in an interaction. Divergent messages emphasiz e social distance from others and whether or not one is a member of a particular group. Usi ng divergent communication is often negatively perceived and is considered a signal that th e communicator dislikes or is uninterested in the interaction (Sparks et al., 2012). An exam ple of cultural divergence is refusing to learn the language or customs of a foreign country where you are a visitor and instead behaving as if yours is the dominant culture. How can CAT help you improve your intercultural communication and reduce cultural com munication barriers? First, it is important to consider altering or accommodating your com munication when you interact with members of other cultures or co- cultures. Trying to encode convergent messages when you interact with others will increas e communication competence. But be careful not to overaccommodate because then your messages could be perceived as an insult, imitation, or overzealous attempt to gain accepta nce, thus creating a cultural communication barrier. Instead, let the conversation naturally flow. At the same time, monitor the other communicator’s responses to your messages, and be mindful of how the person adjusts his or her messages.
3.3 Cultural Membership and Interpersonal Communication
Both verbal and nonverbal messages can reflect one’s social background and heritage.
In his classic book The Silent Language, anthropologist Edward T. Hall states, “culture is co mmunication and communication is culture,” suggesting that culture and communication n ecessarily go hand in hand (1959, p. 186). In his view, culture governs our communication, and communication creates and reinforces culture by transmitting it through language and nonverbal communication. Think back to the idea of perceptual filters; your culture is the fr amework that tells you what is important to attend to, how to organize what you see, and h ow to interpret it. For example, suppose that someone in a room holds up an index finger. If you are from the United States, you may or may not notice the gesture. However, if the per son were, instead, to hold up the middle finger of his or her hand, it would probably get you r attention. This second gesture communicates a specific shared message to members of A merican culture, and if you are familiar with that culture, you would quickly make sense of and interpret the gesture based on cultural norms. Because our dominant culture and our i mportant co- culture(s) reinforce what communication behaviors we engage in, culture is, in a sense, co mmunication— and vice versa! Our communication behaviors create and reinforce our culture, and our cult ure creates and reinforces our communication behaviors. Both verbal and nonverbal messages reflect your social background and heritage, as well as the experiences, beliefs, values, attitudes, and role expectations supplied by your dominant culture and the co- cultures that are important to your identity. The language that you learn and use in your ev eryday communication with others is culturally bound, as is the nonverbal communication that you use or do not use. For example, though Americans and the British both speak Engli sh, certain words have different meanings depending on these specific cultures— elevator versus lift, or chips versus crisps, for example. Americans also frequently make dire ct eye contact with their conversational partners, whereas members of a number of Asian c ultures shy away from direct eye contact, believing that eye contact can be disrespectful. When you come into contact with people from other cultures, you cannot assume they will encode and decode messages the same way you do— their perceptual filters have been structured differently from yours. Indeed, the cultural, so cial, and historical context in which the message occurs must be considered to increase the likelihood that meaning will be shared (Hall, 1976). It is true that you can encounter comm unication difficulties with people from your own culture. For example, when a group of indi viduals from the U.S. order soft drinks together, they may have difficulty sharing meaning: Americans on the West Coast refer to this drink as “soda,” the Midwest calls it “pop,” and th e South refers to the drink with the singular brand name “Coke” (Vaux & Golder, n.d.). How ever, the incidence of such problems increases when you interact with people from entirely different cultures. In the personal, professional, and mediated arenas, cultural differences c an cause communication difficulties, as can different languages and different interpretation s of nonverbal messages. We discuss some of these potential communication barriers next.