Chapter 7: Culture and Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Define culture.
  2. Define personal, social, and cultural identities.
  3. Compare and contrast individualistic/collectivistic, high-context/low-context, and large power distance/small power distance cultures.
  4. Define intercultural communication.
  5. Articulate how diverse cultural standpoints influence communication interaction.
  6. Explain how motivation, knowledge, and tolerance for uncertainty relate to intercultural communication competence.

Humans have always been diverse in their cultural beliefs and practices. But as new technologies have led to the perception that our world has shrunk, and demographic and political changes have brought attention to cultural differences, people communicate across cultures more now than ever before. The oceans and continents that separate us can now be traversed instantly with an email, phone call, Tweet, or status update. Additionally, many of our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods have become more diverse along lines that include race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and other factors. But just because we are exposed to more difference doesn’t mean we understand it, can communicate across it, or appreciate it. This chapter will help you do all three.

7.1 Understanding Culture

Four actors appear in vibrant attire in a traditional Kabuki performance in Tokyo, Japan.
When you first think of the word “culture,” you might first think of unique and vibrant cultural traditions from around the world, like Japan’s Kabuki theatre, depicted here. But it is easy to overlook the ways that your own culture affects your life. Photo by Susann Schuster on Unsplash.

Culture is a complicated word to define, as there are at least six common ways that culture is used in the United States. For the purposes of exploring the communicative aspects of culture, we will define culture as the ongoing negotiation of learned and patterned beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors. Unpacking the definition, we can see that culture shouldn’t be conceptualized as stable and unchanging. Culture is “negotiated,” culture is dynamic, and cultural changes can be traced and analyzed to better understand why our society is the way it is. The definition also points out that culture is learned, which accounts for the importance of socializing institutions like family, school, peers, and the media. Culture is patterned in that there are recognizable widespread similarities among people within a cultural group. There is also deviation from and resistance to those patterns by individuals and subgroups within a culture, which is why cultural patterns change over time. Last, the definition acknowledges that culture influences our beliefs about what is true and false, our attitudes including our likes and dislikes, our values regarding what is right and wrong, and our behaviors. It is from these cultural influences that our identities are formed.

Culture and Identity

Ask yourself the question “Who am I?” Recall from our discussion of self-concept in Chapter 2 that we develop a sense of who we are based on what is reflected back on us from other people. Our parents, friends, teachers, and the media help shape our identities. While this happens from birth, most people in Western societies reach a stage in adolescence where maturing cognitive abilities and increased social awareness lead them to begin to reflect on who they are. This begins a lifelong process of thinking about who we are now, who we were before, and who we will become (Tatum, 2000). Our identities make up an important part of our self-concept and can be broken down into three main categories: personal, social, and cultural identities.

A basketball player catches a ball.
Joining, or even cheering on, a sports team is an example of a social identity. Photo by Wallace Chuck from Pexels.

We must avoid the temptation to think of our identities as constant. Instead, our identities are formed through processes that started before we were born and will continue after we are gone; therefore, our identities aren’t something we achieve or complete. Two related but distinct components of our identities are our personal and social identities (Spreckels & Kotthoff, 2009). Personal identities include the components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connected to our life experiences. For example, you might consider yourself a puzzle lover or a fan of hip-hop music. Our social identities are the components of self that are derived from involvement in social groups with which we are interpersonally committed. For example, we may derive aspects of our social identity from our family or from a community of fans for a sports team. Social identities differ from personal identities because they are externally organized through membership. Our membership may be voluntary (Greek organization on campus) or involuntary (family) and explicit (we pay dues to our labor union) or implicit (we purchase and play board games). There are innumerous options for personal and social identities. While our personal identity choices express who we are, our social identities align us with particular groups. Through our social identities, we make statements about who we are and who we are not.

Cultural identities are based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting (Yep, 1998). Common ways of being and acting within a cultural identity group are expressed through communication. To be accepted as a member of a cultural group, members must be acculturated, essentially learning and using a code that other group members will be able to recognize. We are acculturated into our various cultural identities in obvious and less obvious ways. For example, we may literally have a parent or friend tell us what it means to be a man or a woman. We may also unconsciously consume messages from popular culture that offer representations of gender.

Three comic convention attendees dressed as characters from Spider-Man.
Cosplayers who self-identify as “comic book nerds” have alignment between their ascribed and avowed identities. Photo by Kashawn Hernandez on Unsplash.

Any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed. Ascribed identities are personal, social, or cultural identities that are placed on us by others, while avowed identities are those that we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Sometimes people ascribe an identity to someone else based on stereotypes. You may see a person who likes to read science-fiction books, watches documentaries, has glasses, and collects Star Trek memorabilia and label them a nerd. If the person doesn’t avow that identity, it can create friction, and that label may even hurt the other person’s feelings. But ascribed and avowed identities can match up. To extend the previous example, many people have embraced the nerd label, turning it into a positive descriptor and identifying with nerd subculture.

Although some identities are essentially permanent, the degree to which we are aware of them, also known as salience, changes. The intensity with which we avow an identity also changes based on context. For example, an African American may not have difficulty deciding which box to check on the demographic section of a survey. But if an African American becomes president of her college’s Black Student Union, she may more intensely avow her African American identity, which has now become more salient. If she studies abroad in Africa her junior year, she may be ascribed an identity of American by her new African friends, rather than African American. For the Africans, their visitor’s identity as American is likely more salient than her identity as someone of African descent.

Throughout modern history, cultural and social influences have established dominant and nondominant groups (Allen, 2011). Dominant groups historically have had more resources and influence, while nondominant groups historically have had less resources and influence. It’s important to remember that these distinctions are being made at the societal level, not the individual level. There are obviously exceptions, with people in groups considered nondominant obtaining more resources and power than a person in a dominant group. However, the overall trend is that difference based on cultural groups exists and exceptions do not change this fact. Because of this uneven distribution of resources and power, members of dominant groups are granted privileges while nondominant groups are at a disadvantage. Nondominant groups often face various forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. As we will discuss later, privilege and disadvantage are not “all or nothing.” No two people are completely different or completely similar, and no one person is completely privileged or completely disadvantaged.

Types of Cultures

Numerous factors including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and age intersect and combine to form one’s cultural identity. The myriad of ways that these factors intersect make it impossible to describe the nuanced differences and similarities of every type of culture. However, it is helpful to discuss some broad categories we can use to distinguish between types of cultures. In this section, we will compare individualistic and collectivistic cultures, high-context and low-context cultures, and large power distance and small power distance cultures.

Individualistic vs. Collectivistic Cultures

The distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures is an important dimension across which all cultures vary. Individualistic cultures emphasize individual identity over group identity and prioritize individual goals, achievements, and personal freedoms. Collectivistic cultures value group identity over individual identity and place a greater emphasis on interdependence, collective goals, and social harmony.

The United States flag, blowing in the wind.
The United States is largely considered to have an individualistic culture. Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels.

Most consider the larger culture of the United States to be individualistic. For example, the narrative of the “American Dream” prioritizes individualistic values like independence and self-determination. Within the narrative, a person can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to achieve personal success. Comparatively, Japan’s national culture is more collectivistic. In Japan, individuals often feel a strong sense of duty to fulfilling social roles and prioritize the needs of the community over their personal desires. While these broad characterizations are true, it is important to note that there are elements of both individualism and collectivism in each culture. In the largely individualistic United States, collectivistic values often appear in families, religious communities, and other groups. In Japan, globalization and other cultural trends have led to individualistic values becoming more prevalent in recent years.

Low-Context vs. High-Context Cultures

In a low-context culture, much of the meaning generated within an interaction comes from the verbal communication used rather than nonverbal or contextual cues. Communicators provide clear, explicit, and detailed messages. Conversely, much of the meaning generated in a high-context culture comes from nonverbal and contextual cues. Cultures with a high-context orientation generally use less or more ambiguous verbal communication and require communicators to pay close attention to nonverbal signals and consider contextual influences on a message (Lustig & Koester, 2006).

Many Native American cultures have a high-context orientation where communication often relies on shared cultural knowledge and nonverbal cues. Many Western European countries have low-context cultures and value directness and clarity in communication. Individuals from low-context cultures may feel frustrated by the ambiguity of speakers from high-context cultures, while speakers from high-context cultures may feel overwhelmed or even insulted by the level of detail used by low-context communicators.

Large Power Distance vs. Small Power Distance Cultures

A group of soldiers stand at attention in front of a drill sergeant.
Military training camps typically have large power distance cultures. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.

Cultures vary in how they distribute power and differentiate between high-status and low-status individuals. In a large power distance culture, there is a clear hierarchy of power that entails a significant gap in privilege and status between individuals. In a small power distance culture, power is more evenly distributed and differences in status are minimized (Hofstede et al., 2010). Status in various cultures could be related to age, seniority, wealth, or profession. In large power distance cultures, differences in status are respected and accentuated. In such cultures, lower-status individuals communicate with a degree of deference and formality to higher-status people. While small power distance cultures may still involve different levels of status, they de-emphasize and decentralize those differences. Communication in small power distance cultures tends to be open and informal, even between people of different status levels.

In a college or university setting, you are likely to come across examples of both large and small power distance subcultures. You might take an art class with an instructor who asks you to call her by her first name and who interacts with you informally both inside and outside of the classroom. In an accounting class, you might encounter another instructor who asks that you address her as “Dr.” or “Professor” and who only interacts with you through the institution’s formal channels of communication (e.g., email and visits during office hours). These examples demonstrate the differences that can exist within the same larger culture based on context, individual preferences, and other factors.

7.2 Intercultural Communication

It is through intercultural communication that we come to create, understand, and transform culture and identity. Intercultural communication is communication between people with differing cultural identities. As we have discussed, numerous factors contribute to creating one’s cultural identity. Therefore, intercultural communication can best be thought of as occurring on a spectrum. Consider to what extent you would classify these examples as intercultural communication:

A tourist points to a map and asks for directions.
An international tourist asking for directions is clear example of intercultural communication. What are some less obvious examples of intercultural communication that you engage in regularly? Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels.
  1. A tourist asking for directions from someone who speaks a different language.
  2. Two people from different parts of the world playing a video game together online.
  3. A Muslim woman chatting with her Catholic co-worker.
  4. An elderly man sharing stories with a group of teenagers.
  5. A medical doctor discussing treatment options with her patient.

These examples demonstrate the different degrees to which an interaction could be considered as intercultural communication. While some examples are clear-cut (e.g., when there are differences in language), others are less so (e.g., when there are differences in profession or age). Still, the communicators in each example would benefit from being aware of potential cultural differences.

In addition to making us better communicators, understanding intercultural communication helps us foster greater self-awareness (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Our thought process regarding culture is often “other focused,” meaning that the culture of the other person or group is what stands out in our perception. However, the old adage “know thyself” is appropriate, as we become more aware of our own culture by better understanding other cultures and perspectives. Intercultural communication can allow us to step outside of our comfortable, usual frame of reference and see our culture through a different lens. Additionally, as we become more self-aware, we may also become more ethical communicators as we challenge our ethnocentrism, or our tendency to view our own culture as superior to other cultures.

Intercultural communication is complicated, messy, and at times contradictory. It is not always easy to conceptualize or study. In this section, we describe a dialectical approach to help capture the dynamism of intercultural communication. Afterwards, we take a look at intercultural relationships and conclude with some advice for enhancing your intercultural communication competence.

A Dialectical Approach to Intercultural Communication

A dialectic is a relationship between two opposing concepts that constantly push and pull one another (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). To put it another way, thinking dialectically helps us realize that our experiences often occur in between two different phenomena. This perspective is especially useful for interpersonal and intercultural communication, because when we think dialectically, we think relationally. This means we look at the relationship between aspects of intercultural communication rather than viewing them in isolation. We can better understand intercultural communication by examining six dialectics (Martin & Nakayama, 1999).

The cultural-individual dialectic captures the interplay between patterned behaviors learned from a cultural group and individual behaviors that may be variations on or counter to those of the larger culture. This dialectic is useful because it helps us account for exceptions to cultural norms. For example, earlier we learned about high- and low-context cultures. The United States is said to be a low-context culture, which means that we value verbal communication as our primary, meaning-rich form of communication. Conversely, China is said to be a high-context culture, which means they often look for nonverbal clues like tone, silence, or what is not said for meaning. However, you can find people in the United States who intentionally put much meaning into how they say things, perhaps because they are not as comfortable speaking directly what’s on their mind. We often do this in situations where we may hurt someone’s feelings or damage a relationship. Does that mean we come from a high-context culture? Does the Chinese man who speaks more than is socially acceptable come from a low-context culture? The answer to both questions is no. Neither the behaviors of a small percentage of individuals nor occasional situational choices constitute a cultural pattern.

The personal-contextual dialectic highlights the connection between our personal patterns of and preferences for communicating and how various contexts influence the personal. In some cases, our communication patterns and preferences will stay the same across many contexts. In other cases, a context shift may lead us to alter our communication and adapt. For example, an American businesswoman may prefer to communicate with her employees in an informal and laid-back manner. When she is promoted to manage a department in her company’s office in Malaysia, she may again prefer to communicate with her new Malaysian employees the same way she did with those in the United States. In the United States, we know that there are some accepted norms that communication in work contexts is more formal than in personal contexts. However, we also know that individual managers often adapt these expectations to suit their own personal tastes. This type of managerial discretion would likely not go over as well in Malaysia where there is a greater emphasis put on power distance (Hofstede et al., 2010). So, while the American manager may not know to adapt to the new context unless she has a high degree of intercultural communication competence, Malaysian managers would realize that this is an instance where the context likely influences communication more than personal preferences.

Two rows of chess pawns. One row is black and one is white. There is a single black pawn in the row of white pawns.
The differences-similarities dialectic guides us to not focus exclusively on differences or similarities. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.

The differences-similarities dialectic allows us to examine how we are simultaneously similar to and different from others. As was noted earlier, it’s easy to fall into a view of intercultural communication as “other oriented” and set up dichotomies between “us” and “them.” When we overfocus on differences, we can end up polarizing groups that actually have things in common. When we overfocus on similarities, we essentialize, or reduce/overlook important variations within a group. This tendency is evident in most of the popular, and some of the academic, conversations regarding “gender differences.” The book Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus makes it seem like men and women aren’t even species that hail from the same planet. The media is quick to include a blurb from a research study indicating again how men and women are “wired” to communicate differently. However, the overwhelming majority of current research on gender and communication finds that while there are differences between how men and women communicate, there are far more similarities (Allen, 2011).

The static-dynamic dialectic suggests that culture and communication change over time yet often appear to be and are experienced as stable. Our cultural beliefs and practices are rooted in the past and some cultural values remain relatively consistent over time, allowing us to make some generalizations about a culture. However, many aspects of a culture can change dramatically over time. For example, many associate Greek life on college campuses with hazing, binge drinking, and other toxic behaviors. However, on many campuses today, sororities and fraternities have open, inclusive, and welcoming cultures far removed from popular stereotypes.

The history/past-present/future dialectic reminds us to understand that current and future cultural conditions are linked to the past. We always view history through the lens of the present and we should also view the present with an understanding of the past. For example, many argue that solutions to various conflicts in the Middle East requires a deep understanding of a complex history that includes wars, colonization, ethnic and religious rivalries, and other factors.

The privileges-disadvantages dialectic captures the complex interrelation of unearned, systemic advantages and disadvantages that operate among our various identities. As was discussed earlier, our society consists of dominant and nondominant groups. Our cultures and identities have certain privileges and/or disadvantages. To understand this dialectic, we must view culture and identity through a lens of intersectionality, which asks us to acknowledge that we each have multiple cultures and identities that intersect with each other. Because our identities are complex, no one is completely privileged, and no one is completely disadvantaged. For example, while we may think of a white, heterosexual male as being very privileged, he may also have a disability that leaves him without the able-bodied privilege that a Latina woman has.

As these dialectics reiterate, culture and communication are complex systems that intersect with and diverge from many contexts. A better understanding of all these dialectics helps us be more critical thinkers and competent communicators in a changing world.

Intercultural Relationships

Intercultural relationships are formed between people with different cultural identities and include friends, romantic partners, family, and coworkers. Intercultural relationships have many benefits, such as increasing cultural knowledge, challenging previously held stereotypes, and learning new skills (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). However, intercultural relationships also present challenges. Whereas differences between people’s cultural identities may be obvious, it often takes some effort to uncover commonalities that can form the basis of a relationship. Negative stereotypes may also hinder progress toward relational development, especially if the individuals are not open to adjusting their preexisting beliefs. Intercultural relationships may also take more work to nurture and maintain. The benefit of increased cultural awareness is often achieved because the relational partners explain their cultures to each other. This type of explaining requires time, effort, and patience and may be an extra burden that some are not willing to carry. Last, engaging in intercultural relationships can lead to questioning or even backlash from one’s own cultural group. While these challenges range from mild inconveniences to more serious repercussions, they are important to be aware of.

As noted earlier, intercultural relationships can take many forms. The focus of this section is on friendships and romantic relationships, but much of the following discussion can be extended to other relationship types.

Intercultural Friendships

Four friends gather for a selfie.
Intercultural friendships bring potential challenges and advantages. Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels.

Even within the United States, views of friendship vary based on cultural identities. Research on friendship has shown that Latinos/as value relational support and positive feedback, Asian Americans emphasize exchanges of ideas like offering feedback or asking for guidance, African Americans value respect and mutual acceptance, and European Americans value recognition of each other as individuals (Coller, 1996). Despite the differences in emphasis, research also shows that the overall definition of a close friend is similar across cultures. A close friend is thought of as someone who is helpful and nonjudgmental, who you enjoy spending time with but can also be independent, and who shares similar interests and personality traits (Lee, 2006).

Intercultural friendships may face challenges that other friendships do not. Prior intercultural experience and overcoming language barriers increase the likelihood of intercultural friendship formation (Sias et al., 2008). In some cases, previous intercultural experience, like studying abroad in college or living in a diverse place, may motivate someone to pursue intercultural friendships once they are no longer in that context. When friendships cross nationality, it may be necessary to invest more time in common understanding, due to language barriers. With sufficient motivation and language skills, communication exchanges through self-disclosure can then further relational formation. The potential for broadening one’s perspective and learning more about cultural identities is not always balanced, however. In some instances, members of a dominant culture may be more interested in sharing their culture with their intercultural friend than they are in learning about their friend’s culture, which illustrates how context and power influence friendships (Lee, 2006). Again, intercultural friendships illustrate the complexity of culture and the importance of remaining mindful of your communication and the contexts in which it occurs.

Culture & Romantic Relationships

Romantic relationships are influenced by society and culture, and still today some people face discrimination based on who they love. Specifically, sexual orientation and race affect societal views of romantic relationships. Although many in the United States have become more accepting of gay and lesbian relationships, there is still a climate of prejudice and discrimination that individuals in same-gender romantic relationships must face. While interracial relationships have occurred throughout history, anti-miscegenation laws were common in states and made it illegal for people of different racial/ethnic groups to marry until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared these laws to be unconstitutional.

A Black woman holds hands with her white girlfriend.
Romantic relationships between same-sex and interracial couples still face societal prejudice and discrimination today. Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.

Intercultural romantic relationships require partners to work through various challenges. Differences in religion, race, ethnicity, and other cultural markers are increasingly common, as more people engage in intercultural romantic relationships today than in previous years (Alberts et al., 2022). But while challenges exist, many studies on intercultural couples counter the notion that partners may be less satisfied in their relationships due to cultural differences. For example, a study examining interracial relationships found that satisfaction was not significantly different for interracial partners even though the challenges they may face in finding acceptance from other people could lead to stressors that are not as strong for intracultural partners (Gaines Jr. & Brennan, 2011). Other studies have found positives for intercultural relationships, including increased empathy and knowledge of alternative perspectives (Gaines Jr. & Liu, 2000).

Intercultural Communication Competence

Throughout this book we have been putting various tools in our communication toolbox to improve our communication competence. Many of these tools can be translated into intercultural contexts. Some key components to intercultural communication competence include motivation, knowledge, and tolerance for uncertainty.

Initially, a person’s motivation for communicating with people from other cultures must be considered. Motivation refers to the root of a person’s desire to foster intercultural relationships and can be intrinsic or extrinsic (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Put simply, if a person isn’t motivated to communicate with people from different cultures, then the components of intercultural communication competence discussed next don’t really matter. If a person has a healthy curiosity that drives them toward intercultural encounters in order to learn more about self and others, then there is a foundation from which to build additional competence-relevant attitudes and skills. This intrinsic motivation makes intercultural communication a voluntary, rewarding, and lifelong learning process. Motivation can also be extrinsic, meaning that the desire for intercultural communication is driven by an outside reward like money, power, or recognition. Both types of motivation can contribute to one’s intercultural communication competence.

Knowledge supplements motivation and is an important part of building competence. Knowledge includes self- and other-awareness, mindfulness, and cognitive flexibility. Building knowledge of our own cultures, identities, and communication patterns takes more than passive experience (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). As you’ll recall from Chapter 2, we learn who we are through our interactions with others. Developing cultural self-awareness often requires us to get out of our comfort zones. Listening to people who are different from us is a key component of developing self-awareness. This may be uncomfortable, because we may realize that people think of our identities differently than we thought.

A cup of coffee sits on a notebook with notes of a world language scribbled down.
When direct encounters with other cultures is not possible, classes, books, and documentaries also serve as useful educational sources to learn about other cultures. Photo by Leeloo Thefirst from Pexels.

The most effective way to develop other-awareness is by direct and thoughtful encounters with other cultures. However, people may not readily have these opportunities for a variety of reasons. Despite the overall diversity in the United States, many people still only interact with people who are similar to them. Even in a racially diverse educational setting, for example, people often group off with people of their own race. While a heterosexual person may have a gay or lesbian friend or relative, they likely spend most of their time with other heterosexuals. Unless an able-bodied person interacts with people with disabilities as part of their job or has a person with a disability in their friend or family group, they likely spend most of their time interacting with other able-bodied people. Living in a rural area may limit one’s ability to interact with a range of cultures, and most people do not travel internationally regularly. Because of this, we may have to make a determined effort to interact with other cultures or rely on educational sources like college classes, books, or documentaries. Learning another language is also a good way to learn about a culture, because you can then read the news or watch movies in the native language, which can offer insights that are lost in translation.

Developing self- and other-awareness is an ongoing process that will continue to adapt and grow as we encounter new experiences. Mindfulness and cognitive flexibility will help as we continue to build our intercultural communication competence (Pusch, 2009). Mindfulness is a state of self- and other-monitoring that informs later reflection on communication interactions. As mindful communicators we should ask questions that focus on the interactive process like “How is our communication going? What are my reactions? What are their reactions?” Being able to adapt our communication in the moment based on our answers to these questions is a skill that we should seek to develop. Reflecting on the communication encounter later to see what can be learned is also a way to build competence. We should then be able to incorporate what we learned into our communication frameworks, which requires cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to continually supplement and revise existing knowledge to create new categories rather than forcing new knowledge into old categories. Cognitive flexibility helps prevent our knowledge from becoming stale and also prevents the formation of stereotypes and can help us avoid prejudging an encounter or jumping to conclusions. In summary, to be better intercultural communicators, we should know much about others and ourselves and be able to reflect on and adapt our knowledge as we gain new experiences.

Motivation and knowledge can inform us as we gain new experiences, but how we feel in the moment of intercultural encounters is also important. Tolerance for uncertainty refers to an individual’s attitude about and level of comfort in uncertain situations (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Some people perform better in uncertain situations than others, and intercultural encounters often bring up uncertainty. Whether communicating with someone of a different gender, race, or nationality, we are often wondering what we should or shouldn’t do or say. Situations of uncertainty most often become clearer as they progress, but the anxiety that an individual with a low tolerance for uncertainty feels may lead them to leave the situation or otherwise communicate in a less competent manner. Individuals with a high tolerance for uncertainty may exhibit more patience, waiting on new information to become available or seeking out information, which may then increase the understanding of the situation and lead to a more successful outcome (Pusch, 2009). Individuals who are intrinsically motivated toward intercultural communication may have a higher tolerance for uncertainty, in that their curiosity leads them to engage with others who are different because they find the self- and other-knowledge gained rewarding.

Key Concepts: Thinking Under the Influence

Communication and culture scholar Brenda Allen (2011) coined the phrase “thinking under the influence” (TUI) to highlight a reflective process that can help us hone our intercultural communication competence. As we discussed earlier, being mindful is an important part of building competence. Once we can become aware of our thought processes and behaviors, we can more effectively monitor and intervene in them. She asks us to monitor our thoughts and feelings about other people, both similar to and different from us. As we monitor, we should try to identify instances when we are guilty of TUI, such as uncritically accepting the dominant belief systems, relying on stereotypes, or prejudging someone based on their identities.

Allen recounts seeing a picture on the front of the newspaper with three men who appeared Latino. She found herself wondering what they had done, and then found out from the caption that they were the relatives of people who died in a car crash. She identified that as a TUI moment and asked herself if she would have had the same thought if they had been black, white, Asian, or female. When we feel “surprised” by someone different, this often points to a preexisting negative assumption that we can unpack and learn from. Allen also found herself surprised when a panelist at a conference who used a wheelchair and was hearing impaired made witty comments. Upon reflection, she realized that she had an assumption that people with disabilities would have a gloomy outlook on life. While these examples focus on out-groups, she also notes that it’s important for people, especially in nondominant groups, to monitor their thoughts about their own group, as they may have internalized negative attitudes about their group from the dominant culture. As a black woman, she notes that she has been critical of black people who “do not speak mainstream English” based on stereotypes she internalized about race, language, and intelligence.

It is not automatically a bad thing to TUI. Even Brenda Allen, an accomplished and admirable scholar of culture and communication, catches herself doing it. When we notice that we TUI, it’s important to reflect on that moment and try to adjust our thinking processes. This is an ongoing process, but it is an easy-to-remember way to cultivate your intercultural communication competence. Keep a record of instances where you catch yourself “thinking under the influence.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What triggers you to TUI?
  2. Where did these influences on your thought come from?
  3. What concepts from this chapter can you apply to change your thought processes?


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Chapter 7 was adapted, remixed, and curated from Chapter 8 of Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies, a work produced and distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA license in 2013 by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution.


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Keys to Communication: An Essential Guide to Communication in the Real World Copyright © 2023 by University of Montevallo Department of Communication is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.