The Influence of Culture on
In this chapter, readers will explore the essential associations between culture and interpersonal
communication. By the end of this chapter, readers will be able to
• Define culture and co-culture
• Understand how culture and media are related
• Distinguish between primary and secondary identities, including explaining how cultural
identity and communication are related
• Comprehend the role that cultural membership—including context, individualism,
collectivism, and time orientation—plays in how we communicate with others
• Use strategies to strengthen interpersonal communication competence
Culture and Communication
In 2008, reporter Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers: The Story of Success, a compilation of
human events that are extreme, unusual, and outside of one’s normal experience. Chapter 7 of
this book, entitled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” recounts a particularly unusual pattern—one that even Gladwell himself admitted on his website was the most surprising to him
(“What Is Outliers About?” 2013): the influence of commercial airline pilots’ cultural background
on how they communicate while in the air. Using examples from actual National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB) transcripts, Gladwell reveals that the causes of multiple plane crashes can
be partially explained by the pilots’ inability to competently communicate with one another or
with Air Traffic Control (ATC), and that this communication difficulty is associated with culture.
When first officers, who are subordinate to captains in the hierarchy of the airline industry, tried
to alert the captain of a problem, officers from cultures that prescribe deferential treatment to
superiors used hints or softened speech to get their point across. In other words, even in potential
life-or-death situations such as airline emergencies, cultural rules and norms were so ingrained
in these first officers that they were simply unable to use direct and clear messages to notify their
captains. Instead, the first officers chose to sugarcoat or downplay the significance of the situations. According to Gladwell (2008), NTSB transcripts present examples of the hints used by first
officers in developing or actual airline emergencies, some of which include
• “Look how the ice is just hanging on his, ah, back, back there, see that?” (to captain, after
noticing that there is a dangerous level of ice on the plane’s wings, p. 196)
• “Climb and maintain three thousand, and ah, we’re running out of fuel, sir.” (to ATC, after
being asked by the captain to tell ATC that they were in an emergency due to low fuel,
• “Don’t you think it rains more? In this area here?” (a subtle warning to the captain against
doing a visual approach while landing in terrible, rainy weather, p. 213)
In each of the above instances, the plane crashed, and lives were ultimately lost. Gladwell summarizes this outlier when saying, “How good a pilot is, it turns out, has a lot to do with where
that pilot is from—that is, the culture he or she was raised in” (“What Is Outliers About?” 2013,
para. 6). Airlines with such issues during the 1990s, such as Korean Air, recognized these outlier patterns and took important steps to correct them, but miscommunications can still occur.
However, the results of these efforts have been overwhelmingly successful, with a significant
reduction in airline crashes in the last decade. This is a sobering example of just how much culture influences (and is influenced by) how we communicate, regardless of situation or context.
Chapter 3 examines the ways that culture and interpersonal communication shape and influence
one another. In this chapter, we define culture and co-cultures and explore how certain cultural
identity and characteristics are related to our interpersonal communication. The chapter also
offers suggestions for improving your intercultural communication competence.
3.1 Culture and Communication
We are often unaware or not fully conscious of how culture influences our behavior and our
communication, but it pervades almost every aspect of the lives of people in a society. Culture
influences how we dress, how we act, what and when we eat, what and when we celebrate, how
Culture and Communication
we raise and educate our children, and how we even view life and death. It affects our concepts of
time, whether we prefer direct or indirect messages, if we view the world more as an individual
or as a member of a group, and many other aspects of life that most people rarely think about.
These characteristics of culture, in turn, affect the manner in which we communicate with other
people. They influence our perception of the world, our verbal and nonverbal messages, and our
relationships. If you desire to be a competent communicator, it is thus imperative that you understand the impact of culture on you, the people you encounter, and the interactions that you share.
What Is Culture?
When you travel to a new country, to a different region in the United States, or even to an event
or environment that is unfamiliar to you, you will likely encounter people who speak different
languages, wear different clothing, and have different customs from your own. Every society has
a culture, or a number of different cultures—a relatively specialized set of traditions, beliefs,
values, and norms, or standards of behavior that have been passed down from generation to generation by way of communication. Culture is often described as “the way we learn to do things.”
Everyday parts of our lives such as etiquette, values, customs, traditions, language, courtesy, and
rituals such as shaking hands when you meet someone are at least partially formed, shaped, and
changed by culture.
Culture provides structure in a society by defining the roles of group members and the hierarchy or status of various groups within the culture. In this sense, culture is normative, which
means that it provides the rules, regulations, and norms that govern society and the manner
in which people act with other members of
that society. All societies have a system of
social organization, and culture serves to
provide an ordered and organized system
for dealing with people within that society (Novinger, 2001). Culture is learned,
but it seems natural because it is such
an integral part of life. People are conditioned by culture to fit into a particular
society, and the rules for interacting with
other people are learned from birth. These
rules become hidden, subtle influences
on our behavior. You learn when to talk,
when to keep quiet, and what tone of voice
to use. You are taught which gestures are
and are not acceptable. You learn what
facial expressions are approved and which
will earn a reprimand. You learn to sit up
straight, cover your mouth to sneeze, and
not to pick your nose (Novinger, 2001).
Historically, most societies had a shared
culture—a consistent set of cultural traits,
norms, and customs among members
of that society. Most modern societies,
Steve Raymer/Asia Images/Getty Images
▲▲Culture often seems instinctual because it is such an integral
part of life, but its rules and norms are learned from birth.
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however, are a mix of different and often competing cultures because we have access to more
foreign cultures today than ever before due to the increased rates of migration of people from
one region of the world to another, military conquests, personal and professional travel, and
global economics. But you do not have to travel abroad today to encounter cultural differences.
Intercultural communication, which is a significant area of study in the communication discipline, is “the communication process in which individual participants of differing cultural and
subcultural backgrounds come into direct contact with one another” (Kim, 2010, p. 454). The
United States, for example, is an ethnically diverse nation of immigrants; in 2000 its foreign-born
population was estimated at 30 million people, or 11% of the population (National Intelligence
Council, 2001). Over America’s 230-plus year history, it has become home to people from almost
every other culture in the world, which likely explains why the United States is also currently one
of the most racially tolerant nations in the world (Berggren & Nilsson, 2013). If you reside and
work in the United States, you live in a multicultural environment, and you will regularly come
into contact with people in your personal and your professional lives whose cultural backgrounds
differ from yours.
We can view the United States as an open system culture: a culture that has continuous inputs
and outputs from and to the surrounding environment. In other words, American culture is
influenced by and can influence elements of other cultures. One example of this is our successful adaptation of British television shows such as American Idol and The Office. At the same
time, who we are as a culture has also spread around the world in the form of movies and television shows. Celebrity international endorsements are also examples of the continued dispersal
of American culture—for example, actor Ben Stiller’s promotion of Chu-Hi, a Japanese canned
alcoholic drink, or former wrestler and reality TV star Hulk Hogan’s association with Hitachi air
Societies exert a great deal of pressure on people to conform to the way things are done in that
specific culture, but this pressure is often subtle. You may be unaware of it until you do something unacceptable or encounter people from other cultures who do things differently. You may
like to think of yourself as your own person, acting of your own free will. Although it is true that
you can make choices about how to behave if your actions are not considered acceptable in your
society, you usually suffer consequences or endure punishment for not behaving “properly.” These
consequences can vary. For example, you might be excluded from group parties, if your manners
are poor. In a more extreme example, you might be ostracized or removed from a group or from
society at large if you violate the formally stated laws of the land.
In summary, you could think of culture as a picture frame that surrounds and creates a border for
your behavior and your communication. You are, in a sense, bound by your culture because the
words in your language, your vocal characteristics, your nonverbal communication, and environmental influences can only be decoded correctly if someone is familiar with the cultural context.
If you are not knowledgeable about a culture, you will often misread cues.
Dominant Cultures and Co-Cultures
Cultural diversity can enrich a society by infusing it with new ideas, new perspectives, and new
ways of doing things. However, this diversity can also cause social unrest and conflict. As you
learned in Chapter 1, belonging is a basic human need, and as we discussed in Chapter 2, selfimage and self-esteem are equally strong needs. Immigrants to a new culture must often make
difficult choices about whether to retain their cultural heritage, primarily adopt the behavior
Culture and Communication
patterns of the dominant culture, or attempt to blend these different cultural characteristics in
some way. The dominant culture, however, can also change when new populations are large and
become significant subcultures, or co-cultures, within the society. The next sections will define
and address these different aspects of culture.
Although many societies are multicultural, they generally have a dominant culture—a term
used by sociologists, anthropologists, and researchers in cultural studies to describe the established language, religion, behavior, values, rituals, and social customs of a particular society.
The dominant culture may or may not represent the majority of the population; instead, it is
considered to be dominant because it controls or has influence over social institutions such as
the media, educational institutions, law, political processes, business, and artistic expression
(Marshall, 1998). This power and control is not absolute, nor is it permanent: Other groups within
the society may challenge the dominant culture. For example, because people from England,
Ireland, and Scotland predominantly settled the original 13 colonies in the United States, many
aspects of U.S. culture were based on British culture, which was itself a mix of English and other
European traditions. As a result, the English language as well as the American legal and political
system and many customs, religious views, attitudes toward work, recreational pastimes, and
other characteristics of Anglo (English) culture became dominant in the United States (Mio,
Trimble, & Arredondo, 1999).
When individuals are born into a particular society, they begin a process of enculturation, when
they learn and adopt the norms, traditions, and beliefs of their dominant culture. Individuals are
immersed in their dominant culture, and they acquire knowledge about that culture via direct
experience. For example, they will eat food that is preferred by members of that culture, learn the
primary language, and view and experience the major forms of media popular within that culture.
Even immigrants usually undergo a period of acculturation, during which they learn and begin
to adopt the norms of the dominant culture and the behaviors that are acceptable or preferred in
the new society. Acculturation, for example, involves observing others who are members of the
dominant culture to see how they behave, communicate, and what their preferences and dislikes
are. From these observations, and by directly interacting with the newly adopted culture, the
individual will begin to take on characteristics of that culture.
The acculturation process is not just one-way—as more and more new members join a culture,
their values and beliefs will shape and influence the dominant culture as well. A society may
celebrate its multicultural makeup, but its most widely shared customs, holidays, and traditions are usually those of the dominant culture, such as the U.S. holidays of Thanksgiving and
Independence Day. The dominant culture of a society can change, but, unless a revolution or
other major social upheaval occurs, this change usually happens slowly, over a lengthy period
Table 3.1 illustrates some aspects of U.S. culture that can be troublesome for newcomers, but are
likely to go unnoticed by most members of the dominant culture. These “Facts about American
Lifestyle and Culture” were provided by the website www.path2usa.com to help visitors and
immigrants understand and become familiar with various aspects of the dominant U.S. culture. Review the suggestions and consider whether the recommendations would be helpful for
someone who is new to the United States. Do you think the recommendations are all appropriate
advice for those new to the United States? Would you alter any of these suggestions or include
Culture and Communication
Table 3.1: Practical tips for visitors to the United States
Aspects of U.S. Culture Often Unfamiliar to Visitors or Newcomers
In America one has to keep to the right hand side of the road, and the driver’s seat is on the left side of the car.
If a cop (police officer) asks you to stop while you are driving, just stop the car at the right side of the road and
wait inside. Never get out of the car. The cop may consider it an offense.
You will find both “Hot” and “Cold” water in the tap at all places like your apartment, office, and public
At restaurants, you won’t get finger bowls. One can use paper napkins.
Electric switches are operated in the opposite direction, i.e., upside-ON and downside-OFF. Generally, there is no
ON-OFF switch next to every plug point. They are always ON. Just connect the plug whenever necessary.
The TV channels can’t be tuned according to your wish. For example, ESPN will come on channel 39; you can’t
change it. This is applied according to your area and the cable company.
At work or elsewhere while talking, if you want to say yes, just say “YES.” Don’t nod your head up and down.
Moving your head side to side is very confusing, and it’s mostly taken as NO.
Never, ever talk in your native language in the presence of Americans during a gathering.
When standing in a line, make sure there is enough space between you and the person standing in front of you. If
you stand too close to strangers, they feel you are invading their personal space.
FREE is a buzzword here. You may get hundreds of ads with FREE in bigger fonts. Make sure that you read and
understand all terms and conditions. Look for any hidden costs (Generally referred as the Catch) before accepting
such offers. Note: Generally, the Catch is written in almost unreadable font size.
Don’t be surprised if complete strangers greet you. Be polite and greet them back. Generally, Americans are very
polite, friendly, and helpful, but have little patience with interference in their private lives.
Don’t offer chewing gum or a breath freshener to others. It gives them a message that they have a bad breath.
Your intention may not be that, but it is easily mistaken.
Source: “Facts about American Lifestyle and Culture.” http://www.path2usa.com/facts-about-usa. Used with permission of www.Path2usa.com
In addition to a dominant culture, most societies have several co-cultures—regional, economic,
social, religious, or ethnic groups that are not the dominant culture but still do exert influence
in the society. These co-cultures have characteristic customs and patterns of behavior that are
unique to them and that distinguish them from the dominant culture. The terms co-culture and
subculture have similar meaning, but co-culture implies that multiple cultures can exist together
in the same geographic space, whereas subculture could imply that some cultures are necessarily subsumed into, or are inferior to, other cultures. The term co-culture emphasizes that, even
though we can identify with a dominant culture, there may be another culture with which you
identify more closely and feel best represents who you are and how you behave. For example,
you might identify yourself as an American, but have a particular co-culture, such as a religious
affiliation, geographic region, or occupation that you also strongly identify with and that is an
important component of who you are.
There are various U.S. geographic co-cultures that developed because different ethnic groups or
nationalities immigrated to specific regions of the United States. These regional co-cultures each
have their own customs and traditions, dialects of the English language, and foods. Regional cuisines, from cheesesteaks and water ice in Philadelphia to green chile stew in New Mexico, grits and
sweet tea in the South, and sushi in the West are examples of the influence of different cultural
groups in parts of the United States (United States of America, 2010). Customs, traditions, and
foods once unique to certain co-cultures also can become part of the dominant culture over time.
Culture and Communication
The holiday of Cinco de Mayo, May 5th, for instance, commemorates the victory of the Mexican
militia over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The holiday is widely celebrated in
the United States (though it is not celebrated in Mexico), especially in cities that have a significant
Mexican population, and Mexican food is popular throughout the year in the United States.
Co-cultures also develop in groups other than those who share ethnic backgrounds. You are
likely a ...
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