Culture and Communication
From the melting pot to the salad bowl: the U.S. is experiencing a contemporary shift in which we learn to embrace diversity and speak “PC.” Tolerance and inclusion are essential to competing in a global economy, but too many questions remain unasked for fear of being culturally insensitive or perceived as racist. Where communication lacks, misunderstandings breed, often ending in judgments and missed opportunities.
I am of the Eastern T’Salagi tribe, Aniwaya clan on my maternal side, and of mixed Western European heritage on my paternal side. This is who I am as a Native woman. My maternal cousins identify as Native American and African American. After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of New Hampshire in cultural anthropology, psychology, and American studies and a graduate degree from Northern Arizona University in history/social studies secondary education, I currently serve as senior program coordinator for the Multicultural Student Center and Native American Student Services. I also provide instruction as an adjunct faculty member of the Ethnic Studies program at NAU.
In domestic and international travels and within my home community I have had many positive cultural interactions and some negative interactions that included varying degrees of embarrassment and fear. It is my hope that this article will better equip the reader to avoid the potholes and sandpits that I did not know how to navigate.
Identity is at the forefront of communication because often our assumption about who people are prior to engaging in conversation is determined by who we perceive them to be or how we identify them. This form of “external” identification, known as ascribed identity, is based on assumptions that often result from at least one of the following: physical characteristics (skin pigment, eye color, hair texture, clothing, etc.), language (non-dominant, dialect, surname, accent, slang, etc.), and the people they keep company with. The assumptions that we make based on the identity that we ascribe to others often limit our ability to interact with them free from preconceived notions that society has programmed into us.
Often ascribed identities lead to stereotyping. Chris Peltier with the Center for International Education describes stereotyping as a way for your mind to grapple with complexities without overwhelming itself. Assumptions, generalizations, and stereotypes make it easier for us to process information; however, they often unfairly characterize individuals who are prey to these generalizations as simplistic. “We the people” are multidimensional and unique.
Ascribed identity can negatively affect communication and culture. While traveling through Western Europe, for example, I met a clean-cut, rather polite young man who expressed interest in learning about my culture. Based on his use of the English language, what I perceived as “normative” mainstream behavior, and his compliance with my conception of a “respectable” appearance, I was at ease in his company. Four hours and a dozen profiles later the police began their investigation to arrest this clean-cut assailant, whom I escaped only because I was carrying a pocket knife and didn’t hesitate to use it.
Alternately, while traveling through eastern Africa I was invited to a young woman’s home constructed of cow dung and sticks. I was immediately suspicious of her intentions because she was “other” in terms of our white-western-American standard, and my language proficiency in her native tongue was minimal at best. I was hesitant to enter for fear that she was scheming to steal the gear and money within my pack, which were valuable by my cultural standards, but something propelled me forth. To this day I consider her a friend and one of the kindest people I have encountered in the 49 states and more than 20 countries that I have traveled to.
An alternative conducive to positive cultural communication is to shelve judgments, and when possible allow people to self-identify; that is, to choose for themselves who they are and how they identify ethnically, culturally, nationally, ancestrally, and so forth. Fulfilling cultural interactions result from the ability of the parties to determine who they are within the engagement (identity) and by recognizing the conditioned cultural lens through which we view others (awareness).
Lack of cultural awareness and limited cultural communication skills in the past caused me to make a variety of mistakes, from directly insulting a religious figure in Central America (I was trying to make a joke) to unknowingly getting married in Africa (not wanting to offend, I accepted the gift of a necklace). Below are a few inside tips on avoiding my potholes and sandpits.
1) Allow others to self-identify. Share information about yourself and your identity. It is easier to have a conversation in the appropriate situation when you are willing to self-disclose in a manner that is natural (not forced or ill fitted) rather than insistent or demanding of the other party.
This does not mean that you should try to be something that you are not to form a connection. When speaking your native language, don’t change your accent, word choice, or mannerisms to try to “sound like” or mirror whomever it is that you are speaking with, or to “sound like” your assumptions of how they “should” speak. Pretending is never a good option when communicating; it creates a further divide.
2) Admit a lack of familiarity with other cultures. Rather than assuming something, ask questions in a respectful manner. Be aware that although someone is identified as, or identifies as, a member of a certain group does not mean that he or she is an expert on everyone and everything within that group. Nor does it mean that what that person tells you applies to everyone within the group of which he/she is a member.
3) Be aware that culture and ancestry are not synonymous. Only claim inclusion with a culture or ethnicity if it is a strong part of your identity. If a culture or ethnicity is not regularly a part of your life (tradition, language, etc.), it can be offensive to “in group” members if you claim this identity, especially when only certain aspects of a culture are being adopted and possibly taken out of context.
It is equally as important to recognize whether you are privy to the privileges of being ascribed (or perceived) as a member of the mainstream culture of power. If so, claiming inclusion with a non-mainstream group may not be well-received.
4) Be aware that there is not a “norm” for people to be compared to, although mainstream America tends to consider the “norm” white, middle class, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexuals in/from the U.S., as perpetuated through the media. Be aware that many advantages are available to the perceived “norm” groups that are not as easily accessible to non-mainstream groups. If you are part of the mainstream, recognizing power and privilege means being aware of your own enhanced access to opportunities, not pitying others.
5) Helpful hints when communication is problematic:
If you would like to know more about the subject of culture and communication, contact me for a list of recommended readings, visit our staff at the LEADS Center, and check out the following webpages for upcoming events: nau.edu/msc, nau.edu/nass, nau.edu/cie.