Culture and Communication Research Paper

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That there is a relationship between culture and communication is obvious when misunderstandings occur in international relations and business: When a U.S. president greeted the people of Poland, his translator said in Polish, “The President says he is pleased to be here in Poland grasping your secret parts.” Chevrolet attempted to market its Nova compact car in Latin American countries. In Spanish, no va means “does not go,” or “it doesn’t run.” The car was renamed the Caribe. And for the 1994 World Cup, both McDonald’s and CocaCola reprinted the Saudi Arabian flag with its sacred words “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet” on millions of paper bags and cans. Muslims objected to its use as a sales device and that the bags and cans with the sacred words would be thrown in the trash. On a more individual level, when any of us live for an extended period of time in a country other than our native land, we may experience some feelings of disorientation and anxiety when we discover that our assumptions about life and ways of behaving can be challenged.



In this research paper, we’ll review in more detail the relationship between culture and communication. First, we’ll distinguish among the various terms used to refer to this relationship. Then, we’ll review the barriers that can impede effective communication among individuals and the cultural values that help describe the ways cultures differ.

Then, we’ll look more closely at the relationship between culture and communication by comparing two cultures. Finally, we examine case studies of imperialism, immigration, and international advertising as examples of intercultural communication.

Defining the Relationship Between Culture and Communication

There are many approaches to studying the relationship between culture and communication. International communication was a term used to refer to the study of the flow of communication among countries—particularly the communication between national governments—and the comparative study of national mass communication systems. More recently, global communication has been used to refer to transborder communication by groups, institutions, and governments.

The term cross-cultural communication technically refers to comparing phenomena across cultures. For example, a cross-cultural study of child rearing would compare what is done in many cultures. Development communication is used to refer to the study of communication to promote social and economic growth in poverty-stricken countries and areas.

The more generic term intercultural communication generally refers to face-to-face interactions among peoples of diverse cultures. The formal study of intercultural communication in the United States is said to have originated in 1946, when Congress passed the Foreign Service Act, which established the Foreign Service Institute to provide language and anthropological cultural training for foreign diplomats. Others date the origin to the publication of Edward T. Hall’s book The Silent Language in 1959. While Hall was associated with the Foreign Service Institute, he brought anthropological concepts to the practical world of Foreign Service. He also clearly defined culture as basically a communication process creating the climate for the study of intercultural communication within communication departments rather than anthropology departments (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1990).

All these terms require an understanding of the term culture itself. In the 19th century, the term was commonly used to refer to Western civilization. In fact, it was commonly believed that all cultures progressed from savagery and barbarism to what was identified as Western civilization. While we may be surprised by that belief, it was not that uncommon. Ancient Greece and imperial China also believed that their own ways of life were superior to others. The idea that there was not one superior culture was slow to evolve.

Today, the term culture typically includes the following understandings:

  • A community large enough to produce new generations without relying on outside people
  • The totality of that community’s thought, experiences, and patterns of behavior and its assumptions, understandings, and values about life that guide behavior
  • The process of social transmission of these thoughts and behaviors from birth in families and other institutions over the course of generations
  • That members consciously identify themselves with that community—referred to as cultural identity or the identification with and acceptance into a group that has shared symbols and behavior norms

Note that this definition of culture is not necessarily the same as the definition of a nation-state. One nation-state might include more than one culture. That recognition has led to the use of the terms subculture and co-culture. Within one nation-state, groups composed of a large number of people who identify with a culture, from which they derive distinctive values and rules of behavior, are referred to as a subculture. Subcultures are often based on economic or social class, ethnicity, race, or geographic region. French Canadian is a subculture within Canada, for example.As the prefix sub on the word culture seems to imply being under, secondary, and inferior, the term co-culture was suggested to convey the idea that no one culture is inherently superior to other cultures. One might question whether true situations of co-culture exist. To be so, one culture could not impose its values and rules of behavior on the other. For example, one could not impose its unique legal system on the other.

One final term should be introduced—subgroup. Subgroups, or membership groups, may provide members with some values and patterns of behavior. Subgroups exist within a dominant culture and are dependent on that culture. One important example is occupation, in which most people dress alike, share a common vocabulary and similar values, and share communication media such as newsletters and magazines. Examples are nurses and doctors, police officers, and employees of large organizations such as Disney.

Barriers to Intercultural Communication

One way to further study the relationship between culture and communication is to recognize the barriers to effective intercultural communication. LaRay M. Barna (1997) developed a list of six such barriers: anxiety, assuming similarity instead of differences, ethnocentrism, stereotypes and prejudice, nonverbal misinterpretations, and language.


When we are anxious because we are not sure what is expected of us, it is only natural to focus so much on what we are doing that we are not fully present in the communication itself. For example, speakers of English as a second language may experience anxiety over their English language skills and focus so much on how they are pronouncing words that they limit their interactions with English speakers.

Assuming Similarity Instead of Difference

Oftentimes, visitors to a new culture focus on the things that seem the same, that is, driving on the same side of the road, eating similar foods, and enjoying the same music and movies. When we assume similarity, we can ignore important differences. We may share photos of grandparents but have very different values about where those grandparents should live and the extent to which they should be involved in our lives.


Ethnocentrism refers to negatively judging aspects of another culture by the standards of one’s own culture. We are ethnocentric when we believe that our culture is superior and not understand that whatever exists in one culture makes sense if we understand that culture. If the average summer temperaturewas43degreesCelcius(109degreesFahrenheit), it would be logical to adjust school and business hours into evening hours to conserve energy. Long lunches and afternoon siestas make sense. It would be ethnocentric to attribute those long lunches and afternoon siestas to laziness.

Stereotypes and Prejudice

Both these terms refer to making judgments about another based on group membership. Stereotype refers to negative or positive judgments made about another based on any observable or believed group membership. Anyone can stereotype. Is the appearance of possible identification with a cultural group evidence of driving skills? Of athletic skills? Of math skills? Stereotypes impede communication as they cause us to assume that a belief is true of any one individual, their use reinforces the belief that may in fact not be true at all, and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the person stereotyped.

Whereas stereotypes can be positive or negative, prejudice refers to the irrational dislike, suspicion, or hatred of a particular group, race, religion, or sexual orientation. The Roma (mistakenly named Gypsy by medieval Europeans, who thought all dark-skinned peoples came from Egypt) experienced persecution by Nazi Germany and Eastern European Communist governments. Japanese-born Koreans have been victims of social, economic, and political prejudice, as did the Irish in the United States.

Culture and Nonverbal Misinterpretations

Nonverbal symbols create meanings for others. Nonverbal communication refers to messages sent without using words. Many nonverbal expressions vary from culture to culture, and it is just these variations that make nonverbal misinterpretations a barrier. Consider the following examples.


Proxemics refers to our use of personal space. Edward Hall (1959) demonstrated that cultures differ substantially in their use of personal space. Hall demonstrated that in North America, personal space is from 18 inches to 4 feet, the lower end being handshake distance, the distance most people in North America stand from each other in public. In Latin American and Arab cultures, that distance is much less. In an intercultural context, one may attempt to stand closer by moving in, while the other may attempt to maintain the customary personal distance by moving back.


Gestures, body movements, facial expressions, and eye contact are referred to as kinesics. In his book Bodytalk, Desmond Morris (1995) explained that gestures can be intentional or unconscious. In ancient Rome, lower classes used four fingers and the thumb to pick up food; upper classes used two fingers and the thumb. This may have been unconscious, but it clearly communicated class.

The meaning of conscious gestures can vary from culture to culture. The forefinger-to-thumb gesture forming a circle can mean “okay” in the United States. In France, it can mean zero or worthless. In Japan, it can mean “money.” In Brazil, it can clearly communicate an offensive meaning. Even things such as nodding agreement can vary. Most cultures do indicate “yes” by an up-and-down nod of the head and “no” by shaking the head from side to side. But in Albania and Bulgaria, the gestures can be reversed. In Sri Lanka, a yes to a specific question is indicated as a the nod of the head, but general agreement is indicated by a slow sideways swaying of the head.

Certain facial expressions such as smiles are universal, but many are not. In the United States, people in conversation maintain some degree of eye contact. If one person avoids eye contact, the other may assume that the person is evasive or dishonest. In some Asian cultures such as Japan, students will often avoid making eye contact with their instructors as a sign of respect. If a U.S. instructor did not have that cultural understanding, a communication barrier would exist.


Chronemics refers to the study of our use of time. The fact that cultures have differing meanings for the use of time can become a barrier. What time dinner is served, what time you arrive for a party, how long you are kept waiting for an appointment all depend on where you are.


Haptics refers to our use of touch to communicate. In Thailand and Laos, it is rude for a stranger to touch a child on the top of the head because the head is regarded as the home of the spirit or soul. It is believed that a child’s spirit or soul is not strong enough to be touched and has a tendency to become ill if patted. In New Zealand, the hongi, the touching of noses to share the breath of life, is the traditional greeting of the Maori.

Culture and Language

To understand how language can be a barrier, we need to go back to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in order to account for the differences in languages across cultures. Scholars have divided the hypothesis into the linguistic determinist interpretation and the linguistic relativity interpretation. The linguistic determinist interpretation is that language controls thought and cultural norms, that is, each of us can only know that part of the world that our language permits us to know or that the language of our culture predetermines we can know. In other words, culture is controlled by and controls language. In the linguistic relativity interpretation, the difference between languages is not what can be said but what is relatively easy to say. The classic example is vocabulary. The Hanunov tribe has 92 separate words to refer to rice. From this we can assume that rice is important to that culture. Of course, other languages can see and understand how the 92 Hanunov tribe words for rice are different. They just don’t have separate words for each of those different states of rice. Another classic example is grammar. In the Eskimo language, it is common to use the word if rather than the word when in reference to the future, as in “If I graduate from college . . .” rather than “When I graduate from college. . . .” When seems to communicate more certainty than if. Linguists assert that the more common use of if is associated with the harsh environment of the Eskimo, where there is little control over nature.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be used to explain translation problems between languages (Sechrest, Fay, & Zaidi, 1972).

Vocabulary Equivalence

This recognizes that languages differ in the number of categories or words available. Remember the 92 single words for rice. It is accurate to translate each of these into the single English word rice but to do so would lose the specificity of the original.

Idiomatic Equivalence

Think of the many idioms in English: kicked the bucket, out to lunch, raining cats and dogs, break a leg. Now think how the meaning is totally lost if these were to be translated word for word.

Grammatical–Syntactical Equivalence

Languages do not necessarily have the same grammar. You may need to understand a language’s grammar to understand the meaning of a word. For example, in English, words can have different meanings as nouns, verbs, or adjectives. Look at the two simple phrases “book a place” and “place a book” to understand that in word-forword translation, meaning would be confusing.

Experiential Equivalence

Objects and experiences may differ in cultures, while the word may be the same. Instead of using theVietnamese word for census, which translates as “investigation of the population,” the U.S. Census was sensitive to Vietnamese immigrants’ experience with Vietnam’s government tracking to individuals and used the phrase Thong ked an so, which translates as “survey of the population.”

Conceptual Equivalence

In a similar fashion, abstract ideas may be different in different languages. The former U.S. President Jimmy Carter identified conceptual equivalence with the phrase human rights. According to President Carter, each country uses the term to refer to what it does well. In the United States, human rights typically refers to freedoms in the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech. In other countries, human rights refers to adequate housing or universal health care.

Finally, when a group with more power enforces the use of its language on another group, as Sapir-Whorf suggests, it is also enforcing its own culture on that group. Others suggest that the spread of any language also means the spreading influence of the culture associated with that language. Of course in the modern world, the dominant language is English. It is estimated that one-fourth of the world’s population is familiar with English to some extent. English dominates in science, technology, commerce, tourism, diplomacy, and pop culture. Some 80% of the world’s electronic databases and communication networks are in English. Even computer keyboards are typically based on the English alphabet. The former French president, Jacques Chirac, told a group formed in France to preserve the use of French in cyberspace: “If in this new medium our language, our programs, our creations don’t have a strong presence, our future generations will be economically and culturally marginalized.” The French government has since decreed that e-mail will be pronounced courriel, from the French words courier electronique.

In fact, many of the world’s 5,000 to 6,000 languages are on the verge of extinction. More than half are moribund or are no longer learned by children and therefore will disappear. Only about 10% of the world’s languages are spoken by more than 100,000 people. Perhaps 90% of the world’s languages will be moribund or dead by the end of this century. The loss of any language means the loss of the culture of those who spoke it and the loss of the knowledge that those cultures had codified in their languages.

Cultural Values

To better understand how cultures differ, in this section, we will examine the concepts of high-versus low-context cultures, the concept of face, and what has become known as dimensions of culture.

High- Versus Low-Context Cultures

The concept of high- and low-context cultures was popularized by Hall (1976). Think of context as the environment in which a communication takes place, which helps define the meanings of the communication. Think of a romantic restaurant for a date. The environment helps define the message. Cultures in which little of the meaning is determined by the context because most of the message is encoded in the language itself are labeled low context. In low-context cultures verbal messages are highly valued. Verbal messages are elaborate, highly specific, detailed, and redundant. Cultures in which less has to be said or written because more of the meaning is in the environment or already shared by people are labeled as high context. Very little is in the explicit coded message. High-context cultures are more sensitive to nonverbal messages and are more likely to provide a context and setting and let the point evolve. In high-context cultures, people are brought closer by the importance of their shared context. The message may be lost in low-context cultures.

Examples of low-context cultures are Switzerland, Germany, North America, and the Nordic states. Examples of high-context cultures are China, Japan, Korea, most Latin American cultures, and southern and eastern Mediterranean cultures such as Greece, Turkey, and Arab states.

Imagine a high-context German negotiating a business contract with a low-context Chinese. The German may want to meet at any convenient place, may want to get right to the point, and may want to record agreements in writing. The Chinese may give thought to the setting where the meeting is to take place and to the timing of the meeting and may want to establish a relationship with the other party before any negotiations take place. Understand that this example is a cultural studies approach as it describes an ideal personification of the culture to explain the actions of individuals.

The Concept of Face

Related to the concept of high- and low-context cultures is the concept of face. Face can be understood in two ways: Face can refer to the confidence of others in one’s moral character, without which one cannot function properly in society. Face can also refer to one’s prestige or reputation achieved through life.

In high-context cultures such as China, communication is more indirect or implicit and more likely to use intermediaries because social harmony and face maintenance are crucial. Communication through intermediaries eliminates face-to-face confrontation and reduces the risk of losing face. There is more indirect face negotiation and more mutual face or other face maintenance (TingToomey, 1985).

In low-context cultures such as the United States, there is more direct face negotiation and more self-face maintenance. Imagine that you receive a lower test grade than you expected and on examination notice that your instructor has added up the points incorrectly. In a low-context culture, you would probably confront the instructor with the error demanding that the grade be corrected as soon as possible. Imagine how you might handle that same situation in a high-context culture. As the student, would you want to point out a mistake to your instructor?

Dimensions of Culture

In 1980, the Dutch management researcher Geert Hofstede first published the results of his study of more than 100,000 employees of the multinational IBM in 40 countries (Hofstede, 2001). Hofstede was attempting to identify the value dimensions, which vary among cultures. Although his work has been subjected to criticism, his dimensions have been frequently used to describe cultures and as the basis of research in several disciplines. Hofstede identified four dimensions: individualism, masculinity, power distance, and uncertainty avoidance. Later, a fifth dimension, Confucian dynamism (later more commonly referred to as long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation), was identified.

Individualism Versus Collectivism

The dimension refers to how people define themselves and their relationships with others from loosely structured to tightly integrated. In individualist cultures, the interests of the individual prevail over the interests of the group. Individualist cultures stress self-direction and self-achievement. In collectivist cultures, the interests of the group prevail over the interest of the individual. Collectivistic cultures stress in-group loyalty and conformity. Examples of countries high in individualism are United States, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, and New Zealand. Examples of countries high in collectivism are Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, and Indonesia. A male student from Colombia may study in the United States and earn a PhD, teach at a distinguished university, and publish important books, but when he returns to Colombia, people to whom he is introduced will want to know to whom he is related. Colombians want to know which family the student comes from because that places the student in society much more so than his individual accomplishments.

Young Yun Kim (2005) points out a relationship between individualism-collectivism and Hall’s low- and high-context cultures. Furthermore, Kim characterizes individualism-collectivism as the most commonly used theory in cross-cultural research in communication, psychology, and anthropology.

Masculinity Versus Femininity

Hofstede labeled as masculine cultures those that strive for maximal distinction between what women and men are expected to do. Cultures that place high values on masculine traits stress assertiveness, competition, and material success. Those labeled as feminine cultures are those that permit more overlapping of social roles for the sexes. Cultures that place high value on feminine traits stress quality of life, interpersonal relationships, and concern for the weak.

Examples of masculine cultures are Japan, Austria, Venezuela, Italy, Switzerland, and Mexico. Examples of feminine cultures are Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Costa Rica, andYugoslavia. Jandt (2007) points out that the Nordic countries also rank highest on the United Nations Gender-Related Development Index, which reflects health, education, and income and the Gender Empowerment Measure, which reflects the political and economic advancement of women. The Nordic countries have the highest percentage of parliament seats held by women and have adopted gender equality and women’s empowerment as national policies. They have legislated equal rights, inexpensive child care, free contraception and abortions, and parental leave policies.

Power Distance

Power distance refers to the way cultures deal with inequalities or the extent to which less powerful members of groups within a country expect and accept that power, prestige, and wealth are distributed unequally. Cultures with high power distance have power and influence concentrated in the hands of a few rather than distributed throughout the population. These countries tend to be more authoritarian and may communicate in a way to limit interaction and reinforce the differences between people. Children are expected to be obedient toward parents and display respect for those of higher status. High-power-distance countries include Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, Philippines, Mexico, and Venezuela.

Low-power-distance countries include Sweden, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, Israel, and Austria.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which people in a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations and feel a need for written and unwritten rules. Students from high uncertainty avoidance cultures expect their teachers to be experts who have all the answers. In the workplace, there is a need to work hard. Rules, precision, and punctuality are valued.

Counties high in uncertainty avoidance include Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay, Belgium, and El Salvador. Countries that are low in uncertainly avoidance include Singapore, Jamaica, Denmark, Sweden, Hong Kong, and Ireland.

Long-Term Versus Short-Term Orientation

After Hofstede’s original work, a new dimension labeled Confucian work dynamism, now more commonly called long-term versus short-term orientation, was added. This dimension includes values such as thrift, persistence, having a sense of shame, and ordering relationships. Longterm orientation refers to dedicated, motivated, responsible, and educated individuals with a sense of commitment and organizational identity and loyalty. Long-term orientation is consistent with thrift, savings, perseverance toward results, and a willingness to subordinate oneself for a purpose. Short-term orientation is consistent with spending to keep up with social pressure, less savings, and a preference for quick results.

Countries that are high in long-term orientation are China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil. Countries with short-term orientation include Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Canada, Zimbabwe, and Great Britain.

Case Study Example

There have been many studies using the Hofstede dimensions. One example is Merritt and Helmreich’s (1996), who surveyed 9,000 male commercial airline pilots working for airlines owned, managed, and operated by national cultures. Those pilots surveyed were of the same culture as the nationality of the airline. The results were consistent with the Hofstede research: Pilots from the United States, Britain, and Ireland had the highest individualism scores; pilots from Taiwan and Korea had the lowest. Pilots from Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and the Philippines had the highest power distance scores; pilots from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa had the lowest. The masculinity-femininity dimension did not discriminate within the pilot profession. A subset of the uncertainty avoidance items dealing with attitudes toward automation did indicate that cultures endorsing rules and procedures as a way of resolving uncertainty also endorse the use of automation. Pilots from Taiwan and Korea had the highest uncertainty avoidance scores; pilots from Hong Kong (British pilots), New Zealand, the United States, and Ireland had the lowest. More specifically, Anglo pilots with low power distance and uncertainty avoidance scores showed the least inclination to accept and trust automation but were also drawn to it. They disliked the lack of individual control and inflexibility that automation dictates yet enjoyed learning to work with the new technology. Pilots with high power distance and uncertainty avoidance scores were enthusiastic about automation because automation is perceived as authoritative and brings a reassuring level of certainty to flight management. Later, we’ll see additional evidence that the Hofstede research did identify an important way of helping explain the relationship between culture and communication.

Cultural Perspectives on Communication

Earlier, we saw that from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that culture and language are inseparable. Now let’s expand that to say that culture and all communication are inseparable. Godwin C. Chu (1977) observed that every cultural pattern and every single act of social behavior involve communication. Therefore to be understood, culture and communication must be studied together.

While this research paper has focused so far on defining culture, to fully explore the relationship between culture and communication, we need to explore what is meant by communication. What should be added here is that how communication itself is defined varies among cultures. Assuming that most commonly known definitions of communication come from Western cultures, to illustrate that communication itself is an element of communication, this research paper introduces a perspective on communication from cultures influenced by Confucianism. The societies heavily influenced by Confucian tradition are China, North and South Korea, Singapore, and many East Asian countries with large Chinese communities.

The Chinese scholar K’ung-Fu-tzu (later Latinized as Confucius by the Jesuits) lived from 550 to 478 BCE, a time of collapse of the feudal system in China. Confucius proposed a government based on morality and merit, and he set up an ethical-moral system intended to govern all relationships in the family, community, and state. Confucianism emphasizes virtue, selflessness, duty, patriotism, hard work, and respect for hierarchy, both familial and societal. Confucianism guides social relationships: “to live in harmony with the universe and with our fellow man through proper behavior.” Confucianism considers balance and harmony in human relationships to be the basis of society. Consistently, then, communication is seen as a mechanism for maintaining harmony. Carey (1989) contrasts this understanding with the traditional Western understanding of communication in that communication in a Confucian understanding “is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs” (p. 18).

JuneYum (1988) describes five ways Confucianism has influenced interpersonal communication.


There are no rules governing interactions with someone whose status is unknown. Instead, there are several patterns guiding interactions with others whose status is known. For example, in Korea, friends (chingu) are within a few years of age. Two strangers in Korea in the first minutes of conversation determine each other’s age and adjust their language appropriately to show respect. If a male acquaintance is older than the speaker’s “friendship age range,” the acquaintance is then addressed as adjussi, roughly equivalent to “uncle.” Korea also has special vocabularies for each sex, for different degrees of social status and degrees of intimacy, and for formal occasions.

Role of Intermediaries

One does not say what one actually thinks if it might hurt another. Rituals are followed in relationships. In China, it is not unusual to use a third party in dispute resolution to avoid direct confrontation.


Complementary obligations are at the base of relationships. Gratitude and indebtedness are important. People feel uneasy to be indebted to someone, and payback is necessary to regain balance in the relationship. In Western cultures, obligations in relationships are contrary to individualism.

In-Group/Out-Group Distinction

In-group members engage in more open and deeper communication and may find it difficult to develop personal relationships with out-group members. There can even be different language codes for in-group members.

Overlap of Personal and Public Relationships

Business and pleasure are intertwined. This stands in contrast to Western practices of keeping public and private lives separate. In China, much of commercial life is “lubricated” by guanxi, a concept translated as “connections.” Business relations are cemented by relationships of trust and mutual obligation.

Chinese terms for the English word communication include jiao liu (to exchange), chuan bo (to disseminate), and gou tong (to connect among people). The Chinese term he denotes harmony, peace, unity, and kindness. Seeking harmony with family and others is the goal of communication in Confucian cultures.

Cultures in Contact

Obviously, then, with such diverse perspectives, intercultural communication can be a challenge. We can see this challenge in the case studies presented below—examples of imperialism, immigration, and international advertising.


The critical tradition among U.S. communication scholars thinking about culture focuses on power and oppression. The term othering refers to the labeling and degrading of cultures, such as indigenous peoples, by a dominant group in language. Shome (1996) refers to this labeling of “underdeveloped” cultures of others as discursive imperialism.

Captain James Cook arrived in Hawai‘i in 1778. Cook and his men wrote of the Hawai‘ians as “savage or animallike or heathen.” They interpreted the Hawai‘ians’reactions to Cook as deifying him. In ship journals, the Hawai‘ians were described as venerating Cook almost to adoration, looking on him as “a kind of superior being,” and honoring him “like a god.” The Europeans labeled the Hawai‘ians in their language use, and hence their thought and subsequent actions, not by their uniqueness but on the basis of what they were not, that is, not civilized by European standards.

The language and thought made it consistent for them to treat the Hawai‘ians as they had labeled them. This contributed to the near destruction of the Hawai‘ian culture, loss of government, lands, and cultural identity culminating in the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawai‘ian monarchy. In 1993, a U.S. Congress resolution apologized to Hawai‘ians for the 1893 overthrow, noting that the economic and social changes resulting from that had been devastating to the culture and to the health and well-being of the Hawai‘ian people.

You can think of other examples of imperialism that demonstrate this aspect of the relationship between culture and language. The language used by a culture with greater relative power to label others can be used to justify suppression and even extermination.


In this section, we’ll briefly examine the movement of people from one culture into another, whether for a short stage or a permanent relocation. A person who visits another culture as a tourist may find the differences new and exciting and not experience much that is unsettling or a stimulus for rethinking how one thinks about one’s self. A sojourner lives in a new culture for a limited period of time, from a few months to several years as a student or guest worker, while an immigrant fully expects to remain in the new culture.

Sojourners and immigrants are likely to experience “culture shock,” or the feelings of disorientation and anxiety that most people experience while living in a new culture. Physical symptoms include overconcern about cleanliness, extreme stress on health and safety, great concern over minor pains, and a craving for things from home. Psychological symptoms include insomnia, fatigue, isolation and loneliness, criticism of the new culture, irritability, and emotional and intellectual withdrawal. It’s not only that one’s familiar ways of behaving are no longer appropriate (with regard to simple things such as transportation systems, foods, and the like), there is also an awareness that one’s basic assumptions about life may no longer be appropriate. Pedersen (1995) has described culture shock as a five-stage process:

  1. Initial euphoria, or the “honeymoon stage,” where everything is new and exciting: The person is basically a tourist with his or her basic identity routed in the home culture.
  2. Disintegration of familiar cues and irritation and hostility toward the differences experienced in the new culture: Recognizing that one just isn’t sure what one is expected to do can result in feelings of inadequacy and in withdrawing and becoming isolated.
  3. Reintegration of new cues and an increased ability to function in the new culture: Surprisingly, though, even though one can function, one can feel anger and resentment toward the new culture for “being different.”
  4. Gradual adjustment toward autonomy and recognizing the “good” and “bad” elements in both the home and the new cultures: The individual becomes more comfortable in the new culture as more things are known and predictable.
  5. Reciprocal interdependence, where the person has achieved biculturalism by becoming able to cope comfortably in both the home and the new culture: This stage can take years to attain.

For the immigrant, this development of functional and psychological fitness for a new culture has been referred to as acculturation. Young Yun Kim (1988a, 1988b) has identified predictors of an immigrant’s success in acculturation.

Similarity of the Cultures

The similarity of the original culture to the new culture is one of the most important factors of successful acculturation. A Canadian has less difficulty with acculturation into the United States than does a rural Vietnamese.

Personal Characteristics and Experiences

Younger immigrants adapt more easily than older ones. Educational background plays a part, as does the immigrant’s personality. Individuals who are high risk takers and who are gregarious, for example, acculturate more easily. Finally, previous travel and information garnered from the mass media can come into play.

Berry, Kim, and Boski (1987) have described acculturation in relation to two dimensions: the value placed on maintaining one’s original cultural identity and the value given to developing relationships with other groups in the new culture. Using these two dimensions to describe acculturation results in four categories:

  1. Marginalization refers to losing one’s cultural identity and not having any psychological contact with the larger society. The person has feelings of “not belonging anywhere.” The Hmong who served as mercenaries for the U.S. CIA in the 1960s and 1970s in Laos were forced to flee Laos after the U.S. withdrawal fromVietnam. Many of the original Hmong immigrants to the United States had few marketable skills and were ill prepared for modern life in the United States. These older, rural Hmong could not return to the culture they had fled and lacked the skills to acculturate in the United States and so existed in a marginalized state.
  2. Separation and segregation refer to maintaining one’s original culture and not participating in the new culture. The Amish in the United States exist as a culture that has chosen to live apart from the dominant culture and resist acculturation.
  3. Assimilation results from giving up one’s original cultural identity and moving into full participation into the new culture. Assimilation can be a long-term and sometimes multigenerational process. By family name, individuals of German heritage may be one of the larger, if not the largest, group in the United States. In the 19th century, German was the second most commonly used language in the United States. By the 21st century, these individuals are totally assimilated, and little, if any, identification with Germany can be said to exist.
  4. Finally, true integration is maintaining important parts of one’s original culture as well as becoming an integral part of the new culture. For some immigrants, there is no inconsistency in having loyalty to two cultures. In fact, that is valued. Certainly modern transportation and the mass media have made true integration more possible. An immigrant to the United States from Germany in the 1880s may have had little opportunity for either a return visit or occasional contact with family, friends, and institutions in Germany. Today’s immigrant to the United States from the Philippines may have opportunities for return visits and easy contact with family, friends, and institutions in the Philippines through e-mail, the Internet, and satellite television. And as well, the immigrant’s category of acculturation significantly affects communication with others on an interpersonal level.

Culture and International Advertising

Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Disney, McDonald’s, KFC, and Spam are marketed worldwide. If the world were one culture, the marketing of these products wouldn’t change worldwide. Of course, that is not the case, and we can see the relationship between culture and communication again in the marketing of products.

De Mooij (1998) has related international advertising to Hofstede’sdimensionsofculture.Japaneseadvertisingreflects Confucian and collectivistic values. The goal of advertising in

Japan is to win the trust and respect of the consumer. Advertising in Japan is serene, mood creating, and subtle, with much symbolism, dependency, nature, and respect for elders.

Advertising in Taiwan generally links the product to the consumer’s traditional Chinese values, such as family relations and respect for authority. The advertising is indirect and promises an ideal that may be reached through the use of the product. Spanish advertising is less direct than the advertising style of northern European countries because Spain’s culture is more collectivistic. People are more likely to be depicted in family and other groups. Feminine aspects of the culture are seen in the softer approaches and relatively low use of celebrity endorsements. The use of art, color, and beauty is strongly related to uncertainty avoidance.

U.S. advertising reflects assertiveness, the direct approach, and competitiveness, which relates to a configuration of masculinity and individualism. Overstatement and hyperbole are typical, as are direct comparisons among products.

Even the most global of products, McDonald’s, stresses its ties to the local culture.


Culture has continued to be defined and studied through communication. As the editors of a most successful collection of intercultural readings wrote,

In many respects the relationship between culture and communication is reciprocal—each affects and influences the other. What we talk about, how we talk about it; what we see, attend to, or ignore; how we think, and what we think about are influenced by our culture. Culture cannot exist without communication; one cannot change without causing change in the other. (Samovar & Porter, 1991, p. 21)


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