An understanding of values and worldviews can greatly inform our understanding of the modes of both face-to-face and mediated communication in the so-called western world. The terms “eastern” and “western” are problematic. Stevenson (1994, 178), for example, classifies Japanese media systems under his rubric of Western mass media. However, for want of alternatives, these terms will be used in this essay.
In terms of face-to-face communication, there is great diversity in communication among western cultures, yet we find some similarities in terms of values and thought structures – that is, similarities that characterize Europe and European-descended cultures, as opposed to non-European cultures such as Middle Eastern, Sub-Saharan African, Oceanic, South Asian, or Far Eastern cultures.
Face-To-Face Modes Of Communication: Values, Worldview, And Communication Styles
Hofstede (1997) created a set of value dimensions that many researchers apply to different cultures. The dimensions include the notion of self as a culture’s preference for individual autonomy versus connectedness of individuals to their group (individualism/collectivism: I/C), a culture’s acceptance of status difference or social inequality (power distance: PD), gender role rigidity and communicative directness versus role fluidity and face-saving communication (masculinity/femininity: M/F), and the culture’s relation to ambiguous situations (uncertainty avoidance: UA). Within these dimensions few distinctly western patterns are observable.
In general, individualism increases with gross national product and with industrialization, because in collectives one’s status role becomes more important; and as individualism increases in a culture, status importance tends to decrease. On some dimensions (M/F, UA), one cannot make predictions about eastern or western cultures. Greece, Portugal, and Belgium, for example, prefer to avoid ambiguous situations (high UA), while Scandinavian cultures and British-descended cultures are more accepting of such situations. Some central European cultures (Swiss, Germany, Austria) and Britishdescended cultures are more “masculine” (which, with a double-barreled definition is, in fact, uncertain in meaning), but Scandinavian countries are more “feminine.”
The power distance and individualism/collectivism spectra are clearer: Mediterranean cultures tend to be at the midpoint of both ranges (PD and I/C), followed (in the direction toward lower power distance and increased individualism) by central European cultures, Scandinavian cultures, and finally by British-descended cultures, which are the most individualistic. Australia and the United States are among the most individualistic cultures in the world, with other sources suggesting that the US, with its “hyperindividualism,” has only seen individualism increase in the last several years, to the point where some feel that there is an increasing breakdown in civility and social involvement, except where the latter meets personal goals (Bellah et al. 1996). These categorizations have limitations, such as the placement of many Latin American cultures (also considered to be “western” by most) among higher power distance and more collective nations.
Where value specifics may not be generalizable to western cultures, some writers make claims about western ethics and worldview, often by way of comparison with other world philosophical systems. In brief, the western philosophical system, strongly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, tends to center on “reason, logic, evidence, and truthfulness,” which Shuter (2003, 450 – 451) calls the “hallmarks of Western civilization.” Kim (2006) notes that eastern and western cultures differ in terms of views of the person, of knowledge, and of time. Western epistemology is bound up with reason, with an ethical system that privileges openness and honesty, where eastern epistemology focuses on reflection, propriety, intuition, and respect of others. These values extend to the very notion of communication: in western models, communication is often seen as a linear “transfer of meaning” from a sender to a receiver (Jandt 2004) – a “representative” view of communication (i.e., with communication actually representing reality, a notion challenged by social constructivism and postmodernism). Communication is “regarded as a tool for transferring and reflecting truth” (Chen 1998, 357). In other cultural views, to express something with words may be seen to obscure its beauty or even reality (e.g., some Asian cultures), while other cultures see reality as cyclical and interrelated (e.g., Afrocentrism).
Regarding religious worldview, western cultures are predominantly monotheistic, influenced strongly by a Judeo-Christian heritage, while most nonwestern cultures (with the exception of Muslims and Farsis) tend to have ethics-based religious or polytheistic systems. Beyond that, the western world seems divided between those that are based on Judeo-Christian systems but with everyday thought and communication following a secularist (and often pragmatic) model, and those where the element of the spiritual still pervades thought and talk, such as the si Dios quiere . . . (if God wills . . .) of some Latinbased western cultures.
As values and purposes of communication vary widely among so-called western cultures, so do communicative practices. Some western cultures – as low-context cultures – look for meaning in the explicit code, i.e., words (Hall 1976). These include cultures that use a more succinct style of communication, using understatement and few words, but with the meaning still supposed to be in the words themselves (e.g., Great Britain); and also cultures that prefer an elaborated style, giving much detail in the words, “spelling everything out,” so to say. Such cultures (e.g., the United States) may be more likely to favor direct modes of communication, for example, in conflict situations. However, other western cultures favor the preservation of harmony and facesaving (e.g., the Latin American concept of personalismo or personal respect in communication). Some of these, while more collectivistic, do not look for meanings in silence, as happens in some Asian cultures, but may use exaggeration, formality, and harmonizing behaviors, where communication is used not so much to transfer meaning, but to maintain harmony and build trust, as in some Muslim cultures.
Even these generalizations do not acknowledge the changing or diverse nature of the individual “national” cultures mentioned, within each of which there are co-cultures with different cultural norms and preferences. Within these cultures, communication takes on a different function even beyond meaning transfer: the building and maintaining of identity and the resistance of dominant (western) culture(s). There is much criticism of attempts to define national cultures, even more attempts to generalize any notion of “western” culture. Some have opted instead for descriptions of specific western cultures or co-cultures. For example, Carbaugh (2005) compares western nations, such as Russia, the United States, and Finland, in terms of specific communication aspects, while others provide contradictory views of communication reality from within single cultures (e.g., Our voices, on US culture; González et al. 2000).
Mediated Modes Of Western Communication
If it is problematic to describe so-called western modes of verbal and nonverbal communication because of the diversity among nations, it is also difficult to discuss western modes of mediated communication because of similarities in modes between western and nonwestern nations. Nations such as Japan and South Korea are emerging as creators of new global media. Eastern and western nations alternate among the top users of land telephone lines, cellular phones, and computers (CIA Factbook 2006). Some argue that though global in origin and diffusion, media technologies perpetuate the underlying values and epistemologies of (some) western nations (principally, those in the center rather than on the periphery of global media power, as noted above). The rise first of video recorders, and increasingly the use of digital forms of television and individual musical digital (e.g., MP3) players, allow listeners to select and create their own play list, and then to watch or listen to the recording individualistically. In addition to possible effects of hyperindividualization, Postman (1985) suggests that the onslaught of televised media and its version of reality have turned public knowledge in the United States (such as the news and education) into show business. This, in turn, has transformed public discourse into “dangerous nonsense” (p. 16), education into entertainment, and culture into “burlesque” (p. 155).
Some have striven to define the characteristics of western media systems writ more broadly. For example, Stevenson (1994) characterizes the English-speaking media in terms of their imperialistic or colonizing influence on the rest of the world and the increased privatization of media, especially in Australia and the United States. Others note the potential for such media forms to support systems of global media colonialism and dependence. This perspective has led some organizations, such as UNESCO and the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), to seek to limit the outward flow of media content from nations with more powerful media systems (core nations) to those on the periphery, a move which in turn has strained the relations between some core nations, such as the USA, and those organizations (McPhail 2002). The strength of western media systems – in hosting most of the top news agencies and networks, music industries, and advertisers, as well as all of the top ten global advertisers help support western media’s place in the global media system.
Even with these summary statements, generalizations about western media systems become as difficult as those about face-to-face communication. While some western nations have large, dominant media systems, other nations rely upon these systems (either merely as recipients of diffusion of media form and content or of media colonization, depending on one’s perspective). Authors often group media systems not in terms of region, but in terms of degree of control over the media by the state (e.g., authoritarianism), or by macro-geographic regions (e.g., Latin America, Europe). And some simply note differences between the various western media approaches. For example, Canadian media, while still quite independent, works more overtly in the formation of national identity. British broadcasting has traditionally been geared more toward public service, with more financial involvement from the government, and concomitant restrictions on what is reported regarding government affairs (Stevenson 1994, 157). Stevenson states that continental European media systems are smaller and more homogeneous than those of the English-speaking nations, and that they focus on community (like Canadian media) and on public service (like British media). Press freedom on the European continent is often more restrictive. Despite trends in eastern European nations, differences in newspaper readership, concentration of media ownership, advertising revenue, government subsidies (e.g., through value-added taxes), and Internet and film industries lead Fridriksson (2004) to conclude that “diversity remains a hallmark for the media of western Europe” (p. 181).
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