Social groups, such as adolescents, police, and ethnic groups, very often have their own distinctive cultures that include such ingredients as specialized foods and utensils, customs and rituals, dress styles, art, music, dance, rituals, literature, and so forth, while other intergroup situations (e.g., artificially constructed laboratory groups) constitute social categories that cannot claim such cultural artifacts (Fortman & Giles 2006). Reading, thinking, and research are needed at interfaces between the all too independent fields of intercultural communication on the one hand, and intergroup communication on the other (see, however, Gudykunst et al. 1988). Intercultural communication is not subsumed under, or even a special case of, intergroup communication, but rather the two are parallel traditions capable of significant coalescence.
As just indicated, when comparing many cultures and social groups with relevant and contrastive others, we see that they vary from each other in a plethora of important ways, many of them inherently communicative. Prime among these are their social values, norms, nonverbal behaviors, and negotiating styles, as well as their attitudes toward each other’s communicative practices. In fact, perhaps the most general and essential attribute of culture is communication, since cultures could not adapt, develop, survive, change, or flourish without it (McQuail 1992).
The way a group or culture – knowingly or not – expresses its unique identity through a language, distinctive dialect, specialized jargon, argot, nonverbal demeanor, or posture and gait is fundamental to a healthy social identity (Giles 1977), and to one (under differing conditions) that group members can vigorously and creatively sustain, protect, promote, and proliferate. Indeed, the successful movement of an individual from one culture or group into another is accomplished not only by accessing the other’s media and communicative networks, but by being able to consistently and authentically adopt the other community’s communicative habits. In this regard, one of us has been frequently told by locals that, despite being naturalized (an interesting term in and of itself ) as a US citizen, he can never be regarded as a true American until he speaks like one!
Not infrequently, some of us are referred to in terms of larger-scale category labels like “Caucasian” or “Middle Eastern” that themselves encapsulate and camouflage a wide range of competing social entities. Indeed, as we know from ethno-religious rivalries in Iraq, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, conflict can be exceedingly intense between (to an outsider) apparently similar groups subsumed under such superordinate labels. Often these cultural groups possess different resources in terms of their numbers and are variously represented in political arenas, the media, written histories, and so forth. The disparities in existing institutional support usually reflect power differentials between the groups that are often the nexus of intergroup conflict. Yet intergroup research has shown that the distribution of socio-economic resources is not the only or even a necessary cause of conflict. Merely and immediately creating meaningful social categories with which people can identify (e.g., being a “Mac user” versus a “PC-er”) can by itself give rise to social discrimination (Tajfel 1978). Highlighting but one popular culture example: in the movie The Life of Brian, observe the (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) antipathy between the so-called People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, disunited even in the face of a despised colonial presence.
In other words, although cultural diversity is often held out as a valued goal in many societies, anxiety, uncertainty, stigma, and stereotyping can be regular concomitants of intercultural and intergroup relations, with harmful communications being ubiquitous and pernicious characteristics of these. For instance, opening up cultural and national boundaries within the European Union has, arguably, caused more social problems and strife than it has garnered any common group identity. Indeed, difficulties with and barriers to the acculturation of immigrants are evident in these and many other societies. Hence, while encouraging education about, training with, and communication between members of different cultures and groups clearly can work under certain circumstances, it can also yield zero effects on improving relations in some cases – and even boomerang by undermining them in yet others (see Fox & Giles, 1993). Even promoting bilingualism and bilingual education has been disparaged by some influential public figures in the American media. “Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich equated bilingual education . . . with ‘the language of living in a ghetto’ and mocked requirements that ballots be printed in multiple languages . . . In 1995, for example, he said bilingualism poses long-term dangers to the fabric of our nation” (Hunt 2007). Strong words indeed.
All this notwithstanding, social gains are gratifyingly evident from current increases in interracial dating and friendships, especially among the youth of today (Britt-Gibson 2007) and the growing ways in which some social categories are becoming sensitive to, adjusting toward, and respecting each other. Understanding the highly complex and changing dynamics of intercultural and intergroup relations is of the utmost societal importance for maintaining public safety and security, encouraging responsible tourism, prolonging health and occupational productivity, enjoying and learning from old and new media, to name but a few. The potential that intercultural and intergroup communication theories can have for understanding, and in the long run alleviating, intractable interethnic conflicts is obvious, albeit rarely studied (Ellis 2006; Nagda 2006).
The History of Intercultural Communication
Intercultural communication (ICC) has been studied for over 50 years and LeedsHurwitz (1990) has provided a synopsis of its early development. She describes the work of E. T. Hall and noted that he focused on practical and applied intercultural training and not on theory and research development. Hall worked with the American Foreign Service Institute (FSI) after World War II. He explored the micro communication behaviors that distinguish cultures and coined the term proxemics to describe how people from different cultures vary in their management of personal space and their levels of tolerance for physical closeness. Hall argued that much could be learned by concentrating on face-to-face interactions, where tone, gestures, and proxemics by each speech partner were critical to effective communication.
The work conducted at the FSI, led by anthropologists and linguists, concentrated on training diplomats to communicate with the different cultures they met outside of the USA. This practical training component remains a central tenet of intercultural communication research today. Following on from this early work, Wiseman (2002) detailed the far reaching applications of ICC competence to assist individuals from differing cultures to communicate effectively with one another. Much of the current ICC literature embraces a skills training approach and, as was underscored by Gudykunst (2002), is dominated by American positivistic stances (see, however, Kim 2002). Incorporated in the training is the notion that individuals must have knowledge of the culture with which they engage, the motivation to effectively communicate (including intercultural sensitivity and empathy), and appropriate communication skills. A guiding principle of ICC is that individuals engage with each other for the purpose of achieving meaningful and mutual understanding. Importantly, interactions are viewed as activities that occur at the interpersonal level (see also Rogers & Hart 2002).
Cargile & Giles (1996) examined the extant intercultural training literature and, without decrying the enormous importance of this perspective, proposed a new theoretical framework for trainers. They raised a number of questions about these training programs. Some of their comments suggest that the two perspectives of intercultural and intergroup communication can combine to create a more robust position. First and foremost, Cargile & Giles noted the neglect by trainers of the intergroup dynamics that exist between some cultures. While ICC competence highlights an interpersonal focus, it paradoxically emphasizes the importance of understanding the mores of intercultural groups. Its focus also begs the question of whether individuals who engage in conversation with others from a different culture see themselves as talking to an individual or a representative of that culture. Investigating how individuals differ according to one disposition or the other has not been a key research question for ICC theorists.
Cargile & Giles argued that eclectic training programs may have limited value, to the extent that they do not take sufficient notice of trainees’ attitudes to other cultures as well as their beliefs about the historical relationships existing between them. In simplest terms, if trainees harbor negative attitudes toward individuals from another culture, this can impede interaction outcomes. Cargile & Giles proposed a model of cross-cultural training that recognized the critical role that attitudes and stereotypes play in engagements with members of intercultural groups. They pinpointed the fact that individuals have a tendency to avoid counter-attitudinal, counter-stereotypical, and counter-affective information, and often lack the capacity to see beyond the cultural prototype to the individual characteristics of someone from another culture. Thus, providing new cultural knowledge about an outgroup to trainees does not guarantee acceptance of this information, especially if it violates previously held assumptions and if there is an imbalance of power between the groups.
The History of Intergroup Communication
In contrast to ICC, intergroup communication (IGC) evolved from a focus on group relations, discrimination, prejudice, and conflict. It is a much younger field of research, and only in the last few years has the International Communication Association (ICA) recognized intergroup communication as a distinct research interest area in its own right (Giles & Reid 2003). To understand the evolution of intergroup communication (see Harwood & Giles 2005; Reid & Giles 2005), it is necessary to describe the work of social psychologists interested in group processes.
The development of social identity theory (SIT) by Henri Tajfel (1978) was a watershed for social psychology and intergroup processes. Drawing on Festinger’s (1954) theory of social comparison, Tajfel argued that social comparison connects the process of categorization with social identity. However, whereas Festinger argued that only when an opinion or characteristic could not be objectively tested did one rely on social consensus, Tajfel proposed that social consensus was always a valid method for testing one’s beliefs. Both theories have in common the basic assumption that individuals use social comparison to fulfill a need to view themselves positively. In sum, SIT states that individuals categorize themselves and others into social groups and have a need to compare themselves with others, as a way of attaining a positive self-concept.
By its own definition, SIT is more concerned with social identity (or identity derived from group membership) than from personal identity (or identity based on individual characteristics and relationships). However, the theory recognizes that, at times, one’s self-image is more personally defined (and correspondingly group comparisons are less salient) than at others. Tajfel and Turner (1979) suggested that interpersonal and intergroup salience may be considered as two ends of a single continuum. Later, scholars have proposed that interpersonal and intergroup are two correlated dimensions comprising high and low gradations along the two continua (e.g., Hewstone & Giles 1986).
In tandem with SIT, self-categorization theory (SCT) explores the underlying mechanisms (and cognitions) for categorizing ourselves and others into particular social groups (Turner et al. 1987). Once an individual categorizes another person in this way, that other is to some extent depersonalized; that is, the other takes on the core facets of what it means to belong to that group. SCT proposes that there exist prototypical group members, and that an individual can possess varying degrees of the characteristics and traits that define such prototypicality. The individual makes these judgments through an understanding of what it means to be a member of a particular group. Individuals are depersonalized as their group identity becomes salient. SIT and SCT, however, are not communication theories but, rather, represent theories of intergroup behavior and cognitions. SIT has proved to be a useful framework for understanding very different kinds of intergroup communication (Harwood & Giles 2005).
We seek to favor our own groups (ingroups) compared to groups to which we do not belong (outgroups). If we wish to become a member of an outgroup, we communicate with outgroup members in ways that may gain us membership to that group. In this way we may seek to use the strategy of social mobility, in order to “pass” into the privileged group. If this strategy is not open to us, then we can reinvent the identity of our group and, through intergroup comparisons, construct new positive aspects to our group. A third option is to socially compete against a privileged group to improve status and/or power. These strategies have linguistic and communicative implications for managing our communication with outgroups (Giles 1977), such as when individuals might emphasize, say, their gay or straight identities and or at the more macro level when a group, such as Catalonians, resoundingly elevate the visibility and influence of their language in Spain. Not only have communication theories – for example, communication accommodation theory – attended to the above-mentioned cognitive processes to explain behavioral outcomes, they have also begun to articulate the ways in which communication in discourse can determine and reshape these very psychological constructs in the first place (see Abrams et al. 2002).
Because this research area in communication is very young, it is still of course developing. Gallois et al. (2005) note that its strength will lie in its ability to take account of multiple identities in intergroup contexts, and particularly when those identities can sometimes be conflictual for incumbents (as, for example, in the case of some British Muslims). How we manage our different identities – be they cultural, generational, gender, or whatever – as we move through interactions with others requires considerably more research attention. For instance, during an interaction between two health providers (each a physician from a different speciality), the interactants may make salient their shared identities such as (general) health provider or specialist physician, as well as team coordinator (another medical role each has). In addition, they may have different personal identities based on their own idiosyncrasies. How they manage and negotiate these identities through discourse, and how the identities interact, requires detailed mapping of actual communication behavior (Hecht et al. 2005).
Mutually Expanding ICC and IGC
From an intergroup perspective, Brabant et al. (2007) note some common factors that are assumptions within ICC theories that are not held in IGC. These are: that strangers to a new culture will take on an ethno-relativist position; that strangers need to be educated in the new culture and its values and norms; and finally, that when strangers possess knowledge of the culture and use expedient communication skills, effective communication will prevail. Brabant et al. note that there is no extension within ICC theories to predict and explain when misunderstanding could in some cases be inevitable, despite any one individual’s excellent skills and cultural knowledge. Socio-psychological theories that emphasize the intergroup nature of intercultural communication, rather than only its interpersonal aspects, directly address miscommunication with the attendant issues of prejudice and intercultural tensions. The challenge is to move toward bringing these two theoretical viewpoints together in order to explain and predict the variables that determine effective and ineffective interactions. We need to untangle situations where individuals interact in intercultural situations as individuals qua individuals or as individuals representing cultural groups.
IGC is highly cognizant of how status and power differentials impact communication behavior. As noted earlier, power is not a key consideration in ICC, so its effects on interactions are not emphasized and the implicit overarching assumption is that competent communication is the main communication goal. However, when two individuals from different cultures with a history of power differentials and consequent perceived injustice come together for a meeting, effective and competent communication may not be their mutual goal. Relatedly, a focus on training and skills to achieve effective communication does not take account of the fact that culturally salient power differentials may dictate what is appropriate communication. For example, in a ward round where a consultant is providing diagnosis and treatment plans and a more junior doctor is taking notes, “effective” communication, such as checking the consultant’s meaning through paraphrasing, may not be accessible to the junior doctor because such behavior is viewed as inappropriate. Other researchers have noted that it is often nurses who act as intermediaries for patients when they translate the doctor’s “medical language” into “everyday language” that the patient can understand (Bourhis et al. 1989).
That said, an interaction where intergroup salience is patently evident need not be a negative experience. In a clinical context where the health professional is perceived by a patient as the “expert,” the heightened intergroup salience may be comforting to the patient (Watson & Gallois 2007). In an interview context, the interviewer, who has the greater power, may speak slowly and for only short durations. The interviewee, with less power and wishing to appear competent and knowledgeable, may speak more quickly and for longer durations (Street 1991). This strategy, known as speech complementarity, highlights the individual’s awareness and acceptance through speech and behavior of the social norms concerning power and status (Giles et al. 1991). The subtleties in behavior that emerge when power relations are highlighted demonstrate the value of applying an IGC focus. However, understanding that these subtleties exist is but one part of understanding power relationships; we must also focus on the wealth of skills training knowledge that comes out of the ICC perspective. Combining these two perspectives would provide a model of intercultural and intergroup communication that is incisive, applied, and theoretically sound.
The socio-historical context of any given group can be a key activator that guides individuals’ initial and ongoing discourse with a group, but it is not commonly featured in ICC (see, however, Martin & Nakayama 2007). While cultural norms and values are acknowledged, historical relationships between cultures are seen as relevant only insofar as they guide behavior. It is this relational history that ultimately may predict competent and effective communication. There is an important distinction here: the macro-history, or the organizing historical relationships that actually existed between two cultures, and the micro-history, an individual’s understanding and experience of the other group/ culture. In this sense, it is important to recognize that two groups can, of course, afford very different meanings to the same events. Witness here how many Estonians now construe the end of World War II differently from Russians and wish to move monuments depicting the latter’s war heroes to more peripheral physical settings. Many other incongruities are apparent elsewhere as in the disputes of what happened in the Holocaust and about comfort women in Asia.
Not to take account of social history and the contexts within which it is given meaning is to seriously undermine opportunities for effective communication. For instance, in the mid-1980s, there was a very public awareness of homosexuality because of the emergence of AIDS; some heterosexuals who may have been indifferent to homosexuals began to see them as a threat. Heterosexual relations were not immune from this homosexual illness, because homosexuals were potentially HIV carriers and to be avoided. Where this kind of fear and bias exists before individual heterosexuals and homosexuals meet, the basis for effective communication is severely compromised. Relatedly, Iwakuma & Nussbaum (2000) discuss intercultural views on disability and, in so doing, make explicit the importance of the socio-historical context. They depict how cultural attitudes lead to group stigma and discriminatory communication. For example, in Thailand it is shameful for disability to exist in the family. Thus, communication between disabled and nondisabled people has it own socio-historical baggage that influences the way an interaction unfolds.
At the outset, we alluded to the fact that ICC – beyond national and ethnic groups – can truly embrace an array of different categories including older people, homosexuals, bisexuals, or academicians from different disciplines, as well as those embedded in youth, gang, religious, political, drug, sports, or organizational cultures (see Harwood & Giles 2005). They may all represent different cultural groups, because they have characteristics that include values and social norms that place them in a particular “set.” Importantly, their members may view themselves as belonging to a group that owns specific characteristics and traits that set them apart from others. IGC theories distinguish between “me” in an interaction as an individual and “us” as a representative of a group. While intercultural as well as intergroup perspectives have sometimes been infused into studies in such contexts, there is much more room for invoking each other’s positions.
This brings us to a final and critical issue. Thus far, we have focused on how IGC could beneficially impact ICC theory and practice. However, the relationship and resources are really symbiotic. Given that culture is “a blueprint for all life’s activities” (Porter & Samovar 1998, 456), it is curious that IGC rarely addresses, in its analyses of bona fide groups, the cultural parameters involved. In this respect, Fortman & Giles (2006) pointed to various dimensions of so-called cultural vibrance (e.g., the extent to which you display cultural artifacts in your home and have the smells of ethnic food pervade it) that could be orthogonal to group identification but that can have the potential to underlie intergroup communication strategies. For instance, high cultural vibrance would be indicated by a group having a long documented and rich cultural past and one that has adapted successfully to social and technological changes, be they modernization or colonialization. In addition, having a visible presence in the community where the group’s language (as in Chinatowns in the USA and elsewhere) is reflected ubiquitously on road signs and in shop windows (Landry & Bourhis 1997), a culture can display its unique style of fashion and dress as well. In addition, individuals who perceive a close connection with other members of their group as being a community in terms of mutual care, long-term security, and “give and take” will likely be very different contributors to intergroup communication from those who feel low on such features, irrespective of how strongly they report affiliating with their group. As Fortman & Giles (2006, 100) argued: “Just because a person self-identifies with a group strongly does not mean that person embraces its culture. Indeed, the group may not even have evolved one yet. Correspondingly, just because certain people do not publicly espouse strong affiliations with a social group, does not necessarily imply that they do not have any commerce with that group’s culture (through cuisine, aesthetic preferences, and so forth). Indeed, such inclinations may contribute to the person’s attributed individuality. Until we separate these dimensions empirically, it is possible that our predictive power in terms of communicative outcomes . . . could be unreliable and insufficient.”
Not only has the study of intergroup communication, for the most part, seemingly neglected such cultural buoyancies, it has also ignored occasions when attributions about cultural complexity (or its absence) could be socially important. Take, for instance, parents who interpret their teenage child’s peculiar behaviors as a reflection merely of a transitory development stage, compared to others who judge these behaviors to be a manifestation of an inaccessible and legitimate culture. Our guess would be that the parents’ reactions to the teen would be very different and have quite an impact not only on the teens’ respect for them, but also be a significant component of how they negotiate their relationships together.
In line with other scholars, Wiseman (2002) acknowledges that we need to be clear about what we mean by the term “culture.” The traditional view of culture was based on geographic or ethnic differences. Nontraditional approaches have a broader understanding of what a cultural group might be (Hecht et al. 2005). Thus, while I may not see my nationality as ever being important, and so would never invoke my national identity, my professional role may represent a crucial dimension of who I am and be highly salient in my workplace. Similarly, a person’s identity as “someone who is deaf” may overlap across their work and personal life; research on the culture of deaf people makes clear that such groups and cultures coexist (Reagan 1995). In any case, IGC could draw on notions such as the cultural vibrance of a group for its members as an important ingredient to the social meanings of ingroup identity and salience. IGC could gain further momentum by recourse to notions of intercultural competence, awareness, and sensitivity. IGC could also redress its relative lack of investment in exploring the social consequences when personal and relational identities assume interactional predominance in potentially volatile intercultural settings (see Gallois 2003; Wright et al. 2005). Indeed, the commonly found situation where both personal and social identities are salient in an interaction has yet to be fully explored in terms of its implications for communication. For instance, a student unexpectedly meeting her professor in a bar one evening and briefly talking about their love of wine; although the chat is highly personal, there are the pushes and pulls of knowing they belong to social categories with differential powers in other contexts.
From the ICC perspective, when an individual recognizes that he is engaged in an intercultural interaction, the focus remains on competent interpersonal communication. Specifically, an interactant’s psychological response is focused on communication with an individual from a different culture, rather than on communication between two intercultural representatives. In contrast, IGC provides for a focus on interactants as individuals, as well as representatives of their respective cultures. This explicit acknowledgment that at times our intergroup identities take precedence has important implications for any interaction. Individuals who perceive that their personal identity is salient may engage in different communications strategies from those who believe they are representative of a particular group. Whether individual or group identities, or both, are made salient will shape the communication process in different ways which, in turn, can reconstruct the very nature of those identities. Indeed, how we come to subjectively define a situation in the first place as interpersonal or intercultural (or both) doubtless comes about by negotiating, perceiving, and interpreting communicative cues in interaction.
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