2.1.0: Defining Culture and Intercultural Communication
In this section, we will define culture and explain what culture, co-culture, and intercultural communication is.
2.1.1: Definition of Culture
For the purposes of exploring the communicative aspects of culture, we will define culture as the ongoing negotiation of learned and patterned beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors among members of a group. Unpacking the definition, we can see that culture shouldn’t be conceptualized as stable and unchanging. Culture is “negotiated,” because it is dynamic, and cultural changes can be traced and analyzed to better understand why our society is the way it is. The definition also points out that culture is learned, which accounts for the importance of socializing institutions like family, school, peers, and the media.
Culture is patterned in that there are recognizable widespread similarities among people within a cultural group. There is also deviation from and resistance to those patterns by individuals and subgroups within a culture, which is why cultural patterns change over time. Lastly, this definition acknowledges that culture influences our beliefs about what is true and false, our attitudes including our likes and dislikes, our values regarding what is right and wrong, and our behaviors.
Culture is often invisible to us and we tend to take it for granted. As the saying goes, ‘fish don’t necessarily know they are in water because they are completely immersed in it.’ Our cultural environment is difficult to perceive until we are exposed to something different. Just as a fish out of water is suddenly aware of what it normally lives inside of, we gain awareness of our own culture when we are exposed to situations and people that are unfamiliar and different.
2.1.2: Culture, Co-culture, and Intercultural Communication
Intercultural communication occurs when people with different cultural and co-cultural groups interact with each other. Most people tend to think of intercultural communication in terms of communicating with someone from a different country. However, even within one geographic location, both a dominant culture and multiple co-cultural groups exist. The dominant culture is created by the group who is in power, runs the country, and makes laws and policies. The attitudes, beliefs, values, patterns of thinking, and communicative behaviors of the dominant group are the ones that have become normalized and are often viewed as ‘ideal’ or superior. For example, what is considered ‘proper’ English, acceptable hairstyles, and business attire have all been defined by the dominant group.
Historically, in the U.S., this dominant group has been comprised of wealthy, white, heterosexual, Christian, males. However, other co-cultural groups exist based on race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, ableness, generation etc. Because of this, intercultural communication actually exists on a continuum. On the low end, we might be communicating with someone of the same race and social class, but they may be a different gender. On the high end, we may be communicating with someone who is from a completely different geographic location, gender, race, generation, etc.
Culture and co-culture(s) influence our behaviors, values, beliefs, patterns of thinking, and perception of our environment. Cultural and co-cultural identities distinguish groups of people from one another. This is important because group differences are often what make us feel uncomfortable in interactions and can lead to miscommunication and conflict. Moreover, in all cultures, co-cultural membership based on factors like gender or race can work to either privilege or disadvantage members of that particular group. Being part of the dominant group generates certain privileges that members of the nondominant group do not get and create unequal power dynamics in our communicative interactions. However, by recognizing privilege and studying the common differences that exist across cultures in terms of beliefs, values, attitudes, and patterns of thinking, we can better reflect on our own culture and co-culture, view it through a different lens, and improve our intercultural communication competence.