2.3.0: Culture and Communication: A Dialectical Approach and Five Dialectics

In this section, we will discuss what a dialectical approach entails and examine five dialectics to help us better understand the link between culture and communication: Cultural-Individual, Personal-Contextual, Differences-Similarities, Static-Dynamic, and Privileges/Disadvantages.


2.3.1: A Dialectical Approach

Communication across cultures and co-cultures is complicated, messy, and at times contradictory. Therefore, it is not always easy to conceptualize or study. Taking a dialectical approach allows us to capture the dynamism of intercultural communication. A dialectic is a relationship between two opposing concepts that constantly push and pull one another (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). To put it another way, thinking dialectically helps us realize that our experiences often occur in between two different phenomena. This perspective is especially useful for communication because—when we think dialectically—we think relationally. This means we look at the relationship between aspects of communication rather than viewing them in isolation. Intercultural communication occurs as a dynamic in-betweenness that, while connected to the individuals in an encounter, goes beyond the individuals, creating something unique.

Holding a dialectical perspective may be challenging for some Westerners, as it asks us to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously, which goes against much of what we are taught in our formal education. Thinking dialectically helps us see the complexity in culture and identity because it doesn’t allow for dichotomies. Dichotomies are dualistic ways of thinking that highlight opposites, reducing the ability to see gradations that exist in between concepts. Dichotomies such as good/evil, wrong/right, objective/subjective, male/female, in-group/out-group, black/white, and so on form the basis of much of our thoughts on ethics, culture, and general philosophy, but this isn’t the only way of thinking (Martin & Nakayama, 1999). Many Eastern cultures acknowledge that the world isn’t dualistic. Rather, they accept as part of their reality that things that seem opposite are actually interdependent and complement each other.

A dialectical approach is useful in studying communication because it gets us out of our comfortable and familiar ways of thinking. Since so much of understanding culture and identity is understanding ourselves, having an unfamiliar lens through which to view culture can offer us insights that our familiar lenses will not. Also, as these dialectics will iterate, culture and communication are complex systems that intersect with and diverge from many contexts. A better understanding of all these dialectics helps us think more critically and communicate more competently in and with the world around us.


2.3.2: Cultural-Individual Dialectic

The cultural-individual dialectic captures the interplay between patterned behaviors learned from a cultural group and individual behaviors that may be variations on or counter to those of the larger culture. This dialectic is useful because it helps us account for exceptions to cultural norms. For example, the United States is said to be a low-context culture, which means that we value verbal communication as our primary, meaning-rich form of communication. Conversely, Japan is said to be a high-context culture, which means they often look for nonverbal clues like tone, silence, or what is not said for meaning.

However, you can find people in the United States who intentionally put more meaning into how they say things rather than what they say, perhaps because they are not as comfortable speaking directly what’s on their mind. We often do this in situations where we may hurt someone’s feelings or damage a relationship. Does that mean we come from a high-context culture? Does the Japanese man who speaks more than is socially acceptable come from a low-context culture? The answer to both questions is no. Neither the behaviors of a small percentage of individuals nor occasional situational choices constitute a cultural pattern.


2.3.3: Personal-Contextual Dialectic

The personal-contextual dialectic highlights the connection between our personal patterns of and preferences for communicating and how various contexts influence the personal. In some cases, our communication patterns and preferences will stay the same across many contexts. In other cases, a context shift may lead us to alter our communication and adapt. For example, an American businessperson may prefer to communicate with their employees in an informal and laid-back manner. When they are promoted to manage a department in their company’s office in Malaysia, they may again prefer to communicate with their new Malaysian employees the same way they did with those in the United States.

In the United States, the accepted norm is that communication in work contexts is more formal than in personal contexts. However, we also know that individual managers often adapt these expectations to suit their own personal tastes. This type of managerial discretion would likely not go over as well in Malaysia where there is a greater emphasis put on power distance (Hofstede, 1991). So, while the American manager may not know to adapt to the new context unless they have a high degree of intercultural communication competence, Malaysian managers would realize that this is an instance where the context likely influences communication more than personal preferences.


2.3.4: Differences-Similarities Dialectic

Differences/Similarities: Statements like “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” create group differences by stereotyping. In addition, these socially and culturally constructed categories ignore and silence those whose body, identity, and/or performance do not align with their assigned gender.

The differences-similarities dialectic allows us to examine how we are simultaneously similar to and different from others. It’s easy to fall into a view of intercultural communication as “other oriented” and set up dichotomies between “us” and “them.” When we over focus on differences, we can end up polarizing groups that actually have commonalities. When we over focus on similarities, we essentialize, or reduce/ overlook important variations within a group. This tendency is evident in most of the popular, and some of the academic, conversations regarding “gender differences.” The book Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus makes it seem like men and women aren’t even species that hail from the same planet. The media is quick to include a blurb from a research study indicating again how men and women are “wired” to communicate differently. However, gender is a social and cultural construction in which groups of people are categorized as either being a man or women. This essentializes and stereotypes people by focusing on the ways in which they are different, rather than similar, and ignores and silences those whose body, identity, and/or performance do not align with their assigned gender.


2.3.5: Static-Dynamic Dialectic

The static-dynamic dialectic suggests that culture and communication change over time yet often appear to be and are experienced as stable. Although it is true that our cultural beliefs and practices are rooted in the past, cultural categories that most of us assume to be stable, like race and gender, have changed dramatically in just the past fifty years. Some cultural values remain relatively consistent over time, which allows us to make some generalizations about a culture. For example, cultures have different orientations to time. The Chinese have a longer-term orientation to time than do Europeans (Lustig & Koester, 2006). This is evidenced in something that dates back as far as astrology. The Chinese zodiac is done annually (The Year of the Monkey, etc.), while European astrology was organized by month (Taurus, etc.). While this cultural orientation to time has been around for generations, as China becomes more Westernized in terms of technology, business, and commerce, it could also adopt some views on time that are more short term.


2.3.6: Privileges-Disadvantages Dialectic

The privileges-disadvantages dialectic captures the complex interrelation of unearned, systemic advantages and disadvantages that operate among our various co-cultural identities. As was discussed earlier, there exists both the dominant culture and co-cultures; our co-cultural groups have certain privileges and/or disadvantages. To understand this dialectic, we must view these identities through a lens of intersectionality, which asks us to acknowledge that we each have multiple cultural and co-cultural memberships that intersect with each other. Because our co-cultural memberships are complex, no one is completely privileged and no one is completely disadvantaged. For example, while we may think of a white, heterosexual man as being very privileged, they may also have a disability that leaves them without the able-bodied privilege that a Latina woman has. This is often a difficult dialectic for many to understand, because we are quick to point out exceptions that we think challenge this notion. For example, many people like to point out Oprah Winfrey as a powerful black woman. While she is definitely now quite privileged despite her disadvantaged identities, her trajectory isn’t the norm. When we view privilege and disadvantage at the cultural level, we cannot let individual exceptions distract from the systemic and institutionalized ways in which some people are disadvantaged while others are privileged.


Group Privilege:

Depending on the co-culture you belong to, you may benefit from certain privileges or advantages. According to Peggy McIntosh, privilege is like an invisible knapsack of advantages that some people carry around. They are invisible because they are often not recognized, seen as normative (i.e., “that’s just the way things are”), seen as universal (i.e., “everyone has them”), or used unconsciously. Below is a list of some of the privileges McIntosh identifies associated with white skin color. Can you think of others that are associated with other positions of privilege (such as gender, sexual orientation, or ableness)?

  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color, who constitute the world’s majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race
  • I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color that more or less match my skin.


Full article: Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

Back to: I.C.A.T Interpersonal Communication Abridged Textbook > Chapter 2: Culture and Communication