We tend to unconsciously construct identities of ourselves but also form identities of other groups who we identify as different from through communication, based on stereotypes. These stereotypes or prejudices act as barriers towards successful intercultural communication. Seattle-based Chhavi examines the communication of identity issues, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
“Culture is communication, communication is culture” (Baldwin, Means Coleman, González, & Packer, 2014, p. 49). This remarkable quote reflects how communication and culture are interrelated. Intercultural communication plays a significant role in our lives as we continue to gain empowerment of our knowledge of different cultures. ‘Intercultural communication’ is encountered wherein culture influences the communication largely enough to make a difference in the communication between two individuals (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 5).
I am a female, heterosexual, Indian, upper-middle class, a person of colour, and abled. From my understanding of the book, Privilege, Power, and Difference written by Allan G. Johnson, I find it fascinating how much importance our identity holds in society and the world around us. Our identities are based on classifications of social categories such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc. Our identities are socially constructed in the context of history, environment, etc. and are created through communication for example, through language (Baldwin et al., 2014, pp. 93-95). Language is a very powerful way to communicate in ways that make us different from others and helps us identify who we are or are not (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 109).
We tend to unconsciously construct identities of ourselves but also form identities of other groups who we identify as different from through communication, based on stereotypes (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 97). Through these learned stereotypes, we tend to make quick and firm impressions and rely on them to see the world as a predictable world from one moment to another (Johnson, 2005, p. 16). These stereotypes or prejudices act as barriers towards successful intercultural communication. People should really make an effort in order to reduce the hindrance of these barriers by developing an understanding of their own identities and the cultural universe involving beliefs, norms, values, etc.
It is also interesting to note how social construction based on the context of sexuality can affect our lives. For example, whether a gay or lesbian behavior is considered acceptable or not, our sexual orientation is generally perceived to define the kind of individual we are (Johnson, 2005, p. 17). In addition to this, what is intriguing to me is how people tend to make assumptions about other groups by just simply identifying characteristics such as race or gender. One should be conscious of the fact that race, gender or ethnicity while connected, are not synonymous with culture (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 59). We should also focus on the fact the “race” can point to unclear and unambiguous categories that people automatically fall into without realization, despite the overlapping boundaries surrounding it (Johnson, 2005, p. 20).
Interestingly enough, identities are also hugely defined by the privileges we hold which are considered unearned and unwanted at the same time. Privileges serve as a channel through which we are able to “fit” into a culture, and be a part of the complex world around us (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 98). Privileges also increase our odds of believing that “our culture is better than others” which is not what we do intentionally. But instead, we lean towards our cultural awareness and use it as a tool to guide many other cultures (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 60).
Thus, these privileges give us the power to make firm judgments about other cultures and define norms and principles that should be followed in a particular situation as well as how they should be applied to individuals. We, therefore, tend to misuse the privilege or power we hold based on “who we are” without having to worry about being questioned (Johnson, 2005, p. 33). Therefore, as we increase our knowledge of cultures through extended experiences, we become more flexible individuals and learn more about our cultures and our identities in different social situations involving cross-cultural aspects (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 6).
Through our understanding of cultures, we observe that our identities are understood through the differences we have. These differences can then cause intercultural conflicts fueled by privilege and power incentives (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 109). The differences around our identities (race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) can really help us to focus on how people perceive us, the social consequences, and the opportunities that open or close due to such differences (Johnson, 2005, p. 15). However, we should pay attention to the fact that these social categories play a significant role in a culture that recognizes such differences but aren’t important outside systems of privilege and power, called the ‘social construction’ of reality (Johnson, 2005, p. 18).
Therefore, as we engage more and more in intercultural communication, we should be mindful of our conversations with individuals belonging to diverse backgrounds. If we encounter situations in which we discover we are more privileged than others in some ways, the concept of intersectionality, we should treat each other with respect and dignity if not support the best we have in us. For example, if I am heterosexual female, I will bring my own experiences and cultural awareness to each interaction that I have with heterosexual females who struggle with dealing with this privilege.
As a responsible individual, we should also be aware of one of the main challenges that we face in intercultural communication such as oversimplification of a culture (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 18). This means if an individual belongs to a particular culture, they will have their own set of unique experiences which distinguish them from the other members of that culture. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t belong to that culture. We should also make sure that we don’t see cultures as stagnant and uniform but instead evolving in some aspects while others might be the same. The reason being, the deep-rooted traditions, and norms that each culture follows in their own unique ways (Baldwin et al., 2014, p. 19).
Baldwin, J. R., Means Coleman, R. R., González, A., & Packer, S. S. (2014).
Intercultural communication for everyday life (Vol. 1). Wiley-Blackwell.
Johnson, A. G. (2005). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). Boston:
Language and intercultural communication (LInC): definition: flinders
university. (2005, March 23). Retrieved from Language and Intercultural
Communication (LInC) Group website: http://ehlt.flinders.edu.au/humanities/
Photos from the internet.
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Chhavi Mehra is an international student from India completing her Associate’s of Arts degree in Communications and Media at South Seattle College. She will be transferring to a university in California for her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. Chhavi hopes to write quality pieces reflecting the integrity of publications like The New York Times.