Essay on verbal and nonverbal communication

Cultural Diversity

Montaigne said, "The most universal quality is diversity."[1] Given that diversity abounds, the project of understanding each other is both daunting and important. It is a journey never finished, because the process and the endpoints change constantly. The journey is bound up with communication and conflict, since misunderstandings and miscommunication can cause and escalate conflict. Effective communication is often the key to making progress in a conflict.

Progress through conflict is possible, and the route is twofold. First, self-knowledge and self-awareness are needed. Without these, our seemingly normal approaches to meaning-making and communication will never be clear enough that we can see them for what they are: a set of lenses that shape what we see, hear, say, understand, and interpret. Second, cultural fluency is needed, meaning familiarity with culture and the ability to act on that familiarity.[2] Cultural fluency means understanding what culture is, how it works, and the ways culture and communication are intertwined with conflicts.

This may sound simple enough, but it actually requires significant, continuous effort. As Edward T. Hall writes in the introduction to his book, The Dance of Life, [3] for us to understand each other may mean, "reorganizing [our] thinking...and few people are willing to risk such a radical move." Communication theorists, anthropologists, and others have given us tools to develop awareness of our own lenses, and to facilitate the reorganization of thinking necessary to truly understand others whose starting points may differ from our own. Two of these tools are explored here.

Communication Tools for Understanding Culture


Additional insights into are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

The tools we will examine here relate to communication and ways of seeing the self in relation to others. They are:

  • High-context and low-context communication, and
  • Individualist and communitarian conceptions of self and other.

Since all of these tools are used in the service of understanding culture, a working definition of culture is useful. Donal Carbaugh defines culture as "a system of expressive practices fraught with feelings, a system of symbols, premises, rules, forms, and the domains and dimensions of mutual meanings associated with these."[4] He also suggests culture is "a learned set of shared interpretations about beliefs, values, and norms, which affect the behaviors of a relatively large group of people."[5] In each of these definitions, culture is linked to communication and a wide range of human experience including feelings, identity, and meaning-making. Communication is the vehicle by which meanings are conveyed, identity is composed and reinforced, and feelings are expressed. As we communicate using different cultural habits and meaning systems, both conflict and harmony are possible outcomes of any interaction.


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