Department of Communication



Diversity and Culture

Chapter 8

Rhetorical communicators have to adapt their message to their receivers. That means being sensitive to their culture and the diversity that naturally exists in most audiences. Oftentimes people appear quite similar in appearance but are separated by different religions, economic difference, cultural variations, etc. Diversity of such audience is certainly not new in America. The frequently cited “melting pot” metaphor is true to a certain degree, but in reality the items in the stew seldom melt totally. Most ingredients in the pot hold on their original qualities, albeit changed somewhat by the experience of being around others. We don’t melt into one neatly identified and homogenized culture; we are a diverse culture held together by broad-based goals and values. Managing the diversity issue is more and more important for rhetorical communicators. Texas is a good example as we had a primary debate for Governor conducted in Spanish! A first for such an event. And the only reason it was done was due to the fact of the diversity of the Texas population and the cultural variations. We are not the Japanese, or the Swedes, or the Irish, the Nigerians, or the English. We are some mixture of many of those groups. In short, since homogeneity is seldom a luxury for rhetorical communicators, we must understand diversity and be sensitive to it.

Cultural Sensitivity—

If we were all of the same culture it would be easy to be sensitive. We would understand the rules both as an audience and as a speaker much better. But being a heterogeneous culture consisting of dozens of sub-cultures making up the culture as a whole make sensitivity a full-time job! But if we are willing to tolerate (we don’t have to accept) what we don’t agree with or what we believe is “wrong” then we can be culturally sensitive. We come to “know” what is right by the way we were raised and the values that were instilled in us.


Many definitions of the term exist. In short, it’s a set of rules we have that help us interpret the world and how we should act in it. And within most cultures lie sub-cultures or co-cultures; smaller groups of people who share certain common bonds with the larger culture but also have their own sets of rules for behavior and interpretation. The famous hyphenated description that many co-cultures use to describe themselves. Cultures are not static; they change over time. Albeit change is usually slow; all cultures change or they die. True believers of a particular culture tend to have very high self-esteem and will do anything to protect the culture from outsiders who wish to change it. As children most of us had our parents to teach us how to behave and what the rules were for blending in and being accepted in our culture. They served to enculture is. When we move to another country or into a new culture, we attempt to adapt to and blend into that culture as well. When we do, we become acculturated by adopting the new ways of our new country. If we try to change our host country to the ways of our old culture, we will surely fail. We either must adapt to the new culture or remain effectively ostracized from being a full member of the culture.

On Becoming Enculturated—

If you’re not the proverbial bull in a china shop and you can get along with most people, most of the time, then you are enculturated. It’s not the things that define our culture but rather the values, beliefs, attitudes, etc, we share that results in things we find common. Those common bonds can be slightly different with co-cultures versus the larger culture as a whole. But usually the differences are smaller than the differences that exist between cultures (like the US and Arab cultures).

Culture as a Communication Context—

All communication exists within a context and culture is a large part of any context. Think of context as a backdrop to which we measure or find meaning in messages. Within a certain context we can determine is something was meant to be funny, sad, bad, etc. We can tell if someone was sincere or not; whether their comment was appropriate or not. Without some context to measure a message against, we have no way of really understanding its meaning.

Some definitions

Intracultural communication—communication between people from the same culture. Since the speaker and the audience share many common values, the chances of success are the highest in this type of communication.

Intercultural Communication—between a receiver and speaker who come from distinctively different cultures. Chances for successful communication are reduced dramatically here; not zero, but unless each side is willing to give a little, the message will probably not succeed.

Interethnic/Interracial Communication—between different co-cultures but within the same general culture. There is some degree of shared culture even though specific elements will vary. Sometimes communication can be very hard in this setting. How much we can focus on our shared values is key here. We saw this happen after September 11, 2001. The differences had between co-cultures in this country dissipated when we focused on how much we shared; that that values amongst all the co-cultures were united and drawn together in response to the external threat that was aimed at all members within the culture as a whole.

Xenophobia and Ethnocentrism—

Xenophobia refers to an irrational fear of strangers; going far beyond just being reticent or shy. What we don’t know we tend to fear. Some people view others with fear and suspicion until they get to know them to some degree. Remember that members of an audience you don’t know also feel the same about you. Be conscious of such extreme feelings, since holding strong xenophobic feelings make it difficult to effectively communicate with anyone. When strangers communicate there needs to be a way to establish credibility. And using stories or narrative of common bonds if often an effective way of doing that.

Ethnocentrism refers to the belief that your culture is superior to others; that other cultural views or traditions are inferior and wrong. Viewing one’s culture with pride and self-esteem is healthy and should be encouraged. But only as long as the other side is not devalued and worthless in comparison. We don’t have to agree with other cultures or people but just because we disagree doesn’t mean that other points of view don’t have value. Moderate levels of ethnocentrism is good but extreme levels can be detrimental to communication.

Positive Ethnocentrism—

We need pride in our culture; all cultures need it to survive. The collective identity of its people. We saw this more than ever after September 11, 2001 when members of this country rallied behind the President; when people donated blood, when people gave money and bought flags, etc. That even created a more homogeneous and cohesive culture than I have seen in my lifetime. Something very rare for the US. And our ethnocentric values provided the foundation for the patriotic feelings that emerged. In short, ethnocentric values are the first line of defense for any culture. Too little creates a dangerous sense of no one caring and too much can lead to closure to outsiders and isolation for the country as a whole.

Negative Ethnocentrism—

Ethnocentrism taken to the extreme can be perceived very negatively by any audience. It’s easy for us to see it in other but sometimes we are blind to it in ourselves. After all, the way we see the world is the “right” way! There are three serious problems that can emerge from extreme ethnocentrism: (a) culture shock; (b) stereotyping; and (c) prejudice.

(a) Culture Shock—any move from one comfortable setting to a new one will generate some degree of trauma or unsettling feelings. That is normal and we all feel it. This “culture shock” can be greater and harder to overcome when our ethnocentric values are extreme. The more one culture or co-culture is different from the one we are comfortable with, the greater the culture shock sensation. When we talk about “them” and “that’s not how we do it back home” you can be sure culture shock is in effect to some degree. Just traveling without a permanent move can create this feeling. When we try to communicate with someone from another culture while we’re experiencing culture shock, the experience will be bad. Whatever we had hoped to achieve is unlikely to occur.

(b) Stereotyping—drawing generalizations about groups of people is normal and everyone does it. Such generalizations help us predict how people might react toward certain positions we hold and can influence us in crafting our arguments in support of those positions. But when we overestimate the differences or characteristics of a group and assume that all members hold those views, we are likely to fail in our communication objection. No group of people think alike as one collective hive. All share common bonds and general tendencies but we are unique individuals and need to be treated as such. Some people stop communicating with others because they think they already know what the others think or feel. When you take the time to really know people, you will find that we have a lot more in common than those values that divide us. Strongly held stereotypes are hard to change; even in the presence of solid evidence. Selective perception and retention often intervenes and disrupts the process. Everyone will stereotype but extreme ethnocentric people will stereotype more and be less likely to change those beliefs regardless of the evidence they are presented.

(c) Prejudice—refers to making judgments about people based on a very limited amount of information. Typically this is a negative behavior but it is possible to be positively prejudiced about people as well. The more we hold strong ethnocentric values, the more likely we will be prejudiced toward those unlike ourselves. Prejudice can flow both ways; from the speaker toward an audience and the from the audience toward a speaker.

The Ethnocentric Continuum—

Ethnocentrism is not like a light switch that is either “on” or “off.” It is based more on a continuum of ranging from virtually none to high intensity. Joseph “Danny” DeVito developed his continuum that reflects the degrees of ethnocentric values people hold:

Equality—the lowest level; communication is based on a pure level of equality. Cultural differences are non-factors; immaterial. Chances of communication success will be high if both communicators are at this level. Yet this is unlikely to occur; seldom do people have low level of cultural indifference.

Sensitivity—moderately low level of ethnocentrism. Awareness of cultural feelings and efforts made not to offend others. If all parties share these feelings then communication is likely to be successful. We can think of this level of being on your “best behavior” around strangers.

Indifference—a moderate level of ethnocentrism; people are happy with their own culture and don’t think much, if at all, about other cultures and how they may differ. These people much prefer staying with “their own kind” and are likely to become more ethnocentric if forced to communicate with others from different cultures. They don’t mind brief exchanges of pleasantries but that’s about it. More in depth discussions will likely be unsuccessful.

Avoidance—moderately high levels of ethnocentrism. These people do their best to avoid communicating with those outside their culture or co-culture. If and when they communicate with those outside their culture, they are likely to fail. Or at best, it will be a rocky experience with other cultures. The more these people interact with outsiders, the more their ethnocentrism will grow.

Disparagement—a very high level of ethnocentrism who is likely to be branded as a racist, a sexist, a bigot, etc. by those in other cultures. Hostility is the likely outcome between these people and those outside their culture. Communication success rates are virtually zero with people who hold these views. Bottom line: don’t let those with these strong feelings interact with other cultures.

Improving Rhetorical Communication Across Cultures—

Rhetorical communication can be a challenge in the best of environments and doing so across cultures can be even harder. But it is almost inevitable to occur in today’s world where international boundaries are less distinct that even before. Some suggestions on how we can improve our chances of success when communicating across culture:

Recognize your own ethnocentric feelings—you are entitled to your beliefs but realize that your beliefs are merely your opinion; not facts; and certainly not shared by everyone.

Avoid derogatory comments toward other cultures—you have the right to be proud of your culture but that doesn’t give you the right to trash someone else’s culture. You will make enemies and will not succeed in having others agree with you. The more we attack someone else’s culture, the more vigorously they will defend it. Just as we would if ours is attacked.

Demonstrate respect for other people and their cultures—the principle called “norm of reciprocity” is at work here. If I show you the basic respects toward you and your home, you are likely to do the same for me.

Be empathetic—when we make the effort to see an issue from the other person’s point of view, they are more likely to listen to us. In short, the communication process is more likely to be successful.

Develop a higher tolerance for ambiguity—recognize that the communication process will be bumpy at times; that both parties are likely to misunderstand the other. Be tolerant to this fact that the transaction will not be perfect.

Reduce the level of evaluation in your message—when we evaluate or offer critical assessment of others’ values, they will defend those values. If we can explain rather than evaluate, others are more likely to listen to us.

Don’t assume that nonverbal messages are pancultural—be sensitive to the fact that we naturally assume as natural behavior is not likely seen that way by other cultures. Some nonverbal verbal can have dramatically different meaning from culture to culture.

Be sensitive to both differences and similarities—be alert to our tendencies to over-generalize and also to not see the obvious differences that might exist between cultures.

Work to build better stereotypes—try to read about, study, and talk to as many people as you can from other cultures. The generalizations you form are more apt to reflect the culture as a whole and not be unfair stereotypes of the group.

Never forget that meanings are in people not in cultures—you are communicating with a person; not a culture. And not all people think or feel the same way, regardless of the culture they are from. Don’t be surprised when individual people don’t fit the generalize picture we draw about a culture as a whole.