“Every culture attempts to create a ‘universe of discourse’ for its members, a way in which people can interpret their experience and convey it to one another.  Without a common system of codifying sensations, life would be absurd and all efforts to share meaning would be doomed to failure.”
Dean Barnlund – “Communication In a Global Village


The All-Pervading Influence of CultureCulture As A Mindset

      It’s a given that culture powerfully influences thoughts, emotions and behaviors.  In fact, culture operates at primary cognitive, perceptual and motivational levels.  Culture is an important part of our blueprint for operation within our physical and social worlds.  We are an insecure species and culture offers us a reduction of anxiety through its standard rules of thought, emotion and behavior.  Culture offers predictability in an often unpredictable world.   We see things through a cultural lens that tints, magnifies, shrinks and otherwise shapes our perceptions.  Our culture is a mindset that we developed during childhood socialization.   The structural integrity, coherency and stability of our personalities are rooted in our culture.   It is for these and other reasons that intercultural interactions can cause anxiety and arouse emotions.  When people of different cultures meet there can be uncertainty and confusion about the rules of interaction.  Many of our basic assumptions do not work.  Our normally successful thoughts, emotions and behaviors do not get the verification and feedback we are accustomed to.  Some of our expectancies regarding the outcome and meaning of social interactions are disconfirmed.   When we are in a social interaction situation in another culture we may think, feel or behave in the manner we are normally accustomed to in such a situation and then find that it just didn’t work.  We expected to be understood and we expected a certain response from other people, but we either got no response at all or a response that was completely different from what we expected.   We might have been so misunderstood that we caused hurt feelings, anger or resentment or felt these ourselves.  And even if we don’t experience these stronger emotions, we most definitely feel confusion. 

     The concepts of low-context and high-context are useful analytical tools here.  Context refers to the amount of meaning which the social situation has on the rules of discourse for an interaction, in other words, the way in which the social situation influences the structure and content of the interaction.  America is a low-context culture (more informal) and Pacific island cultures are high-context (more formal).  As an American from a low-context, individualistic culture, when I meet someone for the first time my inclination is to be informal and also to tell them a lot about myself and ask them a lot of questions about themselves in order to get a maximum amount of information in a minimum amount of time.    To a Pacific islander, who comes from a high-context collectivist culture, I may appear pushy by moving too fast, self-centered and egotistical by telling them so many things about myself, and lastly I may appear rude and prying by asking them so many questions about themselves and putting them on the spot.

     Culture also influences how we learn and how we teach.  Teaching within one’s own culture is an activity where social and cultural context and the existence of different thinking, learning and instructional styles interact in a very complex fashion.  The classroom is a complex sociocultural environment even when working within our own culture.  The age, sex, gender role expectations, appearance and dress expectations, numerous other role expectations, socioeconomic status and many other characteristics of both students and teachers are all variables affecting the interactions, the effectiveness of instruction and the amount of learning which takes place in the classroom.  The situation becomes even more complex when students and instructors are from different cultures.   Culture and sub-culture affects the attitudes, assumptions, expectations, style and performance of both instructors and students.  Consider America where there are differences between rural and urban subcultures as well as differences within and between European, African-American, Hispanic and Asian subcultures.  In the Pacific we also encounter cultural and subcultural differences within and between indigenous people and immigrant populations; and even among indigenous people there are ethnic and cultural subdivisions such as main islanders and outer islanders with implications for interaction.  Culture influences norms of verbal and non-verbal interaction within the classroom.   Even within the United States, subcultural and socioeconomic differences can create vastly different classroom interaction patterns.  A society’s educational processes normally display a vast array of thinking styles, learning styles, teaching styles and styles of learning environment. Culture can contribute to making certain styles more prominent than others. 

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