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How language shapes the way we think

This is a derivative of Communication in the Real World: For uses beyond those covered by law or the Creative Commons license, permission to reuse should be sought directly from the copyright owner. Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies. Culture and Communication Previous. Introduction to Communication Studies 1. History and Forms 1. Communication and Perception 2. Interpersonal Communication Processes 6. Communication in Relationships 7. Culture and Communication 8.


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Preparing a Speech 9. Delivering a Speech Our various social roles influence meaning and how we speak. One social norm that structures our communication is turn taking. People need to feel like they are contributing something to an interaction, so turn taking is a central part of how conversations play out. David Crystal, How Language Works: Overlook Press, , Although we sometimes talk at the same time as others or interrupt them, there are numerous verbal and nonverbal cues, almost like a dance, that are exchanged between speakers that let people know when their turn will begin or end.

Conversations do not always neatly progress from beginning to end with shared understanding along the way. We also have certain units of speech that facilitate turn taking.

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Adjacency pairs Related communication structures that come one after the other adjacent to each other in an interaction. For example, questions are followed by answers, greetings are followed by responses, compliments are followed by a thank you, and informative comments are followed by an acknowledgment.

These are the skeletal components that make up our verbal interactions, and they are largely social in that they facilitate our interactions. Some conversational elements are highly scripted or ritualized, especially the beginning and end of an exchange and topic changes. At this point, once the ice is broken, people can move on to other more content-specific exchanges. Once conversing, before we can initiate a topic change, it is a social norm that we let the current topic being discussed play itself out or continue until the person who introduced the topic seems satisfied.

We then usually try to find a relevant tie-in or segue that acknowledges the previous topic, in turn acknowledging the speaker, before actually moving on. Changing the topic without following such social conventions might indicate to the other person that you were not listening or are simply rude. Social norms influence how conversations start and end and how speakers take turns to keep the conversation going. Ending a conversation is similarly complex. Topic changes are often places where people can leave a conversation, but it is still routine for us to give a special reason for leaving, often in an apologetic tone whether we mean it or not.

Generally though, conversations come to an end through the cooperation of both people, as they offer and recognize typical signals that a topic area has been satisfactorily covered or that one or both people need to leave. It is customary in the United States for people to say they have to leave before they actually do and for that statement to be dismissed or ignored by the other person until additional leave-taking behaviors are enacted.

Silence is not viewed the same way in other cultures, which leads us to our discussion of cultural context. We have a tendency to view our language as a whole more favorably than other languages. Although people may make persuasive arguments regarding which languages are more pleasing to the ear or difficult or easy to learn than others, no one language enables speakers to communicate more effectively than another.

Steven McCornack, Reflect and Relate: From birth we are socialized into our various cultural identities. As with the social context, this acculturation process is a combination of explicit and implicit lessons. Just as babies acquire knowledge of language practices at an astonishing rate in their first two years of life, so do they acquire cultural knowledge and values that are embedded in those language practices.

At nine months old, it is possible to distinguish babies based on their language. Even at this early stage of development, when most babies are babbling and just learning to recognize but not wholly reproduce verbal interaction patterns, a Colombian baby would sound different from a Brazilian baby, even though neither would actually be using words from their native languages of Spanish and Portuguese.

The actual language we speak plays an important role in shaping our reality. Comparing languages, we can see differences in how we are able to talk about the world. In English, we have the words grandfather and grandmother , but no single word that distinguishes between a maternal grandfather and a paternal grandfather. In this example, we can see that the words available to us, based on the language we speak, influence how we talk about the world due to differences in and limitations of vocabulary.

The notion that language shapes our view of reality and our cultural patterns is best represented by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Martin and Thomas K. Nakayama, Intercultural Communication in Contexts , 5th ed. McGraw-Hill, , — Culturally influenced differences in language and meaning can lead to some interesting encounters, ranging from awkward to informative to disastrous. At a more informative level, the words we use to give positive reinforcement are culturally relative.

In terms of disastrous consequences, one of the most publicized and deadliest cross-cultural business mistakes occurred in India in Union Carbide, an American company, controlled a plant used to make pesticides. This lack of competent communication led to a gas leak that immediately killed more than two thousand people and over time led to more than five hundred thousand injuries.

The documentary American Tongues , although dated at this point, is still a fascinating look at the rich tapestry of accents and dialects that makes up American English. Dialects Versions of languages that have distinct words, grammar, and pronunciation. Accents Distinct styles of pronunciation. Lustig and Jolene Koester, Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication across Cultures , 2nd ed.

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Pearson, , — There can be multiple accents within one dialect. For example, people in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States speak a dialect of American English that is characterized by remnants of the linguistic styles of Europeans who settled the area a couple hundred years earlier. Even though they speak this similar dialect, a person in Kentucky could still have an accent that is distinguishable from a person in western North Carolina.

American English has several dialects that vary based on region, class, and ancestry. Dialects and accents can vary by region, class, or ancestry, and they influence the impressions that we make of others.


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When I moved to Colorado from North Carolina, I was met with a very strange look when I used the word buggy to refer to a shopping cart. Research shows that people tend to think more positively about others who speak with a dialect similar to their own and think more negatively about people who speak differently. Of course, many people think they speak normally and perceive others to have an accent or dialect. Social norms are culturally relative. The words used in politeness rituals in one culture can mean something completely different in another. Additionally, what is considered a powerful language style varies from culture to culture.

Confrontational language, such as swearing, can be seen as powerful in Western cultures, even though it violates some language taboos, but would be seen as immature and weak in Japan. Gender also affects how we use language, but not to the extent that most people think.

Although there is a widespread belief that men are more likely to communicate in a clear and straightforward way and women are more likely to communicate in an emotional and indirect way, a meta-analysis of research findings from more than two hundred studies found only small differences in the personal disclosures of men and women. This could be due to the internalized pressure to speak about the other gender in socially sanctioned ways, in essence reinforcing the stereotypes when speaking to the same gender but challenging them in cross-gender encounters.

Researchers also dispelled the belief that men interrupt more than women do, finding that men and women interrupt each other with similar frequency in cross-gender encounters. These findings, which state that men and women communicate more similarly during cross-gender encounters and then communicate in more stereotypical ways in same-gender encounters, can be explained with communication accommodation theory. Communication accommodation theory Theory that explores why and how people modify their communication to fit situational, social, cultural, and relational contexts.

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Howard Giles, Donald M. Within communication accommodation, conversational partners may use convergence Using communication similar to that of your communication partner. People who are accommodating in their communication style are seen as more competent, which illustrates the benefits of communicative flexibility. Conversely, conversational partners may use divergence Using communication to emphasize the differences between you and your conversational partner.

Convergence and divergence can take place within the same conversation and may be used by one or both conversational partners.

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Convergence functions to make others feel at ease, to increase understanding, and to enhance social bonds. Divergence may be used to intentionally make another person feel unwelcome or perhaps to highlight a personal, group, or cultural identity. For example, African American women use certain verbal communication patterns when communicating with other African American women as a way to highlight their racial identity and create group solidarity.

While communication accommodation might involve anything from adjusting how fast or slow you talk to how long you speak during each turn, code-switching Changing accents, dialects, or languages. McGraw-Hill, , There are many reasons that people might code-switch. Regarding accents, some people hire vocal coaches or speech-language pathologists to help them alter their accent. If a Southern person thinks their accent is leading others to form unfavorable impressions, they can consciously change their accent with much practice and effort.

Once their ability to speak without their Southern accent is honed, they may be able to switch very quickly between their native accent when speaking with friends and family and their modified accent when speaking in professional settings. People who work or live in multilingual settings may engage in code-switching several times a day. Additionally, people who work or live in multilingual settings may code-switch many times throughout the day, or even within a single conversation.

Increasing outsourcing and globalization have produced heightened pressures for code-switching. Now some Indian call center workers are going through intense training to be able to code-switch and accommodate the speaking style of their customers. As our interactions continue to occur in more multinational contexts, the expectations for code-switching and accommodation are sure to increase. It is important for us to consider the intersection of culture and power and think critically about the ways in which expectations for code-switching may be based on cultural biases. Anger in Western countries about job losses and economic uncertainty has increased the amount of racially targeted verbal attacks on international call center employees.

It was recently reported that more call center workers are now quitting their jobs as a result of the verbal abuse and that 25 percent of workers who have recently quit say such abuse was a major source of stress. Such verbal attacks are not new; they represent a common but negative way that cultural bias explicitly manifests in our language use. Cultural bias A skewed way of viewing or talking about a group that is typically negative.

Bias has a way of creeping into our daily language use, often under our awareness. Culturally biased language can make reference to one or more cultural identities, including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ability. There are other sociocultural identities that can be the subject of biased language, but we will focus our discussion on these five. Much biased language is based on stereotypes and myths that influence the words we use. We will discuss specific ways in which cultural bias manifests in our language and ways to become more aware of bias. That kind of pressure can lead people to avoid discussions about cultural identities or avoid people with different cultural identities.

Our goal is not to eliminate all cultural bias from verbal communication or to never offend anyone, intentionally or otherwise. Instead, we will continue to use guidelines for ethical communication that we have already discussed and strive to increase our competence. The following discussion also focuses on bias rather than preferred terminology or outright discriminatory language, which will be addressed more in Chapter 8 "Culture and Communication" , which discusses culture and communication.

People sometimes use euphemisms for race that illustrate bias because the terms are usually implicitly compared to the dominant group. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association , 6th ed. American Psychological Association, , 71—