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Shifting Sands: Identity and Intercultural Communication

Posted on: April 8, 2021

Written by Dr. Martin Hyde (International Education Consultant) & Dr. John Kullman (Canterbury Christ Church University, UK), co-authors (with Professor Adrian Holliday, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK) of Intercultural Communication: An Advanced Resource Book for Students, published by Routledge.

Over the past year, living through the pandemic, we have had time to think about who we are and how we relate to communities we are a part of.

Recent events and developments in different parts of the world have also impacted on our understandings of ourselves and others, even if we do not feel these events and developments have touched us directly. These include:

  • the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in the USA and elsewhere
  • the widespread movement of refugees seeking better lives
  • the persecution of minorities in many societies
  • the Me Too movement
  • the increasing spread of multinational corporations
  • the tv interview of Megan Markle and Prince Harry and reaction to it
  • events inspired by fundamentalist religious discourses
  • the ubiquity of social media
  • the rise of nationalist discourses resulting in political change, of which Brexit is but one example.

All of these events and developments are bound up with questions of identity, culture and communication.

The field of intercultural communication considers questions of identity as fundamental to how we communicate with each other. Identity is seen as complex and multi-faceted, influenced by widely circulating discourses about people – and that means about you and both the large and small groups you associate with. It is bound to the exercise of power, and the results in safeguarding privilege or causing disadvantage for these various groups. Intercultural communication is therefore inescapably about political positioning.

The challenge is to find out how individuals’ identities influence and shape how they communicate, and, on the other side of the coin, how individuals’ communication influences and shapes their own identities. To rise to this challenge, we need to move beyond limited and stereotypical understandings of ourselves and others.

A more nuanced understanding of identity helps us to better understand communication between individuals belonging to similar and different ‘cultures’. ‘Cultures’ are not just large national or regional groupings, but equally important small groupings such as work groups, friendship groups, special interest groups, that distinguish themselves from other groups on the basis of numerous factors including ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social class, age, religious persuasion and profession.

For a deeper understanding we need to analyse specific contexts within which intercultural communication takes place. This will involve us in considering in depth a multiplicity of factors including the purpose and focus of the communication, the various identities of the interactants themselves (and how these identities might intersect), the language being used (including language variety, register, dialect and accent), as well as the medium of communication, and how the communication builds on previous communication and relationships between the interactants and other interested parties. We might want to analyse communication that, at first sight, appears superficial and mundane, such as informal interaction between people, or we might want to analyse communication that is more obviously intercultural in essence, such as interaction between an asylum seeker and an immigration officer.

In the second example power, privilege and disadvantage are clearly likely to be important factors. Intercultural communication is a fairly young academic field that developed chiefly in the United States after the Second World War. A current criticism of much early writing and research in the field, and associated textbooks and programmes of intercultural training and education, is that they tended to reflect intercultural communication from the perspective of the more dominant. So, for example, early academic tomes written in English tended to detail how far norms of communication (both verbal and non-verbal) among non-English speakers differed from the norms of the ‘educated’ English speaker. While it was, generally speaking, not the aim of writers and researchers to label norms of communication among non-English speakers as deviant, a consequence was that textbooks about and programmes focusing on  intercultural training, tended to project and reflect a ‘them’ and ‘us’ perspective on intercultural communication.

In the early years of the 21st century the sands have begun to shift. More sophisticated notions of intercultural communication have emerged that are built on a deeper awareness of the multiple dimensions of identity and demonstrate how identity is realized, implicated, drawn on, projected, negotiated and navigated in communication between and among individuals of similar and different small cultures. Asian researchers and writers have also developed comprehensive models of intercultural communication from an Asia-centric perspective. Others have investigated how minorities employ communication strategies to resist dominant discourses and to project and promote their own identities.

These recent advances have begun to influence thinking and policy in a number of fields, including international business and management, health and social care, education, international aid and development, and the criminal justice system. In doing so, they open up the possibility of moving beyond stereotypes and generalisations and of developing creative and innovative policies, practices and solutions.