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Children acquire communication skills within a socially and culturally influenced context. Communication professionals need to be aware of the ways cultural differences influence communication. This article describes the influence of cultural backgrounds on communication patterns along a continuum of behaviors. The purpose is to review relevant literature as an operating framework for professionals providing services to children and families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Interacting in situations that are culturally unfamiliar and unclear can be challenging. In our changing world, however, such situations will become more commonplace. To deliver our services, we professionals must become more culturally adept in our interactions. This article is a beginning step in defining the cultural continua that may influence the content and use of language, describing ways to interpret cultural communication behaviors, learning how to interact in culturally congruent ways, and applying this knowledge to clinical practice. Another article in this journal includes case examples of communicative interactions between caregivers and children in diverse cultures (Vigil & Hwa-Froelich, this issue).
Although language acquisition theories are universal, understanding how culture influences communication development is important. Three theories have been proposed to explain how children learn to talk: the information processing theory, the pragmatic theory, and the social interaction theory. According to the information processing theory, the function of communication, or the communicative goal of the speaker, motivates the development of language structure (Bates & MacWhinney, 1982, 1987). The pragmatic theory of language acquisition is based on the belief that communicative functions and the situational context are the driving forces behind language acquisition (Austin, 1962; Bruner, 1986; Searle, 1969). The social interaction theory is founded on the belief that the interaction between the child and caregiver, inclusive of biological and environmental influences, is responsible for the acquisition of language (Snow, 1981). Common elements of these theories are the interaction of communicative functions and the influence of the child's social world, social relationships, and communicative interactions. Thus children learn from adults or more competent siblings such skills as verbal and nonverbal communicative behaviors; right and wrong production and use of words, sentences, and discourse; and polite and impolite ways to communicate. Because the rules for communicative competence are socially generated and culturally influenced, what may be appropriate communicative competence for the mainstream culture of the United States may be inappropriate for other cultures and languages.
Cultural constructs that govern individuals' beliefs and values are often reflected in communicative interactions. The social codes or cultural frameworks for communicative interchanges modeled and taught to us as children often guide our actions and interactions (Agar, 1994; Goffman, 1986). Cultural differences are promoted through child socialization practices and supported through social interactions.
Culture is transmitted from one generation to the next in several ways. First, it is transmitted through the socialization of children (Vygotsky, 1986; Wertsch, 1985). Cultural philosophy, values, and beliefs are communicated through both verbal and nonverbal means. Cultural values are shared from one generation to another through parenting practices that teach social and communicative behaviors. Second, cultural values are communicated through the media, policies, laws, and the philosophies or pedagogy of such institutions as schools (Vygotsky, 1986; Wertsch, 1985). To understand cultural variations in communicative interactions, we must understand the ways cultures vary and how cultural constructs are communicated by parents and other involved adults.
In this article, we will explore three areas in which culture and interpersonal communication may vary: responsibility relationships, interpersonal relationships, and risk management. Figure 1 represents these areas on a continuum. Readers are cautioned that general characteristics represented by the majority of individuals in a particular culture will be described, but particular persons within a culture may or may not represent the cultural traits of the majority and may vary across roles, context, and genders.
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All societies have a perspective on the relationships of responsibility and preferences about who is responsible for family members, subordinate workers, students, and other interpersonal relationships, as well as how these relationships of responsibility are managed and communicated. Hofstede (1984, 2001) described culturally different beliefs, values, and behaviors in terms of dimensions that can fall along various points on a continuum. Most cultures have a proclivity toward independent or interdependent dimensions--or a mixture of both--depending on specific contexts (Greenfield & Cocking, 1994; Hofstede, 1984, 2001; Hofstede, Pedersen, & Hofstede, 2002). This continuum is sometimes referred to as individualism or collectivisim. Individualism is aligned with independence, and collectivism is aligned with interdependence (Triandis, 1995). Independence/interdependence (Hofstede, 1984, 2001; Hofstede, Pedersen, & Hofstede, 2002) is exemplified in all societies and ranges from an orientation to being separate and self-supporting (independent) to an orientation to being dependent on and similar to others of a particular group (interdependent).
The values of independence/interdependence influence language content and use (Lustig & Koester, 2003). Linguistic content can range from words expressing the individual's perspective to words that communicate collaboration or inclusion. Linguistic use may vary along this continuum from messages communicating an individual's intention to messages seeking confirmation, agreement, or an invitation to participate. For example, independent individuals tend to communicate using more I and you pronouns, with an emphasis on such concepts as "autonomy, emotional independence, individual initiative, rights to privacy, pleasure seeking, financial security, need for specific friendship and universalism" (Kim & Choi, 1994, p. 232). Interdependent individuals express we and us pronouns and include statements that reflect a concern for the other person or group inclusiveness (Nobles, 1973; Scollon & Scollon, 1995). Figure 2 provides examples of behaviors along the independent/interdependent continuum.
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Independent/Individual Responsibility. In an independent society, such as the United States, children are socialized to be responsible for themselves. They learn to make individual decisions that benefit individual goals. Children learn skills enabling them to function alone, with the end goal of leaving their families to live by themselves or to establish new families. Parents socialize their children to become independent in taking care of their physical needs, such as eating, dressing, toileting, and playing. Parents in an independent culture give more praise for individually accomplished tasks. For example, in a study by Harwood, Scholmerich, and Schulze (2000), Anglo mothers emphasized independence and individuality in their children's achievements by encouraging their infants to make choices and explore the environment. The Anglo mothers exhibited this cultural trait in their communication by phrasing their directives as suggestions, verbally praising their infants' actions, and allowing their children to play alone and select their own toys. In contrast, in a more interdependent society, Puerto Rican mothers focused on their children's interactions with others, emphasizing particular ways to interact and communicate. The Puerto Rican mothers signaled their infants' attention, physically positioned or restrained their movements around the room, gave more directives, and played more social games involving touching and turn-taking. The Puerto Rican mothers were responsible for their children's attention, behavior, and acquisition of knowledge regarding how to interact appropriately with others. Each group of parents had different goals for their children, based on whether their cultural constructs for regulation of activities and proper social interaction were independent or interdependent.
Preschools in Three Cultures (Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989) provides another example of communicated independence. In this study, a Hawaiian preschool teacher allowed children to choose their activities and express their individuality through play activities. This program stressed individual regulation of children's time and activities and responsibility for their actions. As exemplified in the Hawaiian early education program, individualism and independence are the foundation of special education in the United States, which uses such language as Individualized Education Programs, individualized instruction, and person-centered intervention (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999). Kalyanpur and Harry (1999) discussed how schools have promoted self-determination--"the ability to decide and act on one's own behalf" (p. 6)--and coping with stressful situations, as well as the effect these values have on the achievement of independence. In essence, the role of education has become to help all children, regardless of disability, become self-sufficient enough to live in a separate household from their parents and earn a living. This …