The influence of culture on public speaking

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Learning Objectives

After studying the chapter, students should be able to:

• Demonstrate why culture and communication are inseparable.

• Define and discuss intercultural communication.

• List those cultural features that make a difference in how people communicate.

• Distinguish between the individualistic and the collectivistic cultural perspectives.

• Distinguish between the cultural orientations of high and low context when it comes to how people communicate.

• Explain how the cultural orientations regarding power distance can influence how people communicate among themselves and with people of other cultures.

• Distinguish between masculine and feminine ways of communicating.

• Understand that speaking style or preference is a function, in part, of a person’s co-cultural background.

• Characterize the speaking styles of individuals representing particular co-cultures here in the United States.

• Differentiate stereotypes of co-cultures from unique individuals who represent those co-cultures.

Extended Chapter Outline

This chapter focuses on the nature of culture and how culture influences public speaking.

I. The Influence of Culture on Communication

Anthropologist Hall explains that our communication behaviors are a function of culture.

A. Understanding Intercultural Communication

1. Intercultural communication gained importance due to the economic, political, and social need to communicate internationally.

2. Effective communication requires more than learning any one specific language. It requires understanding and appreciating an entire culture, the beliefs and values of which permeate interactions.

3. In this book, intercultural communication is defined as an exchange of messages that takes place when people of different general or distinctive co-cultures communicate with each other under conditions where the interfacing cultural backgrounds are different enough to influence or change the process in some significant way.

B. Cultural Features That Make a Difference

1. Individualism and collectivism

The individualistic cultural perspective places high value on people who do not depend on others beyond their immediate family. Collectivism is characterized by groups of people who define themselves as part of a particular in-group.

a. Individualistic cultures are the United States, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Canada.

b. Collectivistic cultures are Japan, Pakistan, Colombia, Venezuela, Taiwan, and Peru.

2. High and low context

Context has to do with how much of what is communicated either is inherent in the setting and thus understood by the people involved (high context) or must be communicated overtly through the exchange of messages (low context). Low-context cultures require communication to be verbally explicit, precise, and accurate. High-context cultures tend to be indirect and subtle and to rely on nonverbal cues.

a. High-context co-cultures are Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans. African Americans and Latinos tend to be more moderate in their contextual orientation.

b. Low-context co-cultures are Germans and Scandinavians. In the United States, no co-culture is as low context as Euroamericans—particularly male Euroamericans.

3. High and low power distance

Power is distributed differently among different cultures. Some cultures minimize power and status differences; others place a high value on social, birth order, or occupational status and political rankings. Cultural orientations regarding equality and fairness influence how people of particular cultures communicate among themselves and with people of other cultures.

a. Mainstream U.S. culture places less emphasis on power than do many other cultures.

b. Venezuela, Mexico, and the Philippines place a high value on power.

c. Austria, Israel, Denmark, and New Zealand put a low emphasis on power.

d. In the United States, those co-cultures that place a high emphasis on power are Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and, to a lesser extent, Middle Eastern Americans.

e. In the United States, African American and Euroamerican (especially female Euroamerican) co-cultures place a low emphasis on power.

4. Masculinity and femininity

Cultural masculinity refers to the degree to which the achievement of success, ambition, assertiveness, and competitiveness are valued and encouraged in a culture. Cultural femininity refers to preferences for nurturing, friendliness, affection, compassion, and general social support.

a. Masculine cultures are Australia, Italy, Japan, and Mexico.

b. Feminine cultures are Chile, Norway, Portugal, and Thailand.

c. In the United States, those groups representing a more masculine orientation are Asian Americans (particularly Japanese Americans), African Americans, some Latino co-cultures (especially Mexican Americans), and Euroamericans (particularly male Euroamericans).

d. Feminine co-cultures in the United States include Native Americans, certain Scandinavian American groups, Middle Eastern Americans, some Latino groups (especially those of Chilean, Peruvian, and Spanish ancestry), and some Asian American groups (Chinese Americans and Taiwanese Americans).

II. Co-Culturally Unique Styles of Speaking

Part of becoming an effective speaker is acquiring enough information about other people’s co-cultures to be able to communicate respect and adapt to their differences when making public presentations. However, never assume that a person in a given co-culture will possess all the characteristics of that group. Similarly, always assume an ethnocentric bias exists in both speaker and audience. Effective speaking requires that efforts be made to suspend judgment of others’ differences and to understand why other kinds of people behave as they do. The following profiles are based on limited available research.

A. Euroamericans

1. Euroamericans tend not to communicate about highly personal topics, although this is more true of males than females.

2. In first meetings, they engage in a period of small talk over uneventful issues, avoiding discussions about more substantive topics.

3. They take turns when communicating.

4. They tend not to speak with each other for very long at any one time and are impatient with people who “talk too much or too long.”

5. They avoid public arguments.

6. They tend not to get too involved with each other when they communicate.

7. Exchanges are characterized by little formalized ceremony or ritual.

8. They rank high in individualism; low in context; low in power, rank, and status; and high in masculinity.

9. They can be characterized as speakers and listeners who are self-oriented, apparently cold and distant, impatient, unemotional, rational, objective, primarily verbal (as opposed to nonverbal), direct, exact, undisclosing, and seemingly uninvolved.

B. African Americans

1. The style of speaking tends to be highly intense, expressive, distinctive, forceful, assertive, and openly emotional and is often misinterpreted by other co-cultural groups.

2. African Americans view interpersonal questions in a social setting to be an improper and intrusive style of communicating.

3. They are less restrained, modest, and subdued than Asian Americans or Euroamericans in their public presentations.

4. Audiences are open and expressive, letting speakers know that they are actively listening by engaging in call–response patterns.

5. They often strive to make their own personal communication style a statement about their individuality.

6. As a group, they tend to be highly individualistic; moderate in context; low in power, rank, and status; and high in masculinity.

7. As a group, African Americans are active, expressive, colorful, emotional, often humorous, more nonverbal, distinctive, stylized, open, and demonstrative, and they possess a positive outlook on life.

C. Latinos and Latinas

While a number of designations are used to refer to this group, Latino(a) includes all groups in the Americas that share the Spanish language, culture, and traditions.

1. Latinos are very expressive when they speak. Expression is often more important than what a person says.

2. They value elegant speech, using words and phrases that might seem flowery to those outside their co-culture.

3. They appear social, agreeable, and friendly in public. Arguing or disagreeing in public is considered rude and disrespectful.

4. They prefer to put social before business concerns.

5. They value conformity, obedience, and respect for authority.

6. Latinos are a “contact culture”; they stand closer to one another and engage in more touching than Asian Americans, Native Americans, or Euroamericans find comfortable.

7. Latinos encourage traditional roles. Males are expected to be husband, father, responsible, and brave; females are expected to be protected, stay close to home, and nurture and support their families.

8. Latinos are collectivistic; moderate in context; and high in power, rank, and status. Some Latino co-cultures are highly masculine (Mexican American), while others are more feminine (Chilean American, Peruvian American, and Spanish American).

9. As a group, Latinos can be characterized as amiable, expressive, dramatic, flamboyant, friendly, cheerful, and extroverted.

D. Asian Americans

1. “Asian American” is a broad term that includes a number of very different co-cultures whose ancestral and cultural roots originated in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries.

2. Collectivism dominates the worldview of Asian Americans. They tend to value collaboration, conformity, loyalty and acceptance, and acquiescence or even deference to authority.

3. Asian Americans are a high-context culture who tend to hide or mask much of their own emotions when they communicate.

4. In contrast to the Euroamerican style, the Japanese feel uncomfortable when a speaker looks them straight in the eye.

5. Asian American communication patterns are driven in part by their devotion to family honor.

6. Asian Americans, as a group, can be characterized as implicit, understated, acquiescent, deferential, quiet and somewhat withdrawn, courteous, publicly submissive, empathetic, unexpressive, patient, prudent, polite, harmonious, sincere, tolerant of others, and respectful.

E. Native Americans

1. Native Americans are both a collectivistic and a high-context co-culture who communicate in a soft-spoken and indirect manner.

2. As a group-oriented co-culture, Native Americans grow up learning that cooperation, harmony, and getting along are the norms when interacting with each other. Competition is frowned upon.

3. Being a collectivistic co-culture, Native Americans avoid sustained and direct eye contact when speaking.

4. Native Americans are less dramatic and animated in their normal communications.

5. Written language was virtually nonexistent among Native Americans before contact with European settlers.

a. Native Americans learn through listening, by watching others, and through experience.

b. They pass on traditions and customs through oral myths and legends.

6. Native Americans rely extensively on nonverbal cues when they communicate.

7. Native Americans learn to communicate in indirect ways. Discipline, as with the Laguna people, is indirect.

8. As a group, Native American communication can be characterized as indirect, quiet, understated, unexpressive, nonassertive, and somewhat withdrawn.

F. Middle Eastern Americans

1. Middle Eastern co-cultures are represented by people from Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and numerous other countries.

2. Middle Eastern Americans place a high value on hospitality, generosity, courage, honor, and self-respect.

3. Public speaking is more an emotional and less a logically organized activity for Middle Eastern Americans.

a. Middle Eastern Americans tend to be more retrospective than prospective about life.

b. Middle Eastern Americans are sensitive to others’ perceptions of them and strive to be perceived positively.

4. Middle Eastern Americans have a strong oral culture.

a. Tribal storytellers once relied upon as record keepers are now called poets and serve to interpret political and social events.

b. They highly value speaking.

c. They place content and logical presentation second to rhythm of language and the sounds of words as they compose their messages.

5. They tend to be collectivistic; place a relatively high value on power, rank, and status; and slightly reflect a feminine value orientation.

G. Females and Males

1. Gender-linked speaking patterns

a. Women are more likely than men to insert intensifiers into their speech.

b. Women use verbal fillers to fill in silent, awkward moments.

c. Women use tag questions two to three times more than men.

2. Research does not support the claim that women talk more than men.

3. Men speak more loudly than women, at a lower pitch, and with less tonal variation.

4. Women communicate nonverbally more than men.

a. Women use more facial expressions than men.

b. Women initiate and return smiles more than men.

c. Women rely on more eye contact to communicate than men.

d. Men use more sweeping hand and arm gestures and tap their feet more than women.

5. Women’s speaking behavior is rated as more attractive, polite, and closer to the ideal, but those same characteristics are not attributed to being an authority figure, credible, or in control.

Classroom Exercises and Activities

[Part 2 provides six additional activities that you can use with Chapter 3. See pages 19–20.]

1. This is a good opportunity to have students view the student focus group on the videotape that accompanies this text. A variety of co-cultures are represented among the students participating in this group as they discuss a variety of ways that co-culture impacts how they communicate. Use this discussion to stimulate further input from your own students. Discuss how their own co-culture influences their unique ways of speaking and listening. Ask them to share ways they feel the co-cultural styles of communicating represented in the text are similar to—or different from—the ways they communicate.

2. A major informative speech on each student’s co-cultural background is a good way to apply the information in this chapter and sensitize students to individual differences in their audience. Ask students to identify one particular co-culture to which they belong and develop an informative speech with two or three main points (about 5 minutes long). Part 3 provides an evaluation form useful for this presentation (Informative Speech 1).

3. After discussing all the different co-cultural styles of speaking, ask students to identify those co-cultures that they think would be best suited for public speaking. What characteristics about that style influenced their selection? Then do the same for one-on-one interpersonal conversations, for funeral eulogies, and so on.

4. Have students identify a recent intercultural encounter they have had. To what extent were they successful in their efforts to communicate? How comfortable were they? How much uncertainty resulted? Is it easier to communicate with people who are similar to or different from them? Why or why not?

5. Ask students to list the names of their close friends. Next have them identify their own and each friend’s primary co-culture. How many different co-cultures are represented in each person’s list? Why do people tend to select friends who belong to their same primary co-culture?

6. This activity asks students to identify the stereotypes and attributions that we hold about others and discuss how these stereotypes and attributions may interfere with effective communication. Ask students to individually (and anonymously) write down characteristics that they feel best describe each of the following groups of people: Euroamericans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, and females and males. Collect each set of descriptions, and for the next class prepare an overall list of all students’ responses (no names!). Distribute and read them aloud, following up with these questions:

a. Where did you get these descriptions? That is, how do you know what you think you know about these groups?

b. Do you think these descriptions are generally accurate? Why or why not?

c. Why do we form stereotypes? When do we use stereotypes? Are stereotypes fair?

d. How could some of these stereotypes interfere with successful communication?

e. How can these stereotypes help in your efforts to communicate successfully with members of those groups?

f. Were you ever treated like a stereotype yourself? How did that make you feel? How did you feel about the other person?

Recommended Readings

For further information on the Euroamerican co-culture, see:

Althen, G. (1988). American ways: A guide for foreigners in the United States. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

This book provides an excellent overview of what the text refers to as the Euroamerican co-culture. Originally intended to assist foreigners visiting the United States, the book gives all interested consumers a meaningful description of both general and specific aspects of the Euroamerican co-culture. This book supplies the reader with a good grasp of the primary values, assumptions, ways of reasoning, and communication style of Euro-americans.

For further information on the African American co-culture, see:

Hecht, M. L., Collier, M. J., & Ribeau, S. A. (1993). African American communication: Ethnic identity and cultural interpretation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

This advanced book provides a thorough examination of the African American co-culture. The authors do an excellent job of introducing readers to what they call the African American experience. Provided is a careful synthesis of current research on African American co-culture, ethnic identity, and effective and ineffective communication patterns. The African American communication style is compared to other co-cultural styles in the United States. A communication theory of ethnic identity is outlined.

For further information on the Latino co-culture, see:

Marin, G., & Marin, B. V. (1991). Research with Hispanic populations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

This short text explains the often-misunderstood Latino co-culture. The authors prefer the designation Hispanic to Latino, but whichever label is employed, the substance of the book is excellent. The book effectively describes who is Hispanic, the general demographic characteristics of this co-culture, and the historical background and cultural values of this group. A large part of this book is devoted to assisting researchers interested in doing investigations with individuals from the Hispanic co-culture.

For further information on the Asian American co-culture, see:

Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1987). Hidden differences: Doing business with the Japanese. New York: Doubleday.

This short book effectively dissects both traditional and modern Japanese cultures. Early in the book, the Halls explain the relationship between culture and communication. Then they explain and equate communication in the high-context Japanese culture with space, time, amount and flow of information, action chains, and human relationships. The book also carefully explains the unique aspects of the Japanese vocabulary, their style of negotiation, and their highly collectivistic approach to management.

Wenzhong, H., & Grove, C. L. (1991). Encountering the Chinese: A guide for Americans. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

This book, intended to assist Americans visiting China, also provides substantial insight into the Chinese culture as it exists in the United States. The authors carefully explain the fundamental values of the Chinese culture. They move on to detailed recommendations for how Americans (or Euroamericans, as the case may be) can more effectively interact with members of the Chinese culture. Thoughtful attention is given to the concept of face-saving in Chinese–Euroamerican interactions.

For further information on the Native American co-culture, see:

Dutton, B. P. (1983). American Indians of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

In this classic upper-level book about Native Americans of the Southwest, the author explains in great detail the unique cultural characteristics of the Pueblo peoples, the Athabascans, the Ute Indians, the Southern Paiute, and the Rancheria peoples. Both historical and contemporary information is provided about each group. An important distinction is made regarding the cultural orientations of Native Americans who live on reservations compared to those who do not.

Locke, D. C. (1992). Increasing multicultural understanding: A comprehensive model. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

This is an exceptional book for acquiring a general understanding of a number of different co-cultures in the United States. The author effectively explores issues relevant to understanding African Americans, Amish Americans, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Rican Americans. The section on Native Americans is particularly insightful. The Native American co-culture is described in terms of the appropriate designation of the group, acculturation, language and communication, sociopolitical factors, and numerous co-cultural practices, values, and attitudes.

For further information on the Middle Eastern American co-culture, see:

Nydell, M. K. (1987). Understanding Arabs: A guide for Westerners. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

This book, intended to assist Americans visiting the Middle East, also provides substantial insight into the Middle Eastern American co-culture. The author carefully explains the fundamental beliefs and values of the Middle Eastern culture with details about religion and culture, emotion and logic, social formalities and etiquette, social structure, men and women, and the role of the family. Communication with Middle Easterners is given special attention. Similarities and differences across Middle Eastern countries are discussed.

For further information on male and female co-cultural communication patterns, see:

Pearson, J. C., Turner, L. H., & Todd-Mancillas, W. (1991). Gender & communication (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Brown.

Now in its second edition, this book describes in detail the primary differences and similarities in how women and men communicate. Gender and communication are discussed from both historical and contemporary perspectives. The authors effectively include comparative analyses on information processing, language usage, self-perceptions, self-disclosure, assertiveness, and communication norms across a variety of social and personal contexts. The book also includes a discussion of popular images of men and women as communicators.

For state-of-the-art thinking on how communication is influenced by culture, see:

Orbe, M. P. (1998). Constructing co-cultural theory: An explanation of culture, power, and communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

This upper-level text illustrates a qualitative research approach to understanding how culture and different cultural perceptions of and emphases on power influence communicator behavior. The author argues that co-culturally unique ways of communicating are often “muted” by the norms of mainstream society. His theoretical approach addresses how communicators may better coexist with an understanding and appreciation of co-cultural styles of communicating.

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