From shared identities to differences in interaction

To better consider how cultural identity affects communication, read this article. Notice how communication about shared identities and awareness of identity differences can be helpful in facilitating meaningful communication.

You are what you think you are. But am I what you think I am? Do you ever feel confused about your own identity or others?

In our last step we talked about how every interaction is affected by identity. How we identify others and ourselves affects our expectations and communication style. In our own culture, we can usually manage this process fairly well, because we are familiar with the context and the clues. But across cultures, we can often misread others identities. And some aspects of others’ identities may remain hide to us.

Identity gaps

Not every communication encounter is equal. Especially across cultures, we often encounter great differences in status, economics, values, attitudes or other factors. These can threaten to block our communication, or we can try to find polite ways to bridge the gap. Many a potential obstacle has been dissolved when one side showed interest in or respect toward the other. And even unwilling communication partners can often be won over with kindness, humor or a friendly gesture.

This happens even in our own cultures. If I enter your office for an interview, and I’m thinking “I’m a new employee” while you’re thinking “I’m the boss,” then the gap in our positions is foremost in my mind. This will no doubt effect the expectations, style and outcome of our communication. I’ll be quite dependent on you to make me feel at ease (from your power position) and will probably adopt a courteous, formalized, conservative communicative style.

Identity and self-concept

If a single man meets an attractive woman and thinks, “I’m a good-looking, confident guy,” most likely his communicative expectations or approach will be positive, maybe even too direct. But if he thinks, “I’m a reserved, average, not-so-appealing guy who just doesn’t know how to attract women,” he’ll probably stumble around and feel embarrassed.

Our identity (self-view and how others perceive us) has a major effect on our communication. It influences the language and gestures we choose (Approach), the desires or hopes we have (Expectations), the way we conduct the interaction (Exchange) and the results (Outcome). And every communicative encounter leaves us redefining our identity. “Hey, my boss likes me – I’m not just an unnoticed new employee – I’ve got a future in this company.” “Ugh! I’m even worse at communicating with women than I thought – she REALLY snubbed me!” Subconsciously, we are involved in Identity Management constantly in our communicative encounters. The good thing is that we can learn from our experience.

Communication is the key

So even though we can observe much about a person, much remains hidden from us unless we relate. And we need to recognize that people from different cultures might expect different kinds of interaction.

People are not only like onions, they are like icebergs – most of their substance remains hidden from view. If we are only content to judge people by what we see, we run the same risk as the Titanic – being surprised by what is under the surface. Sharing more about ourselves and learning to ask others about what is important to them in culturally appropriate ways can enable us to relate and work together better.

Where do we start?

First, we need to know ourselves. That is why we got you listing and sharing your identities in the first steps this week. As we continue through this week it is important to keep thinking about who you are, what is important to you, what you expect from others, etc. This will help you consider if there are any commonalities that you can build on when you meet others, and prepare you for finding ways to bridge differences.

Additionally, we need to become a student of people. Pay attention to the peculiarities of individuals and the cultural patterns of peoples from different cultures. Watch and listen carefully to what people emphasize when they communicate – chances are that is what they find important in their life. Those are the points you can try to identify with for more fruitful communication.

Adjusting our expectations

The next step is to think about what you expect from people. It could be that all your expectations are based only on what is important to you. That puts other people in an unfair position, because it does not take their identity or interests into account. Often when we become more clearly aware of who we are, we start to recognize the legitimacy of differences in others.

If you can start to ask, “What do they expect from me?” you are really moving forward. Much goodwill is created when we start to think about what others need, like or value and then try to adjust ourselves to those expectations. Sometimes respecting our differences is the best way to build common ground!

Now that you are more aware of the impact of identity, I hope you’ll be better able to evaluate who you are and who you are talking to. Self-awareness and sensitivity to others will surely help you be a better communicator, whether it is in your own culture or cross-culturally.

Recommended Citation:
Kulich, S. J. (2015). From shared identities to differences in interaction. The SISU Intercultural Institute “Intercultural Communication” FutureLearn course reading Retrieved from

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)