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Understanding levels of identity in interaction

Understanding what cultural identity can include is important. Please read this article to further clarify the concept and its scope.

As we interact with others, it’s important to understand the scope of cultural identity. The attached article clarifies how we process various levels and can help you become more aware of how you identify yourself in interaction.

Levels of identity in interaction (Summary)

Recall for a minute the last time that you met someone new. Probably, without thinking, you were evaluating that person and comparing yourself with them. This article engages us in a process of exploring how social contact situations affect how we think about ourselves, and proposes some important levels to keep in mind as we interact. Whenever we come into contact with others, we often ask ourselves identity questions. From very young we have learned how to “read” the status and identity symbols of people that we are familiar with.

Identity across cultures

However, reading identity across culture is often confusing and challenging. Different countries have different clues. The article provides examples of these, and how easily we might misinterpret social markers or identity clues we are not familiar with. Whenever we lack knowledge, we need to make up for it with sensitivity. Observing, politely asking about, and interpreting these new clues all become vital skills toward trying to understand someone from another culture.

Some identities distinguish us from others. In fact, we need both types – relational identities and unique individual identities. But often, Asian cultures will see themselves in terms of their relationships to other entities around them, while Westerners emphasize their unique, individuating features.

Recognising commonality and differentiation

Each of us carries our identity into a new encounter. How we view ourselves exerts a strong influence both on how we consider ourselves and our expectations as well as how we consider others. The article provides illustrations of how these subconscious dynamics function moment-by-moment as we relate.

This same process goes on every day in work or school. In one way, I’m trying to relate to others and establish a common group of friends or equals. In another way, I’m comparing with others, differentiating myself in some way, trying to figure out what I can do better. This subconscious attempt at both commonality and distinction is what makes relationships interesting and complex. But across cultures, it can easily cause confusion, misunderstanding, or even cultural incidents.

Deepening levels of identity

Comparing the complexities of multiple levels of identity to an onion, the article highlights three important levels:

Public features:

…those features that outward observations can reveal something about – the things you can often see or infer about someone visually.

Personal features:

…those features that require purposeful conversation to go deeper – things we learn by asking questions, listening carefully, overserving their responses in interaction, their interests, etc.

To be a good student of culture, we need to learn what are taboo or private questions. And we may need to find other ways of asking that information.

Psychological features:

…features that we may open up about (engage in self-disclosure) as we build trust and feel safe – including our sincere feelings, opinions, attitudes, how we really view others, ourselves, or other deep thoughts.

That is what makes friendships or marriages strong, but also vulnerable. It is what makes all communication challenging and exciting.

In the next step we’ll explore how these different identity levels affect communication gaps and provide some suggestions on how to relate your identity to others more effectively. Identity clarification is an unfolding process.

After you’ve read the article, please reflect on how you have experienced some of these dialogic dynamics. Perhaps this has already opened your eyes to some new thoughts on how you view yourself or others. If so, we’d like to see your comments or responses to those of others.

Recommended Citation:
Kulich, S. J. (2015). Levels of identity in interaction. The SISU Intercultural Institute “Intercultural Communication” FutureLearn course reading (updated from the original in English Salon, April, 2002). Retrieved from /courses/intercultural-communication?

© Steve J. Kulich, Shanghai International Studies University
This article is from the free online

Intercultural Communication: Dynamics of cultural identities in global interaction

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