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Interpersonal Communicati Essay, Research Paper

Cultural growth in the twenty-first century has heightened the

emphasis on interpersonal communication in an intercultural

setting. As our world grows, expands and becomes increasingly more

interconnected by various technological advances, the need for

effective interpersonal communication among differing cultures has

become quite clear. Due to the advancement of technology in

today’s world, a world in which some businesspeople are involved in

transactions with other businesspeople in faraway countries, the

call for knowledge of intercultural communication within this

setting has become a reality. Interpersonal communication is a

form of communication that involves a small number of people who

can interact exclusively with one another and who therefore have

the ability to both adapt their messages specifically for those

others and to obtain immediate interpretations from them (Lustig et

al, 1993). Although interpersonal communication is usually thought

of as being perf! ormed in small, centralized groups, a need to

broaden these groups and bring about a general feeling of cultural

awareness has become apparent. To a certain degree, all communication

could be called interpersonal, as it occurs between two or more

people. However, it is useful and practical to restrict the definition

to distinguish those relationships that involve a relatively small

group of people, such as couples, families, friends, workgroups, and

even classroom groups from those involving much larger numbers of

people, as would occur in public rallies or among massive television

audiences. Unlike other forms of communication, interpersonal

communication involves person-to-person interactions. Additionally,

the perception that a social bond has developed between the

interactants, however tenuous and temporary it may seem, is also much

more likely.

Intercultural communication is a symbolic, interpretive,

transactional, contextual processing tool with which people

from different cultures create shared meanings (Berko et al,

1998). When we speak to someone with whom we share little or

no cultural bond, it is referred to as intercultural

communication. Our need to communicate across culture can be

very beneficial personally and professionally. Within an

intercultural setting, nonverbal and verbal communication are

both prevalent in emphasizing the differences in cultures. The

way we act and the things we say determine whether or not we

belong in a certain culture. Nonverbal communication systems

provide information about the meaning associated with the use

of space, time, touch and gestures. They help to define the

boundaries between the members and nonmembers of a culture

(Koester at al, 1993). In order to fully enjoy and benefit

from interpersonal communication in an intercultural setting,

one must first gain a fu! ll, comprehensive knowledge of the

determining factors of culture. There are several ways of defining

culture. Webster’s dictionary defines culture as ” . . . a particular

civilization at a particular stage” or ” . . . all the knowledge and

values shared by a society.”. A second approach emphasizes the social

heredity of a group of people, suggesting that the new members of a

culture must be taught its fundamental ideas, practices and

experiences. The social heredity approach therefore asserts that

culture is symbolically transmitted, often “handed down” through

ensuing generations, from parents or other adults to children, who in

turn grow up and teach their own children the culture’s customs and

expectations. This approach is important because it emphasizes that

one does not become a member of a culture by birth, but rather through

a process of learning. The word ^culture’ is often considered in terms

of nationality or one’s country of origin. Other more specific dist!

inguishing characteristics of culture are region, orientation,

socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation and preference, age,

marital and parental status. Another approach to understanding the

concept of culture involves the beliefs, values and norms that exist to

guide an individual’s behaviors in solving common problems. This

approach, often called the perceptual or subjective culture approach,

suggests that people behave as they do because of the perceptions they

have about the world and their expectations about how they should

behave in that world. Harry Triandis defines subjective culture as “a

cultural group’s characteristic way of perceiving the man-made part of

its environment. The perception of rules and the group’s norms, roles

and values are aspects of subjective culture.” This approach

emphasizes that culture is a shared set of ideas and practices that

exist in people’s minds. This shared set of perceptions then governs

people’s behaviors. The conse! quences of one’s subjective culture,

then, can be seen in the repetitive patterns and regularities of

people’s behaviors. It is a proven fact that interpersonal

communication, whether it occurs interculturally or among people that

share a common culture, is effective at combating loneliness, shaping

self-concepts, confirming experiences, renewing personal and aiding us

in understanding who we are and how we relate to others. (Berko et al,

1998). Another aspect of the benefits of effective interpersonal

communication is the manner in which it effects our intrapersonal

growth. Intrapersonal communication refers to our internal

communication with ourselves as opposed to others. The healthiness of

our intrapersonal communication can directly effect our levels of

self-esteem, general inner growth as a human being and the way in which

we view ourselves in relation to others.

Edward T. Hall, a prominent scholar in the field of

Communication, developed and presented two major ways in which

one’s culture is conveyed. The two patterns are drastically

different, and express the culture of a given group quite

effectively. Hall developed high and low context patterns to

indicate what perceptions to notice in the communication

process and how to interpret them. According to Hall,

high-context cultures use high-context messages, in which most

of the meaning is either implied by the physical setting or is

presumed to be part of the individual’s internalized beliefs,

values and norms. Examples of high context cultures include

Chinese, African and Latino cultures. The use of high context

messages is especially prominent within the African American

culture, i.e. their interpretation of chronemics, the study of

how people structure and use their time. Among high context

cultures, time is more informal and “open-ended,” and less

structured. In contrast, ! a low context culture views time

in a highly technical way, in part because of the additional energy

required to understand the messages of others. Low context cultures

prefer to use low-context messages in which a majority of the

information is vested in the explicit code. For example, human

interaction with computers and other highly scientific machines can be

considered a low context message because in order for computers to

interpret and “understand” a message, every statement must be very

precise and clearly relayed (Lustig et al, 1993). Within the American

culture, low context patterns are deeply rooted in the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment has provided Americans with a strong reliance on

overt and explicit codes. The American culture is not one that

operates under presumptions or implicit messages. Ideas and feelings

are clearly expressed and is usually designed in such a way that

misunderstanding is almost impossible. Germany, Sweden and English

societies a! re some examples of low context cultures.

A prominent aspect of interpersonal communication is a study

known as proxemics. The word ^proxemics,’ which is a

derivative of the word ^proximity,’ refers to how different

groups of people use and perceive their social and personal

space. Every person is surrounded by a psychological “bubble”

of space. This bubble contracts and expands depending on the

person’s cultural background, emotional state and the activity

in which he or she is participating. There are four distinct

levels of personal space. Intimate distance covers a space

varying from direct physical contact with another person to a

distance of eighteen inches. This space is used for our most

private activities- sharing intimate ideas and emotions,

kissing and lovemaking. The next level of personal space is

known as personal distance. Personal distance is also commonly

known as the “comfort bubble,” which covers a space of eighteen

inches to four feet. This space is usually reserved for the

conversation o! f close friends. Social distance covers a

four to twelve foot zone that is commonly used during business

transactions and casual social exchanges that take place between

acquaintances. The largest amount of personal space is known as public

distance, dictating a separation of as little as twelve feet, but

usually more than twenty-five. It is used by teachers in lecture halls

and by public speakers at public gatherings who wish to place a barrier

between themselves and their audiences. In modern times, this level of

personal space has been implemented into the universal idea of polite

etiquette at the ATM machine. Northern Europeans -English,

Scandinavians and Germans- tend to have a larger zone of personal space

and often avoid touching and close contact unless absolutely

necessary. They require more room around them and structure their

lifestyles to meet this need for more room. Thus the English are

stereotyped as being distant and impersonal, not showing great


through kissing, hugging or other forms of intimate touching. This

stereotype derives from the respect they exhibit for each other’s

territory. In contrast, Italians, Russians, Spaniards, Latin

Americans, Middle Easterners and the French generally tend to like and

condone close personal contact. Many marriage counselors in the

United States utilize the study of proxemics in deducing the cause for

marital conflict between some couples. Consider, for example the

conflict that can take place between a couple in which the woman comes

from a family of English heritage and a man with an Italian

background. The woman is not accustomed to a large amount of close

personal physical contact, and naturally avoids it to a certain

extent. The man, on the other hand, coming from a family where

physical contact is the norm, and grandiose displays of affection

through kissing, hugging and touching are commonplace, expects his

wife to soothe him after a hard day, sit close to him and sho! w

outward emotion. She does not understand the “exaggerated” emotions of

his family. He cannot understand the aura of distance surrounding the

manner in which her family relates to one another. Thus a conflict can

result from the large differences in these two partners’ proxemics

patterns and expectations. Imagine, also, an American businessman

meeting with a Spanish colleague when attempting to close an important

business deal. The American may feel a strong aversion to the

Spaniard’s perfectly friendly, normal physical actions such as extended

handshaking, seating himself very close to his colleague and invading

the American’s closely guarded bubble of personal space. Such a

situation could result in the ruination of the business transaction,

all due to a misunderstanding on the part of the two businessmen, both

viewing one another as rude and distant/pushy. Depending upon what an

individual’s culture has taught him/her, a businessperson may construct

his/her office s! o that his/her personal space cannot possibly be

invaded. This can be done by arranging the furniture in such a way

that there is always a certain level of personal space enforced. For

example, some businesspeople may place their desk and guest chairs so

that any visitor must sit on one side of the desk. All parties

involved in the conversation tend to be more comfortable this way. In

contrast, many interviewers have reported a completely different

atmosphere when talking to job applicants if the two chairs are placed

facing each other about three to four feet apart instead of on opposite

sides of the desk. This nurtures a more intimate atmosphere, fostering

a sense of honesty and open communication between employer and

interviewee. Much of what is known about this field is based on

anthropological research.

Another important aspect of interpersonal communication in an

intercultural setting is the study of chronemics. Chronemics

is the study of the way people handle and structure their use

of time in a communication setting. Only within certain

societies is precise time of great importance or significance.

Some cultures relate to time as a circular phenomenon in which

there is no pressure or anxiety about the future. In circular

time, there is no pressing need to achieve or create newness,

or to produce more than absolutely needed to survive.

Additionally, there is no fear of death. Such societies have

successfully integrated the past and future into a peaceful

sense of the present. Many Native American cultures have been

raised with this cultural attitude toward the passing of time.

Obviously, if one made an appointment with an individual raised

in this culture, he/she should be prepared for a possibly long

wait. Circular time is the most casual of all concepts of

time. ! North Americans, Asians and those raised in Western

American societies operate on linear time, which focuses on the

factual and technical information needed to fulfill impending

demands. In this culture, punctuality is considered a large part of

good manners and civility. When one says they will arrive at eight

o’clock in this culture, that is precisely what they mean. These

cultures view tardiness as a signal of hostility, procrastination and

a relaxed attitude toward responsibility. In Britain or North America

one may be five minutes late for a business appointment, but certainly

not fifteen or thirty minutes late. In Latin America one is expected

to arrive late for an appointment, and is considered rude if he/she

arrives early or punctually. This same tardiness for Germans or North

Americans is unacceptable and frowned upon. Another way of viewing

time is understand its technical, formal and informal uses. Technical

time is precise time, as in the way scientists me! asure things in

milliseconds. Few of us continually come into contact with this

particular usage. On the other hand, formal time is the way in which a

culture defines its time, and it plays a daily role in most of our

lives. Formal time refers to centuries, years, months, weeks, days,

hours and minutes. Informal time refers to a rather flexible use of

time such as “soon” or “right away.” These terms often cause

communicative difficulty because they are somewhat arbitrary and mean

different things to different people. One concept of time known as

“C.P. Time,” or “Colored People’s Time,” interprets chronemics in a way

that differs from formal time. Unlike formal time, C.P. Time supports

a much more relaxed idea of deadlines and arrival times. When an

individual in this culture indicates that he/she is on C.P. Time,

insiders within this culture would automatically know that this

individual does not plan to be on time. Time is critical in the

American workplace. Deadline! s must be met and meetings are held

from one specific time to another. Euro-Americans, North Americans and

western Europeans are “clock-bound,” whereas African, Latin American

and some Asian-Pacific cultures are distinctly not. Time is based on

personal systems and universal understandings within a specific

culture. Americans traveling abroad often become irritated by the

seeming lack of concern for time commitment among residents of some

countries. Businesspeople may become confused over what “on time”

means as they meet those from other cultures. For example, in Mexico

and Central America tours may be late, and guides may fail to indicate

the correct arrival and departure times. Yet, in other places, such as

Switzerland, one can set his/her watch by the arrival time of a train.

Time, as a communication tool is often greatly misunderstood. It is

always best to perform a basic study of the time concept of a

particular locale before spending time there. Knowledge of th! e

norms and patterns of different cultures is important because it

reduces feelings of awkwardness and confusion.

Another significant dimension of interpersonal communication is

known as haptics. Haptics is the study of how touch is used to

communicate with others, whether it be in an intercultural

setting or among individuals that share a common bond

culturally. Touch can communicate many different things, such

as affection, playfulness, hostility and urgency, to name just

a few. There are four universally recognized aspects of

haptics, all of which communicate varying emotions and

intentions. The first is the professional touch, used, for

example, by businesspeople, between a professor and his/her

students and two people meeting for the first time. The second

is the social/polite touch, used by acquaintances who wish to

convey friendly but slightly detached appreciation and

affection. The third is the friendly touch, which could be

used by close friends or close businesspeople and colleagues

congratulating one another on an accomplishment. The fourth

and most intense touch is k! nown as intimate touch, which is

usually reserved for couples expressing love and affection through

kissing, hugging, caressing or lovemaking. As mentioned earlier in the

discussion concerning proxemics, different cultures vary in the amount

of touching that is considered customary and polite among casual

acquaintances, friends and even family members. Individuals from an

English, German or Swedish culture tend to use touch less as a rule,

and rely upon the physical setting to set the tone of a given

situation. However, those with Asian, African American, Italian or

Latino heritage incorporate a much larger amount of touch into their

personal exchanges, using elaborate, extended handshakes, embraces or

even kisses to convey their affection and gratitude. Many

misunderstandings and much discomfort can arise from a situation that

places two people from drastically different cultures together. It is

always best to attempt to adapt oneself as comfortably as possible to a

situ! ation to decrease the possibility of personal insult and


Another important tool used in deciphering the meanings and

intentions of individuals in a communication setting is known

as kinesics. Kinesics is the study of communication through

body movements. We communicate through the gestures we use,

the way we walk and stand, the expressions on our faces and in

our eyes, and how we combine these variables to open or close

channels in the communication process. Among the myriad of

different methods individuals utilize to express just as many

different emotions are five more prominent ones: emblems,

illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors.

Emblems are nonverbal acts that have a direct verbal

translation or dictionary definition, usually consisting of a

word or two. The sign language of the deaf, gestures used by

behind-the-scenes television personnel, and the signals

between two underwater swimmers are examples of the use of

emblems. Of course, all emblems are not universal. For

example, in Hong Kong, the cultura!

lly recognized signal for summoning a waiter in a restaurant is done by

making a writing motion with both hands. In some parts of the United

States, however, extending two fingers and motioning toward oneself may

be accepted as the appropriate signal. This would be considered very

rude in Hong Kong; it is only used to calling animals. The second

method of kinesics is illustration. Illustrators are kinesic acts

accompanying speech that are used to aid in the description of what is

being said or trace the definitions of speech (Berko at al, 1998).

They are used to either sketch a path, point to an object, or show

spiritual relationships. Many parts of North America and beyond

consider the pointing of one’s finger at an object or another person to

be extremely rude. Affect displays are facial gestures that show

emotions and feelings such as sadness or happiness. Pouting, winking

and raising or lowering the eyelids and eyebrows are examples of the

more obvious affect displ! ays. Different people and cultures tend to

use facial expressions in different ways. For example, North American

males frequently mask and internalize their facial expressions because

they have been taught that showing emotion is not a sign of

“manliness,” while an Italian male feels none of these restrictions and

uses facial expressions freely and frequently. The fourth important

factor of kinesics is the way regulators are used. Regulators are

nonverbal acts that maintain and control the back-and-forth nature of

speaking and listening between two or more people. Nods of the head,

eye movements and conscious and unconscious body shifts are all

regulators used to encourage or discourage conversation. Americans

tend to use little or no extended eye contact while Italians, some

Asian cultures and the French, to name a few, incorporate much more eye

contact into their nonverbal communication. It is a proven fact that

most of us cannot control the responses of our eyes, thu! s revealing,

to a certain, degree, our inner emotions. It is for this reason that

members of the Arab culture go as far as wearing dark glasses, even

indoors, to conceal the responses of their eyes, especially when

negotiating. Finally, adaptors are used frequently to express boredom,

show internal feelings or regulate a situation. For example, those who

are bored tend to tap their fingers and glance around the room at

random, paying little attention to speaker(s). All emblems,

illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors are not

universally recognized. Each culture has its own unique set of

recognized symbols and gestures that convey a variety of emotions and

meaning. Care must be taken to adapt one’s gestures to their

environment so as not to insult or cause awkwardness when speaking with

a person from a different culture.

Another aspect of communication is olfactics, the study of

smells and how they affect us. Our sense of smell is

extraordinarily precise. Growing evidence also suggests that we

remember what we smell longer than we remember what we hear and see

(Berko et al, 1998). We are attracted by the scents of certain

colognes repulsed by others. Some people find certain body odors

extremely offensive. This is especially true in the United States

where we have been taught through advertisement and those in the

medical field to wash off natural odors and replace them with neutral,

fragrance-free or substitute smells. This is definitely not the case

among other cultures, causing North Americans to view people with

natural body odors and smells as being dirty. The French have a

particularly infamous reputation in this regard.

The need for increased awareness concerning interpersonal

communication in an intercultural setting is great, and should

not be ignored. If relations and exchanges between people from

drastically different cultures could be smoothed and cleared of

confusion and awkwardness, cultures would not be so

apprehensive about communicating with one another.

Misinterpretation of the underlying dimensions of interpersonal

communication can lead to conflict. Current findings have

important ideas for better ways to improve and enhance

interpersonal communication. One example is the usage of

Culture Assimilator in different business organizations and

educational institutes. This technique, which trains employees

and students to be more sensitive in the face of a different

culture, has been shown to be effective in some cases. The

Culture Assimilator presents the trainee with a series of

“critical incidents,” stories in which there is a conflict or

misunderstanding between a member of! a subject culture and a

member of a target culture. The trainee is then asked to evaluate the

target culture member’s behavior (Randolph et al, 1996). Although

results show a small positive effect, futre research is needed in

order to explore ways to develop more effective training programs.

Many different groups of people such businesspeople, families,

couples, friends, coworkers, and students on high school or college

campuses could benefit from increased awareness and training in the

field of interpersonal communication among varying cultures. As is

true with the issue of race relations, the amount of tension,

awkwardness, insult and even physical violence could be decreased by

large numbers if organizations would train their employees or students

in how to better communicate with those that happen to be a member of

a different cultural background.

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