How Physiology and Culture Influence Perception
For the purposes of this online educational resource, culture is defined as a group of people who share values, beliefs, norms, and a common language. Due to this shared way of thinking and behaving, people from the same culture often share similar perspectives on the world. Although we are likely to associate culture with a specific country or part of the world (for example, Western vs. Eastern culture), even within a specific country, there are often smaller groups of like-minded individuals that develop into co-cultures. Co-cultures may be a group of people from a specific religious or ethnic group. Other examples of co-cultures include the LGBTQIA+ community, those who subscribe to a specific political affiliation, or even community college students. Marginalized groups often form co-cultures, as this allows people to maintain strong bonds and unique shared experiences with which to build relationships within a larger cultural context. (The term co-culture replaced the formerly used term subculture, in order to emphasize that no one culture is superior or inferior to another.)
Our cultural groups or cultural identities shape our perceptions of others. This includes the groups we belong to or are assigned to based on our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and ability. Most of us are steeped in the teachings of the cultural groups that we belong to from a very young age. Paraphrasing Bonn (2015), children gradually learn to make sense of their existence in the world through ideas about identity and what purposes their lives serve; they depend upon the symbols that hold society together. For example, CODA is a term that hearing children of deaf adults have chosen to represent the “unique heritage and multicultural identities of adult hearing individuals with deaf parents” (CODA International, 2022).
We know that a strong cultural identity correlates positively with self-esteem (Phinney, et al., 1997; Bracey, et al., 2004). So it follows that people in the same cultural groups or with the same cultural identities would benefit from the link they share to beliefs and values. It is important for us to name some of these cultural groups and consider how membership might impact perception.
Race refers to a category of people who may share certain inherited physical characteristics, such as skin color, facial features, and stature. Although race is a social construct, people often make assumptions about others that are based on their perceived racial category. When was the last time you were asked to self-identify your race? Chances are that you have filled out an online form or answered this question recently. When you open a credit card account, fill out a form at your doctor’s office, or even sign up for a social media account, you are generally asked about your race. How does our perception of our own and others racial identities affect communication?
This is obviously a complex subject and not something that can be adequately explained in a few paragraphs. In fact, the University of Connecticut offers a semester-long course called “People of Color and Interpersonal Communication” to address a greater number of issues and situations than is possible in this short section. For now, it is important to state that our perception of our own race, as well our perception of the racial identity of the person we interact with, influences the quality and outcomes of the interaction.
Where we are from, and the people we are surrounded by as we develop from infancy to adulthood, impact the way we see the world and thus how we engage in interpersonal relationships. Often the terms race and ethnicity are used interchangeably (SAMHSA, 2014). At other times, ethnic groups are identified by a shared heritage. In other words, ethnicity refers to people with the same country of origin. Of course, many ethic groups speak a common language and practice shared behavioral norms, meaning they also share culture.
Regionalism refers to geographic areas made up of multiple states, communities, or countries that work in concert or have common goals (Nye, 1968). Within the United States, you might be familiar with the regions such as the South, Midwest, or New England. Whether we are talking about what ethnic group or region someone is from, we know that our perceptions are influenced by our families, communities, in some cases religious institutions, and even by the language that we speak.
For example, if Chiara grows up in Italy, she likely speaks Italian and practices Catholicism, and she may consider spaghetti and meatballs to be a staple of her diet. She may encounter Rajit from India, who practices Sikhism and is vegetarian. Due to Chiara’s ethnic group and her upbringing, particularly if she is from a homogenous region, her perception of Rajit will be of someone who is outside of her group and she will recognize their differences. This is in contrast to when she meets Carlo (another Italian from her region), and notices their similarities.
Sex Assigned at Birth, and Gender
In the United States, a gender binary perspective has been imposed as a norm for the majority of the population since the country’s founding. Within the gender binary perspective, not only are there only two possibilities for gender expression (male and female), there are also very set characteristics (often opposing) for each gender. Here are some examples you may be familiar with: Females are assumed to have long hair, whereas males are assumed to have short hair; males are strong and females are weak; females are emotional and males are unemotional. It may be obvious to you that these exaggerated differences between genders are stereotypes and often untrue. However, these societal assumptions guide our perceptions of others, as well as our interpersonal interactions.
There are many different sexualities, and none is more “normal” or “abnormal” than any other. We live in a heteronormative culture, where through politics and social pressure, heterosexuality is viewed as the “norm.” Unfortunately, having a perspective where one sexuality is seen as the norm leads to discrimination of people who identify and/or practice other sexualities. In terms of interpersonal communication, let’s consider how this discrimination affects real-world interaction.
In 1993, the Clinton administration signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Department of Defense directive, which stipulated that anyone, regardless of sexuality, had a right to serve in the military—so long as they did not disclose their sexuality. However, this was not exactly true. Anyone who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or otherwise queer would be discharged from military service if they openly discussed their relationships, while people in heterosexual relationships were free to discuss dating, partnerships, and thoughts about sex. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2010, after 17 years, but discrimination still limits safe and free speech for LGBTQIA+ community members in the military.
In more positive news, limits on interpersonal interactions based on sexuality have seen some progress. In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (in Obergefell v. Hodges, reaching a 5–4 decision) found that the right to marry is a fundamental right, regardless of the sex or gender identity of the two partners. This decision, along with changing and more accepting attitudes in younger generations, has resulted in an increase of Americans who openly identify as queer (or anything outside of straight and cisgender). In fact, in 2020 15.9% or one in six 18–23 year olds (Generation Z) self-identified as other than straight. For these young adults, it is easier to self-identify as queer and speak freely regarding their sexualities, as there is less stigma and discrimination among others in their generation. Discrimination still exists, however, as evidenced by Florida House Bill 1557, which became effective in July 1, 2022. Also known as “Don’t Say Gay,” this legislation limits discussion of sexuality in elementary schools.
"Inclusion is about willingness to take a unique difference and develop it as a gift to others. It is not about disability." — Judith Snow
One in four (26%) adults in the United States live with a disability (Okoro, et al., 2018). Despite how commonplace disability is among US citizens, discrimination against people with disabilities occurs regularly. Able-bodied people may see a person who uses a wheelchair and imagine how difficult or terrible it would be to not be able to walk. For a person with a physical disability, using a wheelchair may equate to freedom of movement.
There is a strong international disability movement that recognizes “disability” is actually created by environmental barriers, as opposed to any person's physical issues. For example, someone who is deaf communicates as well or better with sign language than with the spoken word. The limits on this person’s communication are due to a lack of people who use sign language or a skilled translator. In healthcare, to determine pain level, many hospitals and doctors offices use a number of measures, including a number scale and the Facial Action Coding System (Kripke, 2018). However there is still work to be done to improve communication with neurodiverse patients, who may have different interpretations of facial expressions (Dildine & Atlas, 2019).
The documentary Crip Camp features teenagers who participate in a summer camp (Camp Jened) for disabled adolescents, and it looks into their futures as adult advocates for accessibility and disability rights. Perhaps you watched this documentary, or the movie CODA. (The acronym CODA stands for "child of deaf adults.") Each of these Oscar-nominated films features people living with disabilities who lead multifaceted lives, speak and act with power and leadership, and look at disability as a culture or community. In both of these films, we see disability as one aspect of identity, and how intersectionality—the different parts of our identities, including race, gender, age, sexuality, ability, etc.—plays a role in power, privilege, and the way we are treated and function in our everyday lives.
Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), intersectionality sees the various human identities as connected, shaped by, and influenced by one another. What this means is that as multifaceted human beings, we experience these multiple aspects of our human identity concurrently. Please read the following questions to consider, reflect and discuss your own experiences with the disability community.
- Are you someone who lives with a disability? Or do you have a friend or relative who lives with a disability? Please discuss how other people’s perceptions of disability may be different from people who live with disabilities.
- How can we be more mindful and aware of the intersectionality of other people’s identities in our everyday perception of others?
- The creators of the film Crip Camp chose this title. Discuss how using terminology that may be perceived as offensive by some, acts as a way of taking power when it is used by a marginalized group.
- Please take a moment to read this blog on disability-affected speech by disability advocate Denise Sherer Jacobson. How can each of us work to eliminate barriers to inclusivity for people with disability-affected speech?
- Movies like Crip Camp and CODA provide a way to increase inclusivity and representation of people with disabilities on a wider scale. What are other ways that each of us can increase inclusivity and representation for people with disabilities?
Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Social Cognitive Abilities
Known in the medical literature as prosopagnosia, people who have face blindness have difficulty recognizing the face of another person and connecting that with a name or personality. A neurotypical individual recognizes approximately 5,000 different faces (Jenkins, et al., 2018). “Accurate and rapid recognition of a face is critical for social [interaction] because it allows one to gauge behavior, intent, and appropriate social response, based on previous experiences” (Avery, et al., 2016). Without the ability to connect a name to a face of someone familiar, people with face blindness must depend on other cues, including hair, voice, height, and dress. Receiving or recognizing a diagnosis of face blindness can be very helpful for those who live with it. Shelly Beaser, an individual with face blindness, stated that she previously thought she was a “lazy observer,” until her condition was named (Altman, 2021).