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2.1: The Impact of Culture on Behavior

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    Learning Objectives

    After completing this section, students should be able to:

    1. Describe what it means to be a provisional communicator. 
    2. Define culture and co-culture.
    3. List several co-cultural groups in the United States.
    4. Define intercultural communication.
    5. Explain the reasons for education in intercultural communication.

    Psychologists have used the term egocentric to describe a person who is self-focused and unable to imagine any other perspective than his or her own. Young children are naturally egocentric, assuming that everyone else thinks, perceives, and communicates as they do. To a certain extent, we remain egocentric even as we mature, and it can be very challenging to understand that varied perceptions, values, and beliefs exist which are equally valid as our own.  However, to communicate effectively and to form satisfying personal and professional relationships, we must step away from our egotism and seek to understand the point of view, or as Chapter One calls it, the worldview of others.  Learning about different worldviews can lead to our becoming provisional communicators.

    Provisionalism is the ability to accept the diversity of perceptions and beliefs, and to operate in a manner sensitive to that diversity. Being a provisional communicator does not mean we abandon our own beliefs and values, nor does it mean we have to accept all beliefs and values as correct. Instead, provisionalism leads us to seek to understand variations in human behaviors and to understand the field of experience out of which the other person operates. Provisionalism means:

    • We interpret the communication and behavior based on our own life experiences, but then
    • We stop and consider, “How was the message intended?” or “What other factors may be motivating this communication or behavior?”

    An excellent place to start understanding the communication of others is with an understanding of the impact of culture.


    Culture refers to the broad set of shared beliefs and values that form a collective vision of ourselves and others.  The tools we use, the goods we buy, the foods we each, and the clothing we wear are all influenced by our culture.  Our language, religion, laws, rules of social conduct, folklore, cultural icons, and the beliefs, norms, collective memories, attitudes, values, and practices that form our worldview and which help us relate to the world are also culturally determined. (Barrett). Culture is learned, and it can be so ingrained it becomes challenging to identify how it influences our thoughts and behaviors. 

    Let's begin our discussion of culture with our dominant or broad culture, which is usually but not always the country or nation of our upbringing.  In the United States, most citizens place a high value on self-determination, believing each individual has a fundamental right to make choices that he or she deems best for them. As long as their actions do not harm others, they feel free to follow the life path of their own choosing. If others attempt to force them to act or think in certain ways, they tend to rebel. The United States is considered an individualistic culture because of this belief in self-determination.  Other core values shared by most United States are equality, freedom of speech and religion, and competition. 

    It is important to understand that other cultures may not value self-determination and individualism.  Some countries emphasize doing what is best for the group (the family or the company, for instance). In such cultures, engaging in individual behaviors that reflect poorly on the group is a powerful social taboo. For example, in some Asian cultures, if a student performs poorly academically, it is seen as a reflection on the entire family, bringing shame to all. The pressures to succeed are based not on personal achievement but on maintaining the honor of the entire family. Contrast that to the United States, where students are generally seen as failing or succeeding, on their own merit.

    An American man in a Chinese marketplace.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Keith: An American Professor Visits China. Source: Martin & Nakayama, 2018.

    In the dominant U.S. culture, children are usually taught it is rude to stare at people, especially those markedly different from themselves. Extended gazes are unsettling and even offensive. This is not true, however, in all cultures. When Keith, the American professor shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) traveled to China several years ago, he had to acclimate to this cultural difference. Since he stood out as markedly different; lighter-skinned, bald, taller, and larger than average Chinese, he would regularly observe people staring at him, and many were doing so quite openly and obviously. If he had simply interpreted this staring according to his own culture, he would have drawn the conclusion that Chinese people were extremely rude. Since Keith knew from various travel books that staring is acceptable in China, he was able to understand that this behavior was perfectly appropriate within the context of the Chinese culture. If he had not learned about the culture beforehand, he might have experienced even greater culture shock. This term refers to the discomfort felt when interacting in a new environment with few familiar cues to guide our communication behaviors (Martin & Nakayama, 2018).

    Be aware that cultures do not have static sets of beliefs, values, and behavior; instead, they evolve over time. In the U.S., we have seen large cultural shifts in the past 50 years. Sexual mores have changed quite dramatically, as have our attitudes about individual rights. While in the past women were restricted to a narrow range of careers, today we assume men and women are equally able to pursue the career of their choice. Attitudes toward minorities and immigrants continue to evolve. During the past 10 years, the changes in attitudes toward sexuality and the civil rights of same-sex couples are quite striking.  

    Another important component of worldview is determined by an individual's co-culture.


    It is important to know that a broad culture, like the United States, India, an other countries or societies, will also have a number of smaller cultural groups, sometimes called co-cultures, operating within it. A co-culture is an identifiable group with its own unique traits operating within the larger culture.   For example, Keith's wife and her sister can talk for hours about all sorts of relationship issues with co-workers, with family members, and with friends while he finds such extensive conversations exhausting. Since female communication is normally more focused on relationship development and maintenance, such conversations are consistent with the feminine communication style. The masculine style is more focused on action and the bare details of events, who did what to whom, and not as focused on the nuances of relational dynamics. As someone who uses the masculine style, once Keith gets the basic details, he thinks he is informed and does not feel a need to dissect the smaller details of the event. Note that the masculine and feminine communication styles are not based on biology; men can use a feminine style and women can use a masculine style.  

    In the United States, various co-cultures exist, including those identified by

    • Age or generation.  For example Baby Boomers, Generation X, teens, senior citizens.
    • Race or ethnicity.  For example, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites.
    • Differing abilities, such as a person who is deaf, a wheelchair user, or a person with Down syndrome.
    • Sex, such as male or female
    • Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation, such as binary or LGBTQ+.
    • Religion, such as Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and so on.
    • Affiliation or interests, such as NASCAR fans, gamers, or even gang members.
    • Region of the country or city, such as urban north, deep south.
    • Occupation.
    • And many more.
    North Dakota State Senator Richard Marcellais, a Native American, presents Medal of Honor recipient Clinton L. Romesha with an eagle statue
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): North Dakota State Senator Richard Marcellais. Source:"Romesha Reception 12" by North Dakota National Guard is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Our verbal and nonverbal communication are influenced by our co-culture. Consider:

    • The use of specific gestures, colors, and styles of dress in inner-city gangs;
    • The classic Southern Accent;
    • The use of regional sayings, such as “you betcha,” or “whatever” in rural Minnesota;
    • The quiet nature of Native Americans who may prefer to listen and observe.
    • Use of terms such as pop, soda, or coke to refer to carbonated beverages.
    A family in traditional wear at a Kwanzaa celebration
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    In your academic and work life, you will communicate with people from many different cultures and co-cultures. These variations in lifestyle, communication behaviors, values, beliefs, art, food, and such provide a rich quilt of human experience, and for the individual who can accept and appreciate these differences, it is an invigorating experience to move among them.

    Intercultural Communication

    Intercultural communication occurs when two or more individuals who are from different cultures or co-cultures interact. Conducting business with a person from another country is one example of intercultural communication.  Communication with a person from a different age group, ethnicity, or gender can also be considered intercultural communication. In other words, intercultural communication is human communication.   

    The Council of Europe states the importance of intercultural communication very effectively: "Mutual understanding and intercultural competence are more important than ever today because through them we can address some of the most virulent problems of contemporary societies. Manifestations of prejudice, discrimination, and hate speech have become common, and political parties advocating extremist ideas have gained fresh momentum. These problems are linked to ... misunderstandings between people from different cultural backgrounds and affiliations. There is a felt urgency –  for education that allows citizens to live together in culturally diverse societies.  The ability to understand and communicate with each other across all kinds of cultural divisions is a prerequisite for making such societies work.  For this reason, intercultural education can make an essential contribution to peaceful coexistence."  (Barrett)

    Key Terms

    • culture
    • co-culture
    • culture shock
    • intercultural communication
    • provisional communicator
    • egocentric
    • worldview


    1. Answer the question, "who are you."  In a group, discuss your answers.  How many cultures or co-cultures could you identify during your discussion.
    2. Media: Watch and discuss this video of an intercultural couple as they discuss how they negotiate cultural differences. Particularly, a Japanese man and a white U.S. American woman discuss their differences. What We Argue About| Japanese/American Marriage (
    3. Media: Watch and discuss this video. Miles Best talks to an author about Black culture, and how it is American culture. Language is discussed, as well as other parts of Black culture. Black Culture in the United States (


    Barrett, Martyn, Michael Byram, Ildikò Lázár, Pascale Mompoint-Gaillard, Stavroula Philippou. Developing Intercultural Competence Through Education. 16 Jan. 2013.

    Bennett, M.J. (2011). A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. Intercultural Development Research Institute. Retrieved 4/4/2017 from 12pp_quotes_rev_2011.pdf

    Verderber, K.S., & MacGeorge, E.L. (2016). Inter-Act: Interpersonal communication concepts, skills, and contexts. New York: Oxford University Press.

    This page titled 2.1: The Impact of Culture on Behavior is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.