What is it that intercultural communication students cannot afford to miss about the American Culture?
of Intercultural Communication, University College, Troy State University
President/CEO, New Mexico Independence Research Institute, Inc.
Culture is about survival of the human species. Central
values and human capital formation drive cultures. This paper discusses
intercultural communication theory from a historical-developmental perspective
across the history of humankind, thus defining the uniqueness of the human
cultural experience, namely, speech communication. Linking this unique
empirical-based human cultural experience to specific cultures and their core
values is the topic of this paper. Through a study of the empirical
historical-developmental experience of the
The paper suggests that intercultural communication between human groups is not a new phenomenon and may well hold key values to survival for humankind. Studies in intercultural communication research and theory building might do well to apply this anthropological and historical-developmental approach to the study of culture across the span of human time and evaluate those elements of different cultures which seem to be core values that promote survivability of humankind using human cultural capital.
keywords: historical development, anthropology of cultures, speech communication, core values, human cultural capital, survival of mankind.
Introduction and Purpose
Culture is about survival of the human species. Without culture, human beings cannot survive. For example, the Neanderthal human, it is hypothesized, did not survive because of the inability to speak clearly and transmit culture (Ape Man, 1994).19 Homo sapiens survive, it is hypothesized, because of culture and the ability to speak, therefore, they symbolize and create culture (art and play, tool making, economic organization, social organization, world view, political organization, language, social control and material culture). It is both a physiological-genetic issue (zoosemiotic) of the changing structure of the mouth and tongue which allowed the homo sapien to do what its relative, the Neanderthal, could not do, namely, to speak with clarity and advance the culture via symbols (anthroposemiotic). Unlike all other animals humankind is composed of both zoosemiotic and anthroposemiotic sign systems . Animals, by contrast, are singularly zoosemiotic. (Sebeok, 1968).18 Human culture is, therefore, unique from Orangutang culture because of speech communication.14 Speech communication, as defined by Larson and Dance is as follows: "Uniquely human. The process or the product of the process of the fusion of genetically determined speech with culturally determined language." 1
Culture, it would seem, provides certain contributions to the survival of humankind that makes survival of the species, homo sapien possible. Cultures die out because they did not provide sufficient vitality for the culture to survive and/or they met with catastrophic conditions that allowed their culture to be overtaken by other cultures. This process, it would seem, is a kind of evolutionary sorting process between cultures that collide with one another.3 Those principles that lend vitality to one culture can often be inculcated into the values of the next culture. Therefore, to study the value roots or the basis of various cultures via intercultural communication disciplines, might lend predictability to either the survival of a particular culture and/or understanding of its predictable elemental roots. It is theorized here that the cultures that remain most open to change in a way that brings to bear these core values for survivability, are the cultures that have the most to gain with respect to survivability, not only for the particular culture, but maybe for human civilizations as a whole. This produces a seemingly interesting paradox. How can culture both preserve values (resist change) while using change to enhance the species? This is possible as described by Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch because of first order changes and second order changes that occur in groups.15 Human culture is a problem formation and problem resolution process and uses higher order abstractions via speech communication to provide for change. Some cultures can produce superficial change, but do not have the core values which allow them to produce second order change that could advance the culture into survivability. The Cold War produced such a condition for two camps. Osgood is quoted as follows on this issue:
"Our political and military leaders have been virtually unanimous in public assertions that we must go ahead and stay ahead in the armament race; they have been equally unanimous in saying nothing about what happens then. Suppose we achieve the state of ideal mutual deterrence…what then? Surely no sane man can envisage our planet spinning on into eternity, divided into two armed camps poised to destroy each other, and call it peace and security! The point is that the policy of mutual deterrence includes no provisions for its own resolution." 20
Cultures are afflicted similarly. That is, they appear to be making all sorts of changes as measured by cultural traits, but in fact, the core values remain in tact that prevent or enhance the survivability of the culture. Teaching intercultural communication via trait studies alone may be a good measure of first order change, but it may miss the underlying values of the culture that can enhance or limit second order change leading to survivability. It is possible, for example, to have a highly individualistic culture, as defined by Hofstede, but miss the variations in individualistic cultures around the globe which have differing core values that may enhance or limit second order change. This same condition can prevail in collectivistic cultures as well. Asians, like Lee Kuan Yew, promote and posit Confucian value traits for all of Asia that simply do not exist in other cultures like Malaysia (Muslim and Chinese cultures), Thailand, Indonesia (primarily Muslim culture), Japan, or even the Philippines.22
His assertion in support of Asian traits and values simply
are hollow assertions and do not apply to all of
Lee, as a Chinese Singaporean Asian has asserted that American values are different from Asian collective values via Confucian philosophical roots. (Lee Kuan Yu, 2000).22 There are Confucian values that are different from other cultures, but to assert that there is a single set of Asian values begs the question; name them? This kind of trait analysis by Lee is weak because it lacks cultural developmental historical data in support of his assertions. Hong Kong’s existence is proof positive that a Chinese city-state can be created that does not have the social engineering and/or the iron fist of leadership associated with it that is the norm for Singapore. Recent visits in Asia and speeches by Mr. Lee clearly demonstrate that he may not want a democratic, free, and stable city-state of Chinese origin in Asia to compete with his own cultural ideologies about how Chinese or Asians need to be governed.21 These cultural trait clashes, East to West, miss the underlying values that a developmental approach might bring to understanding the core values of many cultures in each region. For this reason, Lee’s musings are instructive for scholars in intercultural communication.
Much discussion is also underway in European cultures about
the American culture and its preoccupation with certain values that seem
antithetical or at least disruptive to intercultural communication between
nations and peoples.27 Diplomats are discussing the role that both
diplomacy and culture (sharing of the performance and visual arts between
nations) plays in humanizing the political processes between nations as yet
another way to enhance intercultural communication (White House Conference on
Diplomacy and Culture, November 28, 2000). Many cultures see the
This paper examines a key elemental value of the American
cultural system and suggests that this value is what attracts people to the
culture worldwide. Further, it is hypothesized that this core value is
instrumental in assuring second order change for the
Defining the Difference of Humankind and the Difference it makes to Culture
What is human culture? Human culture is the shared learned symbolic knowledge derived from speech communication. The basis and uniqueness of human culture is speech communication as defined herein. That is to say, animal communication is distinguishable from human communication in that humans are symbolic anthroposemiotic sign communicators whereas animals are sign limited by zoosemiotic communication.(Sebeok, 1968).18 Using Sebeok’s study of animal communication, Dance and Larson (1972) made a persuasive argument for the idea that speech communication, thus human symbolic communication is the difference of man and the difference it makes. They said, "Symbolic communication is man’s alone." (Dance and Larson, 1972, p.41).1 How, then, do we define culture?
Culture as defined here is as follows:
Culture is the shared system of symbolic knowledge and patterns of behavior derived from speech communication, that human individuals carry to provide predictable internal and external psychological stability so as to prevent chaos among human individuals. We learn cultural codes for social life, role expectations, common definitions of situations, and social norms in order to provide predictability and survival of the human species. Human language (spoken and written) is the symbolic glue for human culture. (Aldridge, 1997). 29
What is uniquely human is our symbolic knowledge that we carry and act upon in our varied cultural settings. Speech communication makes culture possible because it is uniquely human. Gudykunst discusses how the reduction of uncertainty is important to intercultural communication.16 We want to know the cultural rules or codes so that we can predict mutual group behaviors and reduce the chaos in our lives as we move from culture to culture or even within sub-cultural settings. This allows the human being to share specialized knowledge in group settings and makes it possible for the species to survive without having to carry out all the necessary acts for living and survival because we can communicate the rules symbolically and learn them over time. Sharks have survived a long time because they have built in genetic codes that make it a stealthy hunter, but they are not symbolic animals in the human sense. Pavlov defined human communication as the "second signal system" by using a single vocal/verbal signal.30 Humans rely on this second signal system, through culture, for survival. Animals do not.
Human beings progressed over time from non or low-symbolic animals to highly symbolic ones. It is the gift that keeps humanity from becoming extinct. In this sense, the function of human speech communication is to provide, by logical necessity, for the vase in which the flowers of culture are grown. Culture’s function is to reduce uncertainty by developing, with the use of speech communication, order out of chaos. Culture is predicable social glue. Think about it for a moment. Culture preserves values for future generations to embrace. It provides education which is shared so that the species might become more understanding of the environment, create higher mental processes, and regulate behavior.1 The newborn infant has the ability to speak, but the child must be taught the language of choice and the rules for the culture in which it resides.
Where those values become irrelevant, culture demonstrates to us that new and better functional ways of survival can be born. Human beings advanced from caves to houses for a reason. Political ideological cultures have emerged as well. What seems functional for societies can also become dysfunctional for humanity too. Hitler’s 3rd Reich was not acceptable as a cultural political ideology for the majority of cultures, it was destroyed by other cultures. Locke says, "For I have reason to conclude that he who would get me into his power without my consent would use me as he please when he had fancy to do it; for nobody can desire to have me in his absolute power unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i.e., to make me a slave."40 That is, cultures can begin to promulgate ideas and values which they believe will lead to the survival of the species, but which in fact do not and further, when they impinge on the freedom of others in doing so makes it impossible because it violates the natural liberty of humankind. Human cultures come and go in this process; a process that is both biological and culturally induced. This is best demonstrated by trying to seek out a Neanderthal and ask him why he is not around any more. Through the strange mix of biology, genetics and language, culture is developed, shared and passed on to new generations of people for the sole purpose of survival.
communication is the mechanism (the mixing of cultures and languages via speech
communication) by which human beings have compared ways of living, economic
order, social order, and values from other cultures. These ideas are compared between, within and among cultural groups.
Thus, the American and the European cultures do not always agree on the same
values. For example, when it comes to cultural comparisons, like the death
penalty, Europeans are astonished that 38 states allow the death penalty in the
French bookstores are full of this kind of diatribe about
Just what is the basis for the culture of the
The Physiological and Biological Basis for Speech Communication
Without speech communication human beings do not have a culture. Language provides us, through our unique biology of created speech via the larynx, the opportunity to share symbolic ideas like no other creature on earth. We are, therefore, fragile species compared to our other animal friends with whom we share this planet.
Most other species survive exclusively on the basis of
built-in instincts that are biological pre-determined. The sounds a cricket
makes, for example. The flight patterns of birds and their migrations are
evidence of built-in genetic codes and learned behavior in other species. The
long life of the shark as a species is another example. Only the human being
communicates, via higher order abstractions, symbolically and then creates
cultures (predictability) to increase the probability for survival. While
monkeys and some apes, it has been demonstrated, can communicate via sign
language, the development of this language falls far short of the capabilities
of the human being in terms of symbolic communication. As noted by
Animal research demonstrates clearly that human communication is distinguishable from animal communication. Dance and Larson (1972) have provided adequate defense on the uniqueness of speech communication behavior.1 To use Mortimer Adler’s phrase, "the difference of man and the difference it makes," is speech communication, our ability to speak and create symbolic language that leads to thought.2 While we cannot know precisely in time when humankind became "truly human" via speech communication, we can attest to the fact that the moment in time was a radical change ( a second order change) and the beginning of human culture. Primitive groups had to find a way in which to educate all members about the rules and values for existence. Culture was that mechanism for human tribes and ethnic groups. An exploration of the anthropology of cultures can provide some understanding here.
The Developmental Anthropology of Cultures
Cultures were born because humankind moved from the
original African homeland and began migrating around the world. With recent DNA
discoveries in Australia that are 40,000 to 60,000 years old, the migration of
humans out of Africa becomes much more complicated.26 This new DNA
analysis posits that homo erectus left Africa and homo sapiens developed, most
likely in regions of the world. Nonetheless, these peoples
moved, first, north to what is now
In order to survive, various cultures and species were born and reborn, that is, they learned different ways in which to gather food, hunt and maintain life. Each of the new cultures were adapted and interwoven into humankind’s early cultural developments such as language, religion, art, science, and even government or social organization.
Conquests were won and lost between cultures as Thomas Sowell has demonstrated in his work Conquests and Cultures.3 Conquests have produced cultural evolution. What seems quite clear from Sowell’s work is that "cultural capital" not genes or race, per se, lead us to cultural evolution. This is important because buried in the cultural capital are cultural values. Eventually the vanquished adapted and adopted many new cultural behaviors and values that led to their own survival. The cultural capital is the result of historical, geographic, and social innovations says Sowell.
"Cultural resistance is both spontaneous and artificial. The desire to cling to the familiar, or to remain loyal to traditions and to the people in whom those traditions are embodied, are all readily understandable. In addition, however, concerted campaigns to resist new cultures or to retrieve ancestral cultures already abandoned have also been promoted to both political and intellectual leaders." 3
Ideas, because of technology and cultural diffusion, spread
around the world. Ideas, (cultural capital) about liberty and freedom, ideas
about scientific knowledge and cultural ways of innovating move like lightening
around the world because of language. Music, fast food, and even ways of
governing sweep around the world with great speed in the information age. Does
this mean that we have a common world culture? Do we want to have, for example,
a singular world civilization, with many cultural tribes, as Braudel and Sowell have outlined? 3,4
What humankind does with intercultural communication opportunities may
determine the historical, biological and cultural outcomes for humankind.
Cultures can both simultaneously deliver first and second order change that
leads to survival. In this respect, we are sealers of our own fate and we do
not seem to be doing well with respect to advancing these opportunities through
our intercultural experiences as we move into the new millennium. We do not
seem to be able to get tribes in the
Culture, Language and Change
Culture provides predictability for humankind. Because human life can be quite inefficient, culture offers us the predictable patterns of behavior that lead to cooperative expectancies. How do we eat food properly? How do we create common measurements upon which we can rely? How do we introduce, greet and sustain relationships with others? In what manner shall we conduct commerce and under what government conditions? Inside international business, rules for conducting business are becoming quite homogenous, e.g., banking, finance methods, marketing strategies and management of intercultural groups. Each culture provides predictability, thus changing culture can be quite difficult unless the cultural value being changed has been demonstrated to be of less value or no longer useful to a particular group.
Cultures also test new ideas and introduce potential change. The introduction of English, for example, on a worldwide basis for use in business and international trade is threatening to some cultures. Language, too, provides the social bonding and predictability because humans have rules for language and these rules lead us to communicate more efficiently and effectively. It has often been said prescriptively, if you want to learn the heart of the people, you must learn the language. We say this because language helps us understand how to "think" in a particular culture.
Cultures borrow from each other language in order to provide more precision for their language. English, for example, quite readily adapts words from other cultures like the French laisse faire (hands off) or perestroika (restructuring) from the Russians.23 On the other hand, the French have people who watch for new words, particularly in the high technology arena, so that they can quickly create French words that can be used instead of English words.
Sometimes, the word as it is found in the original language really communicates the word more effectively and is more easily understood and adopted. Language, Whorf (1956) pointed out is directly related to the thoughts and actions which cultures develop.31 Yet, through the study of linguistics we understand that cultural diversity is based upon universal human foundations, i.e, universal human experiences (Sapir-Whorf (1921/1956), Lucy (1992), Silverstein (1976), Langacker (1987). 23, 24, 31,32, 34, Boas (1911/1966) has demonstrated how language structure, via the Native Americans, provides researchers with the insight to understand culture via "other mentalities" of meaning.25 Goffman (1974) suggests that culture frames our experience and organizes data. 36 Harrison (1985) is convinced that culture and the organizing language of culture can explain "Underdevelopment as a State of Mind". 24
Language is, therefore, extremely important to the
understanding of what I like to call "core meanings" in each culture.
In each culture there are "novices" and "knowing"
generations. Only that which is communicated between the "knowing"
and the "novices" in each culture has the chance for survival of
important core meanings that make up the culture. To understand the core
meaning of a culture is a dive into the pool of consistent thought and actions
of a people (Benedict, 1934).37 Important and lasting core meanings
and values become a part of civilizations because they have endured….they have
added to the survival of the human species. These values produce a patterning
that is predictable in order to create the "mindfulness" which Gudykunst (1984) understands to be a key element in
producing effective intercultural communication.16 So what happens when we apply these developmental-historical
principles and ideas to a specific culture? The following is an analysis of the
origins of American cultural values which are often discussed in the
developmental history of the
American Culture and the Idea of Self-Government
Edward T. Hall (1966) has said that the "hidden dimensions" of language and culture provide interesting insights into understanding the cultural behavior of other groups with whom we may not be familiar.7 For example, Thomas Woods, Jr. (2000) points out that the seeds of liberty are found in the behavior of the colonies.5 The practical nature of the colonies and its commitment to self-government were driving cultural forces that eventually produced the Constitution of the United States of America. Fischer (1989) provides an analysis of the English immigration to the colonies by insisting that the differences between the Virginians and the Puritans of New England were huge and each was very suspicious of the other.38
From the beginning, American culture was defining itself
against confederations of big government in favor of self-government. The Dominion
of New England included
Self-government, then, is one of the cultural dimensions
that, when carefully analyzed, appears early in cultural colonial American
assumptions. The colonists were suspicious of monarchies, theocracies, and
anything that smacked of big government that could usurp the rights of
individuals and their liberty. But if we carefully analyze the development of
the Constitution of the
The analysis, leading to the answers for these questions, is interesting. I often have my graduate students in intercultural communication write down answers to the following questions:
What would you list here? My students write about religious freedom, freedom from the tyranny of the state as the American dream, covenantal freedom associated with humility and equality at its core, and national values that allow for immigration of all people to our shores. Many immigrants discuss the ideas about economic freedom to choose their life and their work in a manner that is of their own choosing. But under closer analysis, are these issues really the cultural glue that holds Americans together?
Because my research and travel take me to
many cultures, over 100 now, I have often been asked by outsiders to the
American culture, what is it that really drives the culture of the
Covenantal Freedom as the Basis for American Culture
Richard Parker of the
The Basis for American Values as Religious Commitment
Maier (1995) suggests another view of American culture. 8
He is concerned about Americans believing that religion is the basis of
American culture because the root word is "cult"(as defined here he
means a particular system of religious worship) or a small group of religions
that formed the basis for American values. To be sure, the role of religion in
St. Augustine said, "a people is a multitudinous assemblage of rational beings united by concord regarding love of things held in common"….thus, we need to investigate what a people’s concord is in order to get at the heart of a civilization.9 America, according to Maier, is a multi-cultural group with many ethnic groups, bound by a market economy and representing many cultures.
This approach does not help the analysis because it still
does not articulate a core value presupposed by some scholars that religion
alone was the basis for foundational
America’s Identity as a Configuration of Values and Themes
(1995) approaches the central idea for the basis of "being American"
within the framework of underlying values which link all Americans to an
identity.10 According to Ruth Benedict, identity is a whole or
gestalt or configuration which leads to a national identity. This identity is
shared by many cultures within American society. We derive who we are by our
holistic underlying values. The problem is that when a nation is in trouble it
looks for national identity….something upon which all people in the society can
share. WWII, for example, pulled everyone together around the idea that
Japanese theo-militarism and German Nazi despotism
would not stand. American identity was bound around the idea that you went to
war to represent and do battle against those that did not support freedom and
liberty. That was, for the moment, our national identity. We didn’t care where
you came from or what culture you represented, if you cared and identified with
The difficulty with national identity is that this feeling of
national identity is short-lived. It is fleeting. National identities shift as
politics and social conditions may dictate.
He is right that
While these "identity themes" may contribute to
American Prosperity as a Cultural Root
In an analysis of "Tocqueville Revisited", Handy
(2001), suggests that earned wealth not
inherited wealth is a value that was immediately embraced by American cultural
values.17 He also suggests that by "codifying and
legalizing the emerging property" it was possible to move capital and grow
into a wealthy culture. Without the legal means, cultures cannot move capital
freely or accumulate wealth. Without the legal means, underdeveloped economic
cultures fail. The wealthy in the
While material goods alone do not drive the new forms of
cultural capitalism that we see emerging in the
The Natural Rights of Man as a Central Cultural Value
All of these candidate value notions raise interesting questions about culture, civilization, national identity, prosperity, economics, and religion. By themselves, however, they do not make the case for a necessary and sufficient cause for a cultural value around which American society spins.
It is the thesis of this paper that John Locke and Thomas
National identity and the idea that
The Civil War, many other scholars have noted, was a
defining moment in the history of the American culture. Why was this so?
Because the Civil War was a fight over the individual rights of a segment of
society, that if left as is, would have negated the core value associated with
natural rights. The
Other people flock to American shores because the American
culture is trying to perfect the American shared value of "natural
rights". American institutional life is reflective of this struggle. The
cultural debates about schools, the role of family, the role of religion, and
the debates that center on collectivism vs. individualism as a goal for
government permeate the American cultural life. On the issue of government’s
role or the form of social organization that the Americans require, no election
in the history of the
To other cultures in
When viewed from the perspective of "natural
rights" as a core cultural value, ethnic diversity and special rights for
special groups becomes a pagan ignorant exercise that only leads to the altar
of humility as a error of judgment by political
leaders and social philosophers. Like the Europeans, Asians, Africans, and
Latin Americans, the
Recent studies by some African-American intellectuals in
the United States explores the ideas that reflect again, on natural rights, not
special rights, as creating the underlying value for all members of the
American culture (McWhorter, 2000 and Sowell,1998).12,3 Other
cultures may wish to take heed in what McWhorter is saying, namely, that
special considerations only create less, not more, self-actualization among
African Americans in the United States because victimology
(studying to be a victim) only continues to drive the insecurity. Competition
is the way to build confidence in sub-cultures, not special programs that
create the very anti-intellectualism which prevents African Americans from
achievement by their own hand. Often academic discussions are held, not with
rigorous academic debate, but with "folk tales" that simply are not
supportable by rigorous debate. This perpetuates the "cult of
separatism" by their own choosing. Based upon
liberty, and to ensure that African Americans were not discriminated against,
Thomas Jefferson (1826) in his last message before he died on the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence said it best… "the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition (religion) had persuaded them to bind themselves and to assume the blessings and security of self government…the form which we have substituted restores the faith in unbounded reason and freedom of opinion…and all eyes are open or are opening to the rights of man..." 11
To be "mindful", as Gudykunst puts it, then, of the American culture is to remember the idea of "natural rights" in the developmental history of the American culture.16 This, in turn, has produced the reason for self-government. Further research is needed to explore the ideas around historical-developmental research as a tool for intercultural communication researchers, but the mining of the American culture produces a rich ore called natural rights that has value for the study of intercultural communication. Students of intercultural communication would do well to advance this method and apply it to other cultures, for comparative purposes while remembering that it is human capital formation, not race or ethnicity, which drives cultures.
About the author: M. Gene
Aldridge is President/CEO of the New Mexico Independence Research Institute,
Inc., a public policy think tank dedicated to educating the citizens of
Intercultural Communication, ISSN 1404-1634, 2002, issue 5.
Editor: Prof. Jens Allwood