Communicative prerequisites for diversity

- protection of difference or promotion of commonality?

Sine Just
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark


A basic dilemma faces the student of intercultural communication: Should communicative norms that protect substantial differences guide intercultural encounters? Or should formal rules of communication be promoted regardless of the interlocutors’ cultural backgrounds and group affiliations? In this article arguments for and against these two positions are presented through a review of the discussion between Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas. It is argued that the theoretically irreconcilable positions may in practice be less than contradictory: in actual communicative encounters interlocutors with different cultural backgrounds do reach agreement on specific issues while preserving their cultural differences. On the basis of this insight, a communicative model that both protects differences and promotes commonality is proposed.

Keywords: intercultural encounters, protections of differences, promotion of communality, formal rules of communication, contextual models of communication.

1. Introduction

The multicultural workplace is becoming a reality in companies across the world, and managers have increasingly come to understand this situation as an advantage rather than a problem. ‘Diversity management’ respects the employees’ various collective and individual identities and seeks to benefit from the different talents and experiences that these diverse identities bring into the organisation (Daft 2004: 249). The practice of diversity management holds potential benefits in both the areas of employee-commitment and customer-satisfaction. If the employee feels that she can express herself freely within the organisation, she may feel a greater incentive to perform well, and if the customer feels that the company speaks to him personally, he may be more satisfied with its services. However, the establishment of a working environment that encourages diversity also raises some difficult questions. On the one hand there is the question of how diversity is best maintained, of how the various identities are preserved and allowed expression within the common setting of the workplace. Should one seek to protect existing differences between the employees by

giving various privileges and rights to different groups? On the other hand there is the issue of how the diversified workforce comes to work together. Reaching common decisions and taking collective actions are still necessary prerequisites for a successful business, and it might therefore be imperative to promote commonality after all.

Beneath the dilemma of difference-protection and commonality-promotion lie the questions of the relationship between collective and individual identities and the role of communication in constituting this relationship. A typical distinction between the identities of groups and individuals says group-identities are fixed and stable whereas peoples’ identities may vary according to specific contexts and change considerably over time (Smith 1997: 322). However, collective and individual identities should not be understood as two totally separate categories; the identity of each individual is constituted through his or her relationships of belonging to or delimitation from different groups, and collective identities are maintained and transformed through the individuals’ expression of them (Sampson 1989: 3-4). Focusing on the interconnection between groups and their members also highlights the role of communication in identity-formation. It is through communicative interaction, understood broadly as the symbolic creation of shared meaning, that ties between the individual and the different groups with which she comes into contact are developed, maintained, altered, and perhaps discontinued. The individuals’ communicative expression of his or her identity is also a (re)production of collective ideas and values, meaning that communication stands in a mutually constitutive relationship with culture understood as the experiential horizon that enables and delimits the individuals’ possibilities of action (communicative or otherwise).

When culture is understood as the dynamic expression of collective identities, it becomes clear that each individual partakes in many different cultures, and that cultures only exist in networks of interaction. Cultural norms may be defined as the principles that define interaction within a given group and between representatives of different groups. Such cultural norms in a sense exist independently of any particular instance of communicative interaction, but are only actualised in and through the interaction as such. When individual and collective identity formation is understood as an interdependent and ongoing process the deep interrelation between communication and culture also becomes apparent, and the inherent pluralities of the communicative processes of enculturation and the cultural norms for articulation emerge.

Beginning from the presupposition that individual and collective identities are interdependent and that communication and culture form the mutually constitutive dynamics at the basis of identity-formation it is the intention of this article to explore the difference-commonality dilemma and seek a resolution to it. What principle should be at the basis of diversity management? Insistence on cultural differences and recognition of the various culturally bound expressions or advocacy of communicative principles that somehow transcend the individuals’ specific cultural contexts? In the following I shall present these two extreme possibilities through an examination of the positions of Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas.

Taylor’s communitarian standpoint is that groups must be positively recognised and protected through the enactment of principles that not only establish their right of being, but also enable their particular expression. Habermas’ discourse ethical position claims that diversity is best enabled if all individuals regardless of their specific group-affiliations recognise the same abstract principles of communication. Having established and examined the opposite claims in which the theoretical discussion of the issue is seemingly deadlocked, I shall turn to an investigation of actual encounters between individuals with different cultural horizons.

The analysis of the empirical examples is conducted in order to suggest that the theoretical impasse may be resolved in communicative practice, and on that basis I shall present a model for communicative interaction that seeks to incorporate the strengths of each of the opposed theoretical explanations. The model shows how interlocutors may reach common understanding while preserving their specific cultural identities, and it may present a good starting point for realising the potential of diversity management.

This article, then, has the theoretical purpose of seeking a middle ground between Habermas’ and Taylor’s opposed recommendations for communicative practice in multicultural settings. The article also has a practical purpose; namely, to argue that the communicative strategies employed in and by organisations are at the basis of the success or failure of diversity management, and to suggest a communicative model that may enhance the possibilities of success.

2. The Habermas-Taylor debate

Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor both take their starting point from the understanding of the inherent relationship between individual and collective identities, communication and culture that I sketched out above. Taylor declares his adherence to the basic presuppositions through the assertion that human life is dialogical (Taylor 1994: 79), whereas Habermas expresses the viewpoint with the claim that understanding is intersubjective (Habermas 1984: 287). The similarities are apparent: individuation is achieved through socialisation and such socialisation is a communicative process. But the differences between the two positions also emerge from the different particular articulations of the common ground.

With his formulation Taylor accentuates experiences of life in common, and he goes on to argue that individuals cannot express themselves independently of their group allegiances, wherefore the basic principle for the advance of human life is the positive recognition and protection of groups (Taylor 1994: 80-81). It is not enough to remove objective obstacles to a group’s self-expression like discriminatory laws or a low level of education; formerly oppressed or underprivileged groups must also be helped to take advantage of their new possibilities. As regards the individual, his or her basic rights as a human being must be protected, but so must the particular needs of the person as a member of a specific cultural group. People do not have recourse to any modes of expression that are not culture-specific, and the promotion of the individual’s ability to express him- or herself always goes through the protection of groups. In Taylor’s conception of identity-formation the communicative processes that constitute a person are expressions of that person’s cultural belonging (Taylor 1989: 91). Intercultural communication, in this setting, cannot be as fundamentally constitutive of the person as are intracultural communicative relations. Communicative encounters between members of different groups are limited to mutual recognition and acceptance of each others’ peculiarities, and should not aim at building common identity for fear that either of the original identities could be stifled in the process.

Habermas chooses a much more abstract and rational formulation of the common starting point than does Taylor. In Habermas’ version the process of reaching common understanding is stressed. He argues that the quest for understanding is inherent in the communicative process and that it is shared by all individuals independently of their culture. It follows from Habermas’ investigation of communicative rationality that the principles of justification – the ability to justify one’s statements in terms of their claims to truth, rightness, and truthfulness – contained within the communicative process are generally valid (Habermas 1997). According to Habermas, then, the validity criteria of communicative rationality constitute culture-independent norms for the expression of opinions that each individual has recourse to and against which all processes of socialisation can be evaluated. Another important assumption in Habermas’ discourse ethical scheme is that private/cultural and public/political spheres of identification can and should be kept apart (Habermas 1998: 118). The point of this separation is that politics should be guided by the formal principles of communicative rationality to which all can agree so as not to interfere with the individual’s expression of his or her particular cultural background and personal tastes. Thus, Habermas comes to argue that individual expressions of identity must never be limited by or restricted to membership of specific groups. He writes: "collective identity […] can today only be grounded in the consciousness of universal and equal chances to participate in the kind of communication processes by which identity formation becomes a continuous learning process" (Habermas 1974: 99). Instead of protecting cultural differences Habermas wishes to promote the formal communicative principles that, according to the discourse ethical position, allow each person to express him- or herself freely and facilitate common understanding between interlocutors even if they enter the dialogue with different cultural horizons.

The different interpretations of the common starting point lead Taylor and Habermas to advocate opposed strategies for the facilitation of diversity. The discussion boils down to the tension between group rights and personal autonomy and the question of whether or not there exist universally valid principles of communicative interaction. In his critique of Habermas’ position Taylor answers this latter question in the negative, and also asserts that the divide between cultural and political modes of identification is purely fictional.

Although the communitarian position that Taylor favours does recognise the cross-cultural generality of some normative principles such as the basic human rights, it does not accept the universal nature of procedural communicative norms argued by Habermas (Taylor 1989: 87). Instead, the communitarians emphasise culture’s constitutive role in the formulation of normative guidelines for action, including communicative practices. Taylor does not see the communicative norms as a means of stepping beyond the individual culture, but instead argues that the norms members of a majority culture regard as universal and equal may in fact be specific and oppressive (Taylor 1994: 84-85). The norms and regulations constituting a society may seem neutral to that society’s majority culture, but minorities may suffer under the society’s actual lopsidedness. This suffering is only aggravated by the majority’s non- or misrecognition of the minorities’ justified claims.

Taylor’s objection to the separation between culture and politics is similar to the argument against the universal validity of formal principles. According to Taylor any political organisation of society is also cultural and cannot be understood apart from the cultural basis on which the political institutions build and in accordance with which they are justified (Nanz 2001: 74). Just as the political collectivity is always already cultural so is the individual person, and hence there can be no a-cultural recognition of the individual as a political agent, a citizen; if the individual’s cultural identity is not recognised, no personal agency exists.

In his argument against Taylor’s position Habermas insists that the common adherence to abstract norms allows the individual maximum freedom to express him- or herself and thereby to express his her culture. Contrary to Habermas, Taylor places protection of collective identities above the right to equal individual liberties (Habermas 1998: 206), whereby he risks smothering the individual beneath the weight of the group as well as excluding minorities from the political institutions that are constructed by the majority. The consequences of Taylor’s preferred policy may actually be that minorities are prevented from intervention on the society’s conventional political scenes, and furthermore the protection of cultural differences may also prevent representatives of the society’s political institutions from intervening into minority-contexts (Nanz 2001: 76-77). The understanding of each individual as culturally determined may lead to a harmful relativism with a concomitant acceptance of actions within other cultural settings that one would never allow to occur in one’s own cultural context (Bauman 2001: 124).

Habermas argues that neither the politically nor the culturally defined collectivity must take precedence over the individual member of the political society and the cultural group. For instance, the state should not disallow the Sikh practice of wearing a turban, but neither should the Sikh community forbid one of its members to take off the turban should he so desire. Habermas thinks that Taylor does not go far enough in recognising the general applicability of formal norms of communicative interaction, and that he at the same time goes too far in recognising the specific validity of substantial norms of intracultural practice. And, perhaps most crucially, Taylor’s position neither explains nor promotes intercultural dialogue, but rather suggests that genuinely identity-forming dialogical relations can only arise within predetermined cultural boundaries.

3. Actual intercultural encounters

At the theoretical level the argument seems deadlocked; the discourse ethical promotion of commonalities in the shape of formal criteria for the validation of communicative interaction precludes the communitarian protection of substantial cultural differences and vice versa. However, in actual intercultural encounters individuals may reach common understandings without giving up their culture-specific positions. The experience of anyone who has ever communicated successfully with a member of another culture suggests that in practice it may be possible to both expect and promote adherence to common abstract rules and respect and protect different cultural or personal values. In the following, I shall investigate three examples of intercultural communicative interactions in order to suggest how common understanding may emerge in specific situations without violating the various cultural backgrounds of the interlocutors. On the basis of these analyses I shall seek to establish a model for intercultural communicative encounters that is empirically sensitive, has general explanatory value, and may serve as the staring point for integrating communicative strategies into diversity management.

The three situations that I have chosen to study are all derived from a leaflet entitled "Contact & Etiquette. Stories of cultural encounters" published by Ibis, a Danish NGO that primarily works with development in Africa and Latin America, but also seeks to promote intercultural understanding in Denmark. As the title indicates the leaflet consists of a number of accounts of specific encounters in which cultural differences were salient to the success or failure of the encounters. The purpose of the leaflet is explicitly to promote intercultural understanding and as such it is biased towards a positive view of the multicultural settings it presents. This understanding of the multicultural society as a rich source of possibilities rather than as a problematic constraint is, however, also at the base of the present study with its ultimate aim of explaining and improving intercultural encounters.

Although it cannot be claimed that the situations presented in the leaflet anywhere near cover the vast variety of possible intercultural situations, the rationale for including them in the leaflet is that they represent typical experiences with cultural encounters in the Danish context. That the examples are all of Danish origin and that they are all encounters involving representatives of the Danish majority culture and an immigrant minority does, of course, constitute a major limitation to their generalizability. Yet I consider the situations to be sufficiently arch-typical for them to be at least recognisable if not equally momentous outside of the Danish context. In what follows, the three extracted stories are analysed as examples of commonly recurring intercultural encounters, and the general tendencies that I will later suggest, should be understood as preliminary starting points for further work with and investigation of the field – no more, no less.

The first of the stories is entitled "Muhammed Ali or Allah?" The encounter it describes takes place between two men working at the Copenhagen airport. One is the leader of a work-team engaged in loading baggage into a plane; he is of Pakistani origin. The other man, an ethnic Dane, is the driver of a catering car, and when he finds that his task of loading the food on the plane is hindered by a baggage wagon, he addresses the leader of the baggage-team:

"Tell me, is your name Muhammed Ali, or should I just call you Allah?" he says. The Danish-Pakistani team-leader tries to ignore the comment, but is visibly provoked by the irritated driver’s comment. The other workers in the baggage-team, all Danes, have witnessed the situation. They ask the catering man to use a proper tone. The team-leader still does not wish to speak to the driver. Instead he chooses to call in a superior, who can mediate in the conflict, so that the work may continue (Dørge & Sindballe 2002: 19 my translation).

In this situation the Danish catering man seeks to play up the intercultural aspect of the encounter and to pose it as problematic, implying that the team-leader’s cultural background is somehow to blame for the inconvenience that has arisen. However, the team-leader does not wish to enter into a culturally charged discussion, and his colleagues lend support to his implicit claim that culture is not a relevant factor in the present situation. As a means of changing the mode of discussion and avoiding an escalation of the conflict, the team-leader calls in a superior. Thus, he chooses a standard procedure for conflict-resolution that may normalise the situation and lead to the continuation of the work without involving or threatening his own cultural identity. The Danish catering man’s attempt to set the discussion in cultural terms was overridden because the Danish-Pakistani team-leader had recourse to generally accepted rules, and thereby a grave and prolonged conflict was avoided.

The second example is called "The customer at the centre?" It is set in an unspecified Danish company and involves an employee, a customer, and the employee’s superior:

A customer calls a large Danish company. The phone is answered by Sewki who is bilingual Arabic-Danish. The customer, however, does not speak Danish very well, and when Sewki discovers that Arabic is the customer’s mother-tongue, he switches to that language in order to provide the best service. The conversation goes well, and the customer is very happy and satisfied. But Sewki’s superior is not. He does not like that Sewki has spoken Arabic on the phone. He should speak Danish, he is told. "Because here we speak Danish" (Risager 2002: 22 my translation).

Here a culture-specific norm (protecting the Danish language) is allowed to take precedence over a more general norm (promoting mutual understanding by the best available means) and also over a business norm (customer satisfaction). The choice of prevalent norm has negative consequences for both company and employee. The company loses a valuable resource by not making full use of the employees’ various communicative potentials. And the employee involved in this incident experiences that the linguistic skills he possesses by virtue of his cultural background are not valued. In a broader sense, this may lead to a feeling that minority cultures are suppressed by the norms protecting the majority culture, and it may become difficult for the employee to identify both with his own cultural background and with his working environment. The protection of one culture, then, leads to the suppression of others, meaning that the company casts away valuable resources for enhancing employee commitment and customer satisfaction.

The third and last example, entitled "Hello man. Axe handle?", is an encounter between a female Danish councillor and a male refugee from Iran who is seeking legal advice:

The man stepped into the room, and I stood up, stretched out the hand and said: "Hello." But alas. He did not want to shake my hand and with his eyes fixed to the floor he mumbled something incomprehensible. I did not understand what he was mumbling and therefore said: "Excuse me, what are you saying?" Visibly relieved he looked up at me and explained that it was against his religion to touch women he did not know. The lacking handshake was an expression of respect for me as a woman. He asked – a bit unpleasantly affected by the situation – whether it was alright by me. It was – and I continued my work (Lerberg 2002: 25 my translation).

In this encounter two opposite culture-specific practices come into direct conflict, but they turn out to be instances of the same general norm. Because the councillor asks for an explanation of a practice she does not endorse, she realises that the Iranian’s motivations are not in conflict with her own expectations. Both interlocutors feel that the encounter between them should be guided by mutual respect, but disagree as to how this respect is expressed. Having discovered their common starting point, the interlocutors still need to resolve the question of which practice should be accepted as the proper signal of respect between them. And the councillor’s explicit acceptance of the Iranian’s preferred practice is crucial in the establishment of a truly common understanding between the two. The participants’ mutual presupposition that they can ask for and give reasons for their actions means that their common motivation is discovered. Furthermore, their common conversational attitude means that the remaining differences as to what practice expresses the common norm are understood and accepted. In the present instance, common understanding is reached with the councillor’s granting of the Iranian’s request that his preferred practice may prevail, but in cases of opposed practices resolution does not always come that easily. However, if the dialogue is continued under the spirit of demanding and giving explanations not only of the background motivations, but also of the practices’ reasonability, the possibility of reaching agreement remains open.

The three examples point to some of the difficulties that may arise in intercultural encounters, but also hold out the promise that mutual understanding is attainable through dialogue. The examples indicate that communication goes wrong when culture-specific norms are given privilege over more general principles, and also show that common adherence to abstract communicative norms makes interaction possible without eliminating differences. If the interlocutors accept formal principles of interaction, specific common understandings may be reached without violating culture-specific practices that are in agreement with the general norms. In this setting diversity can be valued as a resource, but eradication of culture-specific values that do not harmonise with the abstract principles is a prerequisite of successful interaction.

Moreover, the three situations point to the important insight that it is always people not cultures that interact, and that the common understanding which two people reach in a specific situation could be quite different from that reached by two other people meeting under similar circumstances. The abstract communicative norms provide a common starting point, but there does not seem to be any more specific common rules of interaction and there are no guarantees of actual success.

4. Towards a contextual model of intercultural communication

Returning to the parlance of the Habermas-Taylor debate, the analysis of the three examples indicates that differences may in fact be best protected if commonalities are promoted. The specific intercultural encounter could be inscribed in two sets of broader contexts that explain how it is possible for interlocutors with different cultural backgrounds to reach concrete agreements while preserving their unique identities. A model of intercultural communication that consists of three contextual levels emerges (see figure 1).

1 3

2(a) 2(b)

Figure 1: Contextual model of intercultural communication

The three contexts are 1) general communicative context, 2) contexts of cultural and personal experience, and 3) situational context.

At the macro level, 1) the general communicative context, all individuals regardless of their cultural backgrounds and personal inclinations share formal and procedural norms. A shared attitude of seeking mutual understanding through demanding and providing reasons for opinions and practices provides a common starting point for all communicative interaction. This abstract, normative level corresponds to Habermas’ discourse ethical validity criteria, and should be actively promoted as the shared basis for intercultural encounters.

The mezzo level, 2) contexts of cultural and personal experience, consists of each participant’s cultural horizon; here the formal norms take the substantial form of interpretations and enactments based on the individual’s socialisation into the groups with which he or she identifies. At this level the different experiences and the experienced differences between interlocutors that have different cultural backgrounds emerge, and it becomes a concern of all participants to preserve their cultural identities. Referring to the threatened or suppressed position that one or another culture may find itself in, members of or sympathisers with that culture could argue that measures favouring and protecting the culture should be implemented. Such argumentation is, however, subject to the same validity criteria as all other communicative claims. On the level of specific interaction the participants may in some situations discover that if they adhere to the general norms concrete agreements do not pose a threat to their culturally informed self-understanding, wherefore it may be agreed that affirmative action is unnecessary. Conversely, the examination of other situations could reveal that earlier discriminations and existing inequalities are so severe that special measures are needed in order to establish a situation in which all the interlocutors have the same opportunities.

The micro level, 3) situational context, at which the actual communicative interaction takes place and where the specific agreement is to be reached, is in principle shared. But the participants’ different cultural backgrounds and horizons of social experience may lead them to interpret the circumstances and the purposes of the situation in differing ways. Such differences of understanding can be overcome if the interlocutors share the same general attitude of willingness to engage in and continue the dialogue, and if the interaction is prolonged or allowed to recur the participants may build up a better common understanding of their shared context. The deepening of the shared context in turn expands the participants’ possibilities of interaction; the interlocutors may enhance and widen their shared understanding, but they may also come to appreciate the value of their remaining differences. Thereby, each participant in the intercultural communication expands his or her horizon while remaining loyal to his or her own cultural background, and the true potential of cultural diversity in workplaces as well as in general societal settings may be realised.

5. Summing up

The contextual model of intercultural communication is the main result of my attempt to inform the theoretical discussion between Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas with the experiences of actual intercultural encounters as exemplified by the three specific situations I have analysed. The model has the theoretical virtue of being able to explain how common understanding may be reached between interlocutors that do not share the same cultural background. Also, the model incorporates the strengths of the two opposed positions, and although it should not be seen as a complete resolution of the theoretical deadlock it at least points to a way of discontinuing the entrenchment and beginning constructive dialogue. The position I support and seek to represent through the model advocates the existence of communicative norms of general applicability. These norms may not be ‘universal,’ but they do, indeed, have supracultural bearing, and they represent the only basis for intercultural encounters in which the interlocutors have equal opportunities for expressing themselves and being recognised for what they are. Thus, my basic understanding of communication – or perhaps more appropriately: my deepest hope for communication – is decidedly Habermasian. And I maintain that the equal status of all the different groups that exist within the multicultural society and the protection of their right to practice and express their culture freely can only be upheld if individual liberties are given precedence to group rights. The same rights can only be granted to all groups and individuals, if they all adhere to the same general norms.

With the insertion of the cultural context as a means of connecting the general principles with the concrete communicative situations, I grant Taylor’s point that no individual exists in the abstract, and that the general orientations provided by the formal norms manifest themselves in specific opinions and practices. However, I believe that any protection of a specific culture may lead to the suppression of other cultures or of the members’ individual preferences, and unlike Taylor I neither believe that such suppression is inevitable nor justified. Rather, I propose that the decision about which culture to protect and how to protect it should be made in the specific situations in which people with different cultural backgrounds encounter each other. It is not the task of managers and policy makers to protect one culture or another; instead they should promote the common norms that provide the best basis for the equal articulation and recognition of different cultures with their various opinions and practices, perspectives and potentials.

At the practical level, the model provides a starting point for improving actual encounters. It suggests which communicative strategies should be incorporated into diversity management in order to enhance the successful outcome of this form of management. However, the model has not yet been used in practice, wherefore it is still an open question whether it actually works. The arguments supporting the model are, I hope, strong enough to justify the claim that its implementation is worth trying. Turning to implementation strategies, the question is how the abstract norms may actually be promoted and enforced in specific intercultural settings. I suggest that all participants in the interaction should receive thorough instruction in the formal and procedural principles for demanding and giving reasons. That is, the participants should be trained in practical argumentation. Furthermore, the participants’ ability to discern when and whether the cultural factor is actually pertinent to the interaction should be enhanced; stressing that all participants are first and foremost individuals may eradicate the, in my opinion, flawed but commonly held presupposition that cultural differences are inherently problematic. Finally, the participants should have recourse to mutually recognised extra-situational advisors or manuals to which the discussion may be referred if the participants cannot reach agreement on their own. This device lends the participants a means of continuing the interaction when their own resources have been exhausted, thereby providing them with a second chance of reaching common understanding.

The basic advice to be derived from the proposed contextual model of intercultural communication is that the participants’ communicative competencies and sensibilities should be strengthened through a heightened awareness of the formal norms and their procedural implications. In short, interlocutors should become better at analysing the communicative situations in which they meet. The practical benefits of implementing this communicative strategy in multicultural settings remain to be seen.


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Sine Just is a research fellow at the Centre for Communication Studies, CBS. She is interested in political as well as intercultural communication and is writing her PhD thesis on the debate on the future of Europe. The theorisation and analysis of communicative processes of public opinion formation, legitimation, and identification are at the centre of her research interests.

Author’s address:

Sine Just
Centre for Communication Studies
Copenhagen Business School
Dalgas Have 15
2000 Frederiksberg


Journal of Intercultural Communication, ISSN 1404-1634, 2004, issue 7.
Editor: Prof. Jens Allwood