Importance of culture to communication – Essay – “Culture” can be defined as the complex collection of knowledge, folklore, language, rules, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and customs that link and give a common identity to a particular group of people at a specific point in time. All social units develop a culture. Even in two-person relationships, a culture develops over time.
In friendship and romantic relationships, for example, partners develop their own history, shared experiences, language patterns, rituals, habits, and customs that give that relationship a special character, a character that differentiates it in various ways from other relationships. Groups also develop cultures, composed of the collection of rules, rituals, customs, and other characteristics that give an identity to the social unit.
Where a group traditionally meets, whether meetings begin on time or not, what topics are discussed, how decisions are made, and how the group socializes are all elements of what, over time, become defining and differentiating elements of its culture. Organizations also have cultures, often apparent in particular patterns of dress, layout of workspaces, meeting styles and functions, ways of thinking about and talking about the nature and directions of the organization, leadership styles, and so on.
The most rich and complex cultures are those that are associated with a society or a nation, and the term “culture” is most commonly used to refer to these characteristics, including language and language-usage patterns, rituals, rules, and customs. A societal or national culture also includes such elements as significant historical events and characters, philosophies of government, social customs, family practices, religion, economic philosophies and practices, belief and value systems, and concepts and systems of law.
Any social unit – relationship, group, organization, or society – develops a culture over time. While the defining characteristics of each culture are unique, all cultures share certain common functions. Three such functions that are particularly important from a communication perspective are (1) linking individuals to one another, (2) providing the basis for a common identity, and (3) creating a context for interaction and negotiation among members. The relationship between communication and culture is a very complex and intimate one.
First, cultures are created through communication; that is, communication is the means of human interaction through which cultural characteristics, whether customs, roles, rules, rituals, laws, or other patterns are created and shared. It is not so much that individuals set out to create a culture when they interact in relationships, groups, organizations, or societies, but rather that cultures are a natural by-product of social interaction. In a sense, cultures are the “residue” of social communication.
Without communication and communication media, it would be impossible to preserve and pass along cultural characteristics from one place and time to another. One can say, therefore, that culture is created, shaped, transmitted, and learned through communication. The reverse is also the case; that is, communication practices are largely created, shaped, and transmitted by culture. To understand the implications of this communication-culture relationship, it is necessary to think in terms of ongoing communication processes rather than a single communication event.
For example, when a three-person group first meets, the members bring with them individual thought and behavioral patterns from previous communication experiences and from other cultures of which they are, or have been, a part. As individuals start to engage in communication with the other members of this new group, they begin to create a set of shared experiences and ways of talking about them. If the group continues to interact, a set of distinguishing history, patterns, customs, and rituals will evolve. Some of these cultural haracteristics would be quite obvious and tangible, such that a new person joining the group would encounter ongoing cultural “rules” to which they would learn to conform through communication. New members would in turn influence the group culture in small, and sometimes large, ways as they become a part of it. In a reciprocal fashion, this reshaped culture shapes the communication practices of current and future group members. This is true with any culture; communication shapes culture, and culture shapes communication. Cultures are subjective.
There is a tendency to assume that the elements of one’s own cultures are logical and make good sense. It follows that if other cultures, whether of relationships, groups, organizations, or societies look different, those differences are often considered to be negative, illogical, and sometimes nonsensical. If, for example, an individual happens to be in a romantic relationship that is characterized by public displays of affection, that person might think that the behaviors of other people who have more reserved relational cultures may seem strange, even inappropriate.
The person might wonder why a romantic couple would not be more open in displaying affection to one another in public. The individual might even be tempted to conclude that the “reserved” relationship lacks depth and intensity. This phenomenon is true in a variety of situations. People who are used to informal meetings of a group might think that adherence to formal meeting rules is strange and stilted. Employees in an organization where suits are worn every day may react with cynicism and questioning when they enter an organization where casual attire is standard practice.
Someone from a culture that permits one man to have only one wife may find it quite inappropriate that another culture allows one man to have multiple wives. With regard to culture, the tendency for many people is to equate “different” with “wrong,” even though all cultural elements come about through essentially identical communication processes. Understanding the nature of culture in relationship to communication is helpful in a number of ways. First, it helps to explain the origin of differences between the practices, beliefs, values, and customs of various groups and societies, and it provides a reminder of the communication rocess by which these differences came into being. This knowledge can and should heighten people’s tolerance for cultural differences. Second, it helps to explain the process that individuals go through in adapting to new relationships, groups, organizations, and societies and the cultures of each. Third, it underscores the importance of communication as a bridge between cultures and as a force behind cultural change. A number of questions also concern researchers and policymakers in this area.
As communication increases between individuals, groups, and countries, does this mean that cultural differences and traditions will inevitably erode altogether? Will the cultures of individuals from groups, organizations, and societies that have great access to and control of communication media overpower those in cultures that have fewer resources and less access and control? Can knowledge be used to help individuals more comfortably and effectively adapt to new relationships, groups, organizations, and societies? The importance of these issues makes this area an important one for continued examination by scholars and practitioners.