Want to better understand others' culture? Learn about your own (#49)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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Jean and Barry Regan explore how your understanding of your own culture affects the way you perceive the world.

Highlights from this week’s interview

This week, Jean speaks with Barry Regan, an intercultural communications educator.

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Jean asks Barry to explain his comment that there is a problem with White identity.

Barry: Different communication styles between cultures reflect more than seeing things differently. They also reflect differing views of how the world should be. When you’re raised with a belief in Manifest Destiny – which is the backbone of White European history – you’re going to look on the world as something to be conquered, a concept that involves winners and losers.

A key part of this is the belief of many American Whites that they have no culture. Without a concept of culture, there is no concept of other cultures’ being valid. Americans who identify solely as White show a less nuanced understanding of others. However, those who see themselves as part of a unique culture are more able to grasp the concept of other unique cultures.1 The more you know about your cultural background specifically, the more you are able to do a compare and contrast with cultures that are different from yours.2


Jean: How did you get your students to recognize culture?

Barry: Some White students were having difficulty with this idea. We’re just White, they say; we have no culture. The best approach was to help them find their roots. This was their first step toward seeing that the overriding American ethic of individualism is not universal, and the collective is a valid point of view.

“Recognizing your cultural heritage isn't meant to be engaging in ethnocentrism and trying to develop this pride of superiority of others,” he says. “I can understand that [if] Scottish Americans tend to believe to a larger degree in individualism and Manifest Destiny, they are not being connected to the collective….The more ways in which we can be aware of our cultural background and not to use it as a way to justify superiority and inferiority, [then we can] understand differences and maybe how to bridge those things.”


Jean brings up The Sum of Us, by Heather McGhee, who states one of the problems in this country is that people believe we exist in a zero-sum game: if someone else gets more, I will get less. Jean asks Barry if what he is saying is no, this is not zero-sum game, we don't have to have a hierarchy. We don't have to have one group over the other group, we can all just have different cultural values.

Barry: Where the zero sum shows most dramatically is in basic assumptions about what values are dominant. American individualism tracks back to the belief in Manifest Destiny, dominion, one group over another. The core cultural value of Western European cultures is the notion of individual agency. This is reflected in a belief in colonialism, of hierarchy, of greater and lesser importance.


Jean: Explain differences between cultural groups in communication styles.

Barry: A major difference in communication styles is cultural. This is not about all individuals but rather cultural trends. African Americans are rooted to some degree in a different communication style that's geared to storytelling, narrative, poetry. African Americans and Native Americans especially tend to be more high context; that is they tend to engage in less direct verbal communication strategies and pay more attention to nonverbal messaging. In contrast, European American folks are known to have more low context cultural communication values, meaning they lean toward direct verbal messages and less indirect nonverbal messages. In different cultures that have developed a more collectivistic identity, there is not often that ingrained social virtue of being direct and aggressive in communication style.


Jean: Apply this low context/high context concept.

Barry: This can play out in Whites not seeing the racism in George Floyd’s death because the officers involved did not make explicit racist statements. In the absence of such a statement, many low context-oriented Whites questioned whether racism was really a factor. Whereas Blacks with their high-context style were aware of all the other factors in play at the time.

a rope bridge

Credit: The Stock Footage Club


Jean adds: A low context way is saying, I've examined this singular person's evidence, and I have found it to be wanting. Or you can have a high context way of saying, I've heard the same story again, and again, and again and again, and again. And again.

Barry Regan's headshot

Barry Regan, EdD

University faculty of the College of Humanities and Social Science at Purdue University Global

Barry is on the university faculty of the College of Humanities and Social Science at Purdue University Global.  Prior to that he was instructor of communications and director of forensics at Grand Canyon University.  He received his BA at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, MA at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and EdD at Grand Canyon University.


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  1. What cultural/ethnic group do you belong to?  Can you identify communication pattern unique to that group?
  2. What are opposite communication patterns that you have noticed? Do you tend to be bothered by those with these opposite patterns?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Testing assumptions
    • Check to see if you are making cultural assumptions
  • Bridging differences
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
  • Conscious use of self
    • Seek to understand others' perspectives; put yourself in their shoes
    • Adopt a learning orientation

#BridgingDifferences  #Dominant/Nondominant Dynamics  #WhatDidYouMean

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.    

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

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