Communicating With Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication
By William Gudykunst and Young Yun Kim
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
William Gudykunst and Young Yun Kim, "Communicating With Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication," in Bridges Not Walls, ed. John Stewart, 6th edition, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995), pp. 429-442.
The authors begin by observing that "we communicate the way we do because we are raised in a particular culture and learn its language, rules, and norms."[p. 430] Different cultures (and subcultures) may have different rules and norms. The authors argue that understanding the other's culture facilitates cross-cultural communication.
Gudykunst and Kim believe that intercultural communication can be understood via the same basic variables and processes used to describe other forms of communication. All communication occurs between people who have varying degree of familiarity with each other. The key factor in understanding intercultural communication is the concept of the stranger.
Strangeness and familiarity make up a continuum. The authors use the term "stranger" to refer to those people at the most unfamiliar end of the continuum. Thus anyone could be considered a stranger, given a sufficiently foreign context. A stranger has limited knowledge of their new environment - of its norms and values. And in turn, the locals have little knowledge of the stranger - of her beliefs, interests and habits. Generally speaking, communication with another involves predicting or anticipating their responses. When communicating with someone familiar we are usually confident in our anticipation, and may not even notice that we are making such predictions. In contrast, when we communicate with strangers we are more aware of the range of their possible responses, and of the uncertainty of our predictions.
Communicative predictions are based on data from three levels. First is the cultural level. This level involves information about the other's culture, its dominant values and norms. This is often the only level of information available when communicating with a stranger. Even so, a better understanding of the stranger's culture yields better predictions. The second level of information is sociocultural. This includes data about the other's group membership, or the groups to which they seek to belong. This type of information is the predominate data used in intracultural communication. Finally there is psychocultural data. This is information about the individual's characteristics, and is the sort of data most relevant to communication with friends.
We understand such data by the process of social cognition. Social cognition is a dialectical process which involves both grouping particulars into categories based on their similarities, and of distinguishing individuals from their categories based on their differences. Communication with strangers often relies too heavily on categorization (stereotyping). Such stereotypes may be inaccurate, or may not apply to the present individual. To improve communication with strangers we must pay attention to their unique, individual features. The authors argue that effective communication with strangers requires an increased awareness of our communication behaviors. First, we tend to categorize things automatically, and so we are less aware of doing it. It takes more of our conscious awareness to differentiate particular individuals from their stereotypical categories. Second, much of our daily communication follows familiar scripts, and so we are not consciously aware of that communication behavior. We cannot rely on such familiar scripts and norms when communicating with a stranger. Our communication will be improved if we recognize that familiar scripts do not apply, and seek to modify our communication behaviors accordingly.
Uncertainty and Anxiety
Generally, in communication, we seek to reduce uncertainty. Communication with strangers involves relatively greater degrees of uncertainty, due to the difficulty in predicting a stranger's responses. We experience uncertainty with regard to the stranger's attitudes, feelings and beliefs. We are also uncertain of how to explain the stranger's behavior. Motivation to reduce this uncertainty is more acute when we expect to have further interactions with the stranger, or when they are a potential source of benefit.
We may reduce our uncertainty and increase the accuracy of our predictions by gaining more information about the stranger. The authors describe three basic strategies for gathering such information. One may passively observe the stranger. One may actively seek out information from other friends of the stranger, or from books. Finally, one may seek information directly from the stranger by interacting with them and asking questions. Also, offering information about one's self often prompts reciprocal offerings of information from another.
The increased uncertainty in interactions with strangers is accompanied by higher levels of anxiety, as we anticipate a wider array of possible negative outcomes. We may worry about damage to our self-esteem from feeling confused and out of control. We may fear the possibility of being incompetent, or being exploited. We may worry about being perceived negatively by the stranger. And we may worry that interacting with a stranger will bring disapproval from members of our own group. Generally these anxieties can be reduced by paying more conscious attention to the communication process, and by gathering more information on the stranger. The authors add a further caution. Generally, individuals tend to explain their own behavior by reference to the situation. Observers tend to attribute an individual's behavior to elements of that individual's character. When interacting with strangers we are especially likely to attribute their behavior to their character, and then to view their character as typical of their culture (or race, etc.). That is, we are especially likely to interpret a stranger's behavior in light of our stereotypes about what "those kind of people" are like.