People and Culture in Communication: A Quick Guide to Sociolinguistics

We all bring our own types of communicating into a relationship. One example of this between a man and a woman may be in how we make plans and include one another.

Man: Do you want to go out to dinner tonight?
Woman: I don't know. What do you want to do?
Man: I thought you wanted to go.
Woman: I do! But what do you want to do?

In this scenario, the man is offering to take the woman out to dinner, perhaps wanting to please his wife. He is a bit surprised by her response.

She, in turn, wants to be sensitive to his desire and make sure that they both want the same thing. She seems indecisive to him and he seems to be shutting down to her. They are both communicating according to the styles they learned growing up in each of their own households.

One person might be direct, the other indirect. It can drive us all crazy! But by understanding how we each communicate as individuals, we can (hopefully) lend a more generous ear in truly hearing what the other person is saying or wants to say. In this case, it is simply offering and accepting an invitation to dinner. Such a simple conversation can escalate into a ruined evening if communication breaks down.

Let's look at another way of communicating that can lead to other extremes. It's pretty safe to say we've all been in a conversation where one person is speaking rather loudly. The receiver of the conversation notices and starts to speak softer and quieter in an effort to tone down the volume. Before long, it becomes an extreme battle as the louder of the two wants the other person to speak up, and vise versa.

The same thing happens non-verbally when it comes to personal space. Stand next to someone who requires a lot of personal space and you will see them back up to keep the distance between you comfortable. This is across the board in terms of culture. Americans tend to like more space between them, say, than Asians do. Culture, population, upbringing and sexual orientation all contribute to communication quirks, mishaps and misunderstandings, which take some adjusting.

Along these lines, an English as a Second Language teacher in China sent a student off with her film to be developed at a nearby camera shop. The teacher was appalled when she saw her student walking around campus distributing the pictures to all of her friends and classmates.

"But I didn't get to see them first!" exclaimed the teacher.

Her student could not understand the negative reaction in a pace where privacy is virtually non-existent and sharing is natural and expected. It's one way the Chinese build relationships. The American teacher saw and felt this as a violation of herself, her privacy and ultimately of the friendship with her student.

Communicating with one another is sometimes like living in a different culture, even if it is in our own backyards. Understanding where we are coming from and how we see the world can potentially help us avoid problems in our marriages, friendships and even clerk-store encounters. Men, for example, may view conversation from a competitive stand point, whereas women may see it as a way to connect and comfort. Likewise, when women want understanding and a listening ear, her man will be in a fix-it mode because that is how he is wired. Understanding differences and learning from each other could be the helping hand we humans need for more fruitful and less troubled relationships.

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