The Social Context that Shapes our Talk

FROM A LECTURE SERIES BY Professor Dalton Kehoe, Ph.D.

In our everyday talk, our cultural learning automatically provides us two things: a perspective on life and a storehouse of knowledge about the physical and social worlds we inhabit.

Culture is the way of life of one generation teaches to the next so the new generation can see the world the “right” way and behave as “normal” members of the group. We call this form of teaching socialization. Every society communicates such standards of achievement and appropriate behavior. For life in general they are called values, and for situations they are called norms.

It is interesting that at the societal level, one of the ways we have come to understand our key values and our ways of talking has been to compare our society to others. Let’s look at two of the dimensions along which cultures can be compared.

The First Dimension — Values

The United States is an individualist culture, like Britain and many European countries: We tend to focus on how events affect individuals or how individual actions change other individuals. We place a greater emphasis on personal accomplishments and on standing out from the crowd.

Many Asian societies are collectivist cultures: Talk there focuses more on family and community—and individual responsibility to them. Success is measured by a person’s contribution to the achievements of the group as a whole, and people tend to take pride in their similarity to other members of their group.

The Second Dimension — The Norms Of Appropriate Manner

Cultures require different degrees of physical or psychological closeness between people for them to be effective as communicators. In high expressive cultures (such as South America and southern European), talkers immediately communicate warmth, closeness, and availability, including through physical contact.

In low expressive cultures (including North America and northern Europe), people tend to talk first and maybe shake a hand at the end.

The essential categories of shared meaning are words and nonverbals. Words are essential but slippery tools; they simply refer to or stand for something else, so we have to agree on and memorize their meaning.

Words may also carry personal meanings (connotations) for you and members of your group that are not widely shared. The multiplicity of denotative meanings plus the possibility of uniqueness of connotative meanings are reasons for a good deal of the uncertainty in our talk.

Beyond words, we use the meanings of facial and body gestures. In situations where we’re not sure what people are saying, we lean heavily on how they look and sound. The impact of a message on the receiver is based not on what was said but how it was said.

Nonverbals seem to operate in three ways in our face-to-face communication: They affect the meanings conveyed verbally, they shape the type of relationship that we are creating with another person, and they directly communicate our emotions before and during talk.


  1. The next time you are confronted by someone with a very different speaking style (more warmly intense or coolly distant than yours) or whose talk seems to emphasize different values than yours, instead of saying, “What’s wrong with this person?” you could ask yourself, “I wonder where they or their family come from?” This gives you more to work with in understanding them.
  2. Can you think of a time when someone spoke to you (or you saw someone speaking) where you felt that their words and gestures didn’t match? What was your first reaction to the mismatch? Did you believe the person?

Learn more about the author and his book Mindful Management

From the lecture series Effective Communications Skills
Taught by Professor Dalton Kehoe, Ph.D.