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Communicating Across Cultures

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Pages in this series:
» Better communication?
» Sending Messages  
» Perception  
» Signs and more signs
» Codes  
» Redundancy  

Ways we communicate:
body language
facial, hand gestures
depiction--pictures, signs, sculpture...
TV and all other media
being present/absent
performing--dance, theater, roles and obligations
displaying material objects (material possessions)

Sending Messages: 2 models of how we communicate

What does it mean "to communicate"? We spend most of our waking hours trying to link our internal reality with the external world. We have developed hundreds of channels to do this (see sidebar), yet our ability to achieve consistent and perfect understanding is elusive. The following pages start with the basics of how human beings (try to) communicate with each other through "signals", "messages", "signs," and "codes."

Shannon & Weaver's model

Think of a telephone or a radio:
  1. A source (a person's mind, for instance) generates a message,
  2. A transmitter codes the message into into a physical signal (electrons, light or sound waves, smoke signals).
  3. This passes through a channel.
  4. Noise may intervene.
  5. The signal is decoded by a receiver,
  6. so that the destination can understand it.

Key points:

  • The model is linear, i.e communication is seen as a transaction. Suggests there is a "sender" and a "receiver" that some THING is "sent".
  • No feedback mechanism. Examples of communications that have minimal feedback: communication: TV, mass media, praying.
  • Describes technical transfer aspects of communication (Shannon was an engineer working on reducing signal noise.) Although it is used to describe human communication, that was not S & W's intent.
  • The context of the communication and the message content are both irrelevant.


Noise is particularly useful concept for understanding the affect of culture or conflict on communication. In S & W's model, noise is a physical disturbance in the signal (such as static, a torn page in a magazine, glare, channel overload).

"Noise" is now used to describe anything that might distort or interrupt communication, for example:

  • Mental distraction--your attention is elsewhere
  • Relationship between those who are communicating
  • Language gap
  • Emotional reactions
  • Differences in interpretation, in knowledge

Gerbner's model

Gerbner adds in the contextual elements of perception, culture, the medium, and power.

  1. Person #1 perceives an event, "E". This perception is filtered: (physical ability to experience the event, personal and cultural selective perceptions), and is therefore one step removed from the original event ("E1").
  2. Person #1 selects a channel to send the message. ("Signal" or "S")
  3. The message = the FORM + its CONTENT ("SE1" or Signal + E1).
  4. Person #2 receives and decodes the message, also filtering the message (physical ability to receive the message, cultural and personal selective perceptions), and therefore receives "a perception of a statement about an event" ("SE2") The message understood by Person #2 is now several removes from the original intent.

Key points:

1. Every person involved in the communication has perceptions and filters which structure how they send or receive a message.

2. A message is content PLUS form -- both convey meaning.

Consider the differences in how you declare "I love you"

  • over a private candlelight dinner
  • on the run as you dash out the door to work
  • writing it by hand on homemade paper
  • sending an email
  • spray painting it across a railroad overpass.
  • Or with a graphic in an email :-)
Furthermore, the model accounts for power difference by noting that those with greater access to various media have more options and channels to send messages--they can afford to pay a plane with an "I love you" banner fly over the football stadium... (or more seriously, the ability to put messages out in national and international media).


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