Cross cultural variablility of communication in personal relationships van Gudykunst en Matsumoto (1996) - Artikel

Variables on which cultures can be different can explain communication cross-culturally. These variables are called dimensions of cultural variability. These dimensions, individualism and collectivism, can help explain similarities and differences in communication across cultures. In individualistic cultures, individuals are more important than groups. In collectivistic cultures the opposite is true. Members from individualistic countries will (therefore) mostly use person-based information to predict each other’s behavior and members of collectivistic cultures will mostly use group-based information to predict each other’s behavior. In each culture individualism and collectivism are manifested in unique ways. To understand communication in a particular culture, one must require culture general and specific information.

According to most researchers culture provides its members an implicit theory about how to behave in certain situations and how to interpret the behavior of others in these situations. Members can learn the implicit theory of their culture by the socialization process. Members of individualistic cultures learn that independence and achievement are major values of their culture and that they need to view themselves as unique persons. Members of collective cultures learn that harmony and solidarity are major values of their culture and that they should view themselves as interconnected with others. There are individualists and collectivists in all cultures and the individualists and collectivists will learn some behaviors from each other. Individualism and collectivism has an impact on behavior throughout norms, but it also has an indirect influence throughout personalities. When you look at individual behavior, you must look at both cultural levels and individual levels of individualism-collectivism. Individualism-collectivism is not the only variable of difference between cultures. In this article uncertainty avoidance, power distance and masculinity-femininity will also be examined.


In individualistic cultures individual goals are more important than group goals. In collective cultures this is reversed. This does not mean that people from individual cultures do not care about their family, because they do. Individual culture members do care about their immediate family, while members of collective cultures also look after their ingroup. In individualistic cultures there are many ingroups and because there are many ingroups they will relatively exert little influence on a person’s behavior. in collectivistic cultures there are a few general ingroups and these have strong influence on people’s behavior. The sphere of the influence in a individualistic culture is very specific (the university-ingroup will only affect people’s behavior during university events) whereas the influence in a collectivistic culture is general (things may influence you your whole life). Ingroups have different rank-orders of importance in collectivistic cultures. In Japan the primary ingroup is usually the company, while the family is the primary ingroup of Latin American.

Collectivistic cultures are usually seen as horizontal: people don’t stand out and are equal. Individualistic cultures are usually seen as vertical and members try to stand out from others. People from horizontal, collective cultures place a high emphasize on equality but little emphasize on freedom. In vertical, collectivistic cultures people are expected to fit into the group but at the same time they are allowed to try to stand out in the group. In this culture they do not value equality or freedom. In vertical, individualistic countries people act as individuals and try to stand out from others. There is little value placed on equality and much value placed on freedom. People from horizontal, individualistic cultures are expected to act as individuals but not to stand out from others. People place high value on equality and freedom.

The self can mediate the influence of cultural individualistic-collectivistic on communication behavior. This can be done throughout three different aspects: individuals’ personalities, individuals’ values and self construals. People can have different personalities. Some may be allocentric, while others are ideocentric. Idiocentrism is correlated positively with loneliness and negatively to sensitivity to other’s behavior. These people in individualistic cultures see it as natural to do their own thing and did not pay much attention on their ingroup. Individuals from individualistic cultures who are idiocentric, did pay attention to their ingroup. The second aspect was individual values. Values help individuals maintain and enhance their self-esteem. Some values are only individualistic (like power and achievement), others are only collectivistic (tradition and conformity) and some are mixed (security and spirituality). The third factor is self-construals. Members of cultures can see themselves in other ways. The two major distinctions that can be made within this factor are independent construals and interdependent construals. People in individualistic cultures see themselves mostly as independent whereas people of collectivistic cultures see themselves mostly as interdependent. One person can have different aspects of interdependence. It all depends on the context. If you are at home, the family interdependence will guide your behavior. If you are at your work, the co-worker interdependence will guide the behavior. The tasks of somebody with an interdependent self-construal are fitting in with the group, promoting the ingroup’s goals and read other people’s minds. Although individualistic cultures are mostly independent, every person has also a interdependent self-construal. This is also true for collectivistic cultures.

Another factor of differences between individualism and collectivism is low-context and high-context communication. High-context communication is a message in which most of the information is internalized in the person and little is in the explicit part of the message. Low-context communication is a message in which most information is vested in the explicit code. When high-context individuals talk to somebody and express their feelings, they expect that the other person will know what’s bothering them. They will therefore talk around the point and not give the specific message they want to give. They will not express their feelings directly, because they want to maintain the harmony in the ingroup.

These are usually members of collectivistic cultures. Individualistic cultures tend to be more low-context communicators and talk direct and use words as certainly and absolutely.

Low-context communicators don’t give others more information than necessary. They also should state only what they believe to be true and has sufficient evidence (quality maxim). Also, what they say should fit in with the context of conversation (relevancy maxim). They should also avoid obscure expressions and ambiguity (manner maxim). All these characteristics do not fit in with high-context communication. People in low-context communication cultures tell personal things and are seen as more sincere, while high-context communicators do not tell personal things. Silence in low-context communications is seen as a violation of the conversation and needs to be filled. Silence in high-context communications, however, is seen as a communicative act.

Even though somebody lives in a low-context communication culture, it does not mean that this person always uses a low-context communication. These people might use high-context communication when communicating with a sister or a spouse. They do not have to be direct in these relationships. People from high-context communication cultures can also be low-context communicating. All these differences arise because of the different characteristics of individualists and collectivists. Members of collectivistic cultures pay more attention to other people and try to avoid hurting other people more. Because of this, they may be more indirect and express less feelings during a conversation. Members from individualistic cultures are more motivated to communicate interpersonally to achieve affection and more concerned with clarity in conversations.

Individualistic and collectivistic cultures can also differ in the degree of self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is telling people information about themselves that others do not know. Related to this is self-penetration. This means that when a relationship becomes more intimate, people engage in self-enclosure on a larger variety of topics and they are more intimate. Self-disclosure is associated with direct communication styles and therefore with individualistic cultures.

Anxiety/uncertainty management (AUM) suggest that interpersonal and intergroup communication can be effective when the amount of anxiety and uncertainty individuals experience when communicating with others is not high. The way in which individuals gather information to reduce potential uncertainty differs for the different cultures. Individualistic culture members seek person-based information to reduce uncertainty about strangers, while members from collectivistic cultures seek out group-based information to do so. Members of collectivistic cultures tend to describe others’ behavior through the role of context, while members of individualistic cultures tend to concentrate more on characteristics of the person.

Yet another difference between these cultures is the communication rule. Each country has its own communication rules. There are big differences between the different individualistic cultures and between the different collectivistic cultures. In Australia, people are expected to act as individuals, even if they have to go against their own ingroup. Australian children greet parents, adult neighbors and teachers in the same way and pay respect to them in the same way.

Japanese children differentiated their behavior with respect to parents and teachers compared to neighbors.

Romantic relationships are also viewed different between the two types of cultures. In collectivistic cultures, depending on somebody is viewed negatively or neutrally. In many collectivistic cultures, depending on someone is inseparable of love. In individualistic cultures romantic love will (therefore) be the main reason for marriage. In collectivistic cultures the main reason for marriage is to have a family. Researchers found that the more somebody disliked any form of dependency, the less love, care, attraction and trust this person will have in his or her romantic relationship. This is mostly the case for individualistic cultures, because collectivistic cultures value dependency. Attraction also differs between these cultures. Individualistic culture members look mostly at physical attributes to make judgments about someone’s attractiveness. Members from collectivistic cultures look more at the other person’s position and family memberships.

Uncertainty avoidance

Cultures that are high on uncertainty avoidance have a lower tolerance for uncertainty and this expresses itself in higher levels of anxiety, greater need for formal rules and the truth and less tolerance for groups or group members with other ideas and other behavior. Aggression in these culture is accepted, but members usually want to contain their aggressions by avoiding conflict. High uncertainty avoidance cultures have a strong desire for consensus and members from low uncertainty avoidance cultures have lower stress levels and accept taking risks more than the members from high certainty avoidance cultures. Members from high uncertainty avoidance cultures have certain rules for interacting with strangers. Where there are clear rules, they will be very polite or ritualistic but when the rules are not clear they may ignore the strangers. Therefore interactions with outgroup members in an informal context will be avoided.

Power distance

Power distance refers to the extent less powerful individuals of organizations or institutions accept that the power is distributed unequally. Individuals from high power distance cultures accept power as part of society. For them it is a basic fact in society and subordinates see themselves to be different from their superiors. Members of low power distance cultures believe power should only be used when it is legitimate. People from high power distance cultures do not question their superior’s orders. People from low power distance cultures want to know why they have to follow their superiors. Also, because outgroup members are seen as outsiders they are also perceived to have less power than insiders. In high power distance cultures there will therefore be less cooperation with outgroup members than in low power distance cultures. People in high power distance cultures tend to have a low level of egalitarianism (treating other people as equals), while members in low power distance cultures tend to have a high level of egalitarianism.


High masculinity refers to the high value placed on power and assertiveness and the low value on systems in which people, nurturance and the quality of life prevail. Femininity is the opposite of this. People in masculine cultures have a stronger motivation for achievements. They also see their job as central to their life and view advancement as more important to their satisfaction with their work. They also have greater value differences between men and women in the same position. Femininity tends to predominate in the Netherlands. People from highly masculine cultures tend to have little contact with members of the opposite sex when they are growing up. They also see same-sex relationships as more intimate than opposite-sex relationships. Opposite-sex relationships are seen as less intimate and more problematic.

Psychological sex roles are learned while growing up and these mediate the influence of cultural masculinity-femininity on communication behavior. Even though men can be nurturing, females are considered to be more nurturing than men are. People are perceived to have a masculine sex role if they exhibit a high degree of masculine traits and a low degree of feminine traits. When somebody has a high degree of feminine traits and a low degree of masculine traits this person is perceived as having a feminine sex role. If an individual exhibits a high degree of both feminine and masculine traits this individual is perceived as having an androgynous sex role. A low degree on masculine and feminine traits corresponds with an undifferentiated sex role.

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