Symbolic interactionism theory is a major component to interacting with people of different cultures because when cross-culturally communicating, it is important to understand the subjective nature of the social gestures.
Understanding the cultural norms allows people to better communicate with people in different cultures. This theory fits in nicely with demonstrative communication, which is a way of sending and receiving messages that are neither verbal nor written. This way of communicating – which uses signs and symbols – has both its positives and negatives, depending on the situation and what is being communicated. Examples of demonstrative communication include tone of voice, behaviour and facial expressions. Each of these aspects of communication have different meanings to people of different cultures, and that is where symbolic interactionism is so important. The more people understand a culture, the better they can comprehend the subjective aspects of that culture. Of course, the easiest way to get a message across is via the optimal form of communication, which is usually speech, but this is not always possible when there is a language or cultural barrier, or just a different communication style. Symbolic interactionism can help people understand each other better by knowing what the signs and symbols mean to each culture, and this is often facilitated by using physical cues.
Perhaps the exchange between people who speak different languages is where symbolic interaction theory is most evident. Clear communication is particularly important in the globalized economy, where regular cross-culture communication is vital to business. “Activities such as exchanging information and ideas, decision making, negotiating, motivating, and leading are all based on the ability of managers from one culture to communicate successfully with managers and employees from other cultures,” (Radford, N.D.).
Those working with people from different cultures should assume there will be miscommunications, and because of this, they should seek out other ways to communicate, to ensure there is full understanding. This difference can be assumed until there is evidence of similarity. To communicate with a different culture clearly, and eliminate the constant uncertainty, it may be necessary to immerse oneself in that culture and get to know the ways it operates (Adler, N.D.). Even the way a person dresses could be considered demonstrative communication. Depending on the culture, certain clothes may be offensive or misleading to a person when communicating cross-culturally. For example, it is normal for women in some cultures to wear miniskirts, while in other cultures, it is only appropriate for a woman to wear a veil (Utah, N.D.). Even within the same culture, certain clothing is appropriate during certain occasions, such as in North America, where it might not be appropriate to wear a miniskirt to a business meeting, for example. Not understanding this cultural norm by wearing a miniskirt to a business meeting might be seen as being unsociable because the person is not making an effort to acknowledge this social norm in the particular culture.
People within the same culture also have personal limits about touch. For example, many feel that touching another’s arm is a sign of attentiveness and caring, while others might consider it an invasion of privacy. This contrast is even more pronounced when communicating with those of other cultures. In the United Kingdom, for example, the average person touches another person zero times each hour, while those in Puerto Rico touch 180 times per hour (Utah, N.D.). But other options exist to help limit misunderstandings if demonstrative devices are used to paint a clear picture. Other ways of communicating are often neglected, but they can be the most vital in being social by communicating as clearly as possible. People often only focus on a verbal message, but more than just the words are being interpreted by the receiver of that information. For example, head position, posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and arm and hand gestures all contribute to the way a message is communicated. If someone is at a job interview and they have a slouched posture, that might indicate they are unengaged. However, the person may be very interested, but they are just unaware of the way they are physically communicating, and this is seen as being unsociable. It is important that the subjective understanding of these signs and symbols are understood for effective cross-cultural communication (Speech, 2012).
Voice tone, which is a demonstrative part of verbal communication, is an important part of conveying a message in the intended way. For example, a person with a low voice is interpreted to have more authority than a person with a high voice, according to research from the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. When hearing a deep voice, people have an instinctive judgment of the person who is speaking. The Corporate Coach Group states it is more effective to vary tone (Farmer, 2011). Varied tone can emphasize key words and phrases, and this can make what is being said more interesting because it can stimulate emotions. When certain words are emphasized, the listener might become more enthusiastic, humoured and excited.
But the listener is also communicating, though they are not saying anything. Eye contact is a major factor in demonstrative communication that many North Americans consider to be paramount to communication. When the listener does not make eye contact, the speaker might think they are uninterested or snobby. People who are listening might also nod their head to indicate they understand what the speaker is saying. Facial expressions are also important, because the person listening might want to smile to indicate they are accepting of what the person is saying, or that they understand the humour in what is being said. Conversely, if someone is making eye contact, nodding and smiling, for example, the person who is speaking might think they are not genuine, and this is perceived as being unsociable. This is a common difficulty when communicating and it is what causes certain people with compatible communication styles to get along, while those with different communication styles do not get along (Farmer, 2011).
It is important to know that the basis for many people’s beliefs are developed through their cultural upbringing. “Human beings learn about and come to understand their environment through interactions with others” ([The Meaning of the Symbol] 57). When interacting cross-culturally, it can be imperative to be perceived as being social in business situations, for example. The global community is making it necessary for many business people to be effective at understanding symbolic interactionism theory as it is applied to the culture with which the person is conducting business. The exchange between people who speak different languages is where symbolic interactionism theory is perhaps expressed the most. For example, leadership plays one of the most important roles in determining values of people in different cultures. People are the same, despite where they are from (Hofstede, 2012), but sociologist Geert Hofstede concludes that there are profound differences due to the cultural upbringing. The research offered in Hofstede’s studies helps to determine whether the culture in which a person is raised affects the way they communicate, and this provides an interesting aspect to understanding symbolic interactionism theory because it recognizes the cultural interpretations of the same qualities, such as leadership. This proves the need to develop effective symbolic ways to communicate in each culture, due to the differences in customs and beliefs (Hofstede, 2012). Hofstede points out that because many companies do not have the type of expertise to handle the changing work environment that is being spurred on by globalization, there will be a need for people who are trained to handle this area, and that will in many case be those trained in proper negotiations with international companies. There are many new demands on the people in the organization and this will require proper guidance from HR managers. There needs to be flexibility and speed within the company in order to adapt to the global market. The climate in the new type of workplace demands that companies have an “open and empowered organizational climate, but also a tightly focused global competitive culture,” (Hofstede, 2010). This type of adjustment will not be based on the strategic planning of the top corporate executives, as it will be more in the behavior of the company’s employees in the various areas in which the company operates around the world. These specially trained employees will need to take special note of the cultural nuances in communication that are revealed through the symbolic interactionism theory.
Having the right people to communicate globally might be difficult, due to the challenging nature in finding a person who has extensive knowledge of negotiations. Companies will face many challenges in this changing global communication environment. The person who is currently negotiating for the company might not want to be reassigned to a different task with the firm. While certain incentives can be provided to the person who currently negotiates for the company, they may not be enough to convince that person to take on different tasks. Furthermore, there may not be other tasks that the person can take on, so there would be redundant employment. Thirdly, it would cost the company more money to hire someone with training that is as detailed as being able to speak a specific language or be familiar with international negotiation strategies.
While it might be difficult finding a person skilled familiar enough with symbolic interactionism theory, it is becoming a more relevant field due to globalization. On a long enough timeline, the right person would likely come along who knows the signs and symbols needed to be considered sociable with the other culture, which can be vital for business dealings.
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