Difference Matters: Culture, Identity, Diversity, and the Need for Intercultural Communication Competence

Whenever we encounter someone, we notice similarities and differences. While both are important, it is often the differences that are highlighted and that contribute to communication troubles. We don’t only see similarities and differences on an individual level. In fact, we also place people into in-groups and out-groups based on the similarities and differences we perceive.  

This is important because we then tend to react to someone we perceive as a member of an out-group based on the characteristics we attach to the group rather than the individual. In these situations, it is more likely that stereotypes and prejudice will influence our communication.  

Learning about difference and why it matters will help us be more competent communicators. The flip side of emphasizing difference is to claim that no differences exist and that you see everyone as a human being. Rather than trying to ignore difference and see each person as a unique individual, we should know the history of how differences came to be so socially and culturally significant and how they continue to affect us today. 

The Social Construction of Difference through the Ideology of Domination  

Culture and identity are complex. You may be wondering how some groups came to be dominant and others nondominant. These differences are not natural, which can be seen as we unpack how various identities have changed over time. There is, however, an ideology of domination that makes it seem natural and normal to many that some people or groups will always have power over others. In fact, hierarchy and domination, although prevalent throughout modern human history, were likely not the norm among early humans. So, one of the first reasons difference matters is that people and groups are treated unequally, and better understanding how those differences came to be can help us create a more just society.  

COVID-19: Cultural Differences and Disparities 

Several examples of how difference matters emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control found that, as of April 2020, 33 percent of people hospitalized for COVID-19 are African American while only 13 percent of the U.S. population is African American. This disparity can be partially explained by health factors within the African American population, but even some of those factors are related to structural racism. For example, there is racial bias in health care that leads to black patients receiving lower quality medical care. 

To compound risks associated with COVID-19 due to underlying health issues faced by African Americans, black workers are more likely to have jobs that cannot be done from home or work in situations where it can be more difficult to comply with social distancing practices.  

Another example that received media attention is how race affects people’s comfort level with wearing face coverings in public. Some black men have reported that they feel more comfortable wearing a surgical mask than any kind of homemade cloth face covering or bandana. They are hesitant to wear a face covering in public at all due to a long history of racialized fear of black men in public places and more recent targeting of black men by individuals and police for wearing hoodies or face coverings in public. This long history of racial profiling in the United States is heightened by the extra stress and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Privilege and Perspective: Obstacles to Understanding How and Why Difference Matters 

Difference matters due to the inequalities that exist among cultural groups and due to changing demographics that affect our personal and social relationships. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles that may impede our valuing of difference. Individuals with dominant identities may not validate the experiences of those in non-dominant groups because they do not experience the oppression directed at those with non-dominant identities. Further, they may find it difficult to acknowledge that not being aware of this oppression is due to privilege associated with their dominant identities.  

Because of this lack of recognition of oppression, members of dominant groups may minimize, dismiss, or question the experiences of nondominant groups and view them as “complainers” or “whiners.” Connecting to models of dominant and nondominant identity development, people with dominant identities may stay in the unexamined stage for a long time, which makes it much more difficult to value difference. 

Members of nondominant groups may have difficulty valuing difference due to negative experiences with the dominant group, such as not having their experiences validated. Both groups may be restrained from communicating about difference due to norms of political correctness, which may make people feel afraid to speak up because they may be perceived as insensitive or racist. All these obstacles are common and they are valid. However, developing intercultural communication competence can help us gain new perspectives, become more mindful of our communication, and intervene in some of these negative cycles.