3 Identity and Intercultural Communication

Identity: “Who am I?”

This chapter includes three sections and is taken, with Creative Commons licensing permission, directly (and in some instances slightly adapted) from the OER textbook Communication in the Real World (2016). As you read this chapter, please consider how it might further be updated for future classes and revisions of this OER Textbook. You may email lori.halverson-wente@rctc.edu or add comments in the course discussion if you have another instructor.

Section One Learning Outcomes

  • Define culture.
  • Define personal, social, and cultural identities.
  • Summarize nondominant and dominant identity development.
  • Explain why difference matters in the study of culture and identity.


[As we have seen in previous chapters], [c]ulture is a complicated word to define, as there are at least six common ways that culture is used in the United States. For the purposes of exploring the communicative aspects of culture, we will define culture as the ongoing negotiation of learned and patterned beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors. Unpacking the definition, we can see that culture shouldn’t be conceptualized as stable and unchanging. Culture is “negotiated,” and as we will learn later in this chapter, culture is dynamic, and cultural changes can be traced and analyzed to better understand why our society is the way it is. The definition also points out that culture is learned, which accounts for the importance of socializing institutions like family, school, peers, and the media. Culture is patterned in that there are recognizable widespread similarities among people within a cultural group. There is also deviation from and resistance to those patterns by individuals and subgroups within a culture, which is why cultural patterns change over time. Last, the definition acknowledges that culture influences our beliefs about what is true and false, our attitudes including our likes and dislikes, our values regarding what is right and wrong, and our behaviors. It is from these cultural influences that our identities are formed.

Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities

Ask yourself the question “Who am I?”  When considering one’s self-concept, we can see that we develop a sense of who we are based on what is reflected back on us from other people. Our parents, friends, teachers, and the media help shape our identities. While this happens from birth, most people in Western societies reach a stage in adolescence where maturing cognitive abilities and increased social awareness lead them to begin to reflect on who they are. This begins a lifelong process of thinking about who we are now, who we were before, and who we will become (Tatum, B. D., 2000). Our identities make up an important part of our self-concept and can be broken down into three main categories: personal, social, and cultural identities (see Table 8.1 “Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities”).

We must avoid the temptation to think of our identities as constant. Instead, our identities are formed through processes that started before we were born and will continue after we are gone; therefore our identities aren’t something we achieve or complete. Two related but distinct components of our identities are our personal and social identities (Spreckels, J. & Kotthoff, H., 2009). Personal identities include the components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connected to our life experiences. For example, I consider myself a puzzle lover, and you may identify as a fan of hip-hop music. Our social identities are the components of self that are derived from involvement in social groups with which we are interpersonally committed.

We can get a better understanding of current cultural identities by unpacking how they came to be. By looking at history, we can see how cultural identities that seem to have existed forever actually came to be constructed for various political and social reasons and how they have changed over time. Communication plays a central role in this construction. As we have already discussed, our identities are relational and communicative; they are also constructed. Social constructionism is a view that argues the self is formed through our interactions with others and in relationship to social, cultural, and political contexts (Allen, 2011). In this section, we’ll explore how the cultural identities of race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability have been constructed in the United States and how communication relates to those identities. There are other important identities that could be discussed, like religion, age, nationality, and class. Although they are not given their own section, consider how those identities may intersect with the identities discussed next.

For example, we may derive aspects of our social identity from our family or from a community of fans for a sports team. Social identities differ from personal identities because they are externally organized through membership. Our membership may be voluntary (Greek organization on campus) or involuntary (family) and explicit (we pay dues to our labor union) or implicit (we purchase and listen to hip-hop music). There are innumerous options for personal and social identities. While our personal identity choices express who we are, our social identities align us with particular groups. Through our social identities, we make statements about who we are and who we are not.

Table 8.1 Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities

Personal Social Cultural
Antique Collector Member of Historical Society Irish American
Dog Lover Member of Humane Society Male/Female
Cyclist Fraternity/Sorority Member Greek American
Singer High School Music Teacher Multiracial
Shy Book Club Member Heterosexual
Athletic Gay/Lesbian

Personal identities may change often as people have new experiences and develop new interests and hobbies. A current interest in online video games may give way to an interest in graphic design. Social identities do not change as often because they take more time to develop, as you must become interpersonally invested. For example, if an interest in online video games leads someone to become a member of a MMORPG, or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game community, that personal identity has led to a social identity that is now interpersonal and more entrenched. Cultural identities are based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting (Yep, G. A., 2002). Since we are often a part of them since birth, cultural identities are the least changeable of the three. The ways of being and the social expectations for behavior within cultural identities do change over time, but what separates them from most social identities is their historical roots (Collier, M. J., 1996). For example, think of how ways of being and acting have changed for African Americans since the civil rights movement. Additionally, common ways of being and acting within a cultural identity group are expressed through communication. In order to be accepted as a member of a cultural group, members must be acculturated, essentially learning and using a code that other group members will be able to recognize. We are acculturated into our various cultural identities in obvious and less obvious ways. We may literally have a parent or friend tell us what it means to be a man or a woman. We may also unconsciously consume messages from popular culture that offer representations of gender.

Any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed. Ascribed identities are personal, social, or cultural identities that are placed on us by others, while avowed identities are those that we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Sometimes people ascribe an identity to someone else based on stereotypes. You may see a person who likes to read science-fiction books, watches documentaries, has glasses, and collects Star Trek memorabilia and label him or her a nerd. If the person doesn’t avow that identity, it can create friction, and that label may even hurt the other person’s feelings. But ascribed and avowed identities can match up. To extend the previous example, there has been a movement in recent years to reclaim the label nerd and turn it into a positive, and a nerd subculture has been growing in popularity. For example, MC Frontalot, a leader in the nerdcore hip-hop movement, says that being branded a nerd in school was terrible, but now he raps about “nerdy” things like blogs to sold-out crowds (Shipman, 2007). We can see from this example that our ascribed and avowed identities change over the course of our lives, and sometimes they match up and sometimes not.

Although some identities are essentially permanent, the degree to which we are aware of them, also known as salience, changes. The intensity with which we avow an identity also changes based on context. For example, an African American may not have difficulty deciding which box to check on the demographic section of a survey. But if an African American becomes president of her college’s Black Student Union, she may more intensely avow her African American identity, which has now become more salient. If she studies abroad in Africa her junior year, she may be ascribed an identity of American by her new African friends rather than African American. For the Africans, their visitor’s identity as American is likely more salient than her identity as someone of African descent. If someone is biracial or multiracial, they may change their racial identification as they engage in an identity search. One intercultural communication scholar writes of his experiences as an “Asianlatinoamerican” (Yep, 2002). He notes repressing his Chinese identity as an adolescent living in Peru and then later embracing his Chinese identity and learning about his family history while in college in the United States. This example shows how even national identity fluctuates. Obviously one can change nationality by becoming a citizen of another country, although most people do not. My identity as a US American became very salient for me for the first time in my life when I studied abroad in Sweden.

Throughout modern history, cultural and social influences have established dominant and nondominant groups (Allen, 2011). Dominant identities historically had and currently have more resources and influence, while nondominant identities historically had and currently have less resources and influence. It’s important to remember that these distinctions are being made at the societal level, not the individual level. There are obviously exceptions, with people in groups considered nondominant obtaining more resources and power than a person in a dominant group. However, the overall trend is that difference based on cultural groups has been institutionalized, and exceptions do not change this fact. Because of this uneven distribution of resources and power, members of dominant groups are granted privileges while nondominant groups are at a disadvantage. The main nondominant groups must face various forms of institutionalized discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. As we will discuss later, privilege and disadvantage, like similarity and difference, are not “all or nothing.” No two people are completely different or completely similar, and no one person is completely privileged or completely disadvantaged.

Identity Development

There are multiple models for examining identity development. Given our focus on how difference matters, we will examine similarities and differences in nondominant and dominant identity formation. While the stages in this model help us understand how many people experience their identities, identity development is complex, and there may be variations. We must also remember that people have multiple identities that intersect with each other. So, as you read, think about how circumstances may be different for an individual with multiple nondominant and/or dominant identities.

Nondominant Identity Development

There are four stages of nondominant identity development (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). The first stage is unexamined identity, which is characterized by a lack of awareness of or lack of interest in one’s identity. For example, a young woman who will later identify as a lesbian may not yet realize that a nondominant sexual orientation is part of her identity. Also, a young African American man may question his teachers or parents about the value of what he’s learning during Black History Month. When a person’s lack of interest in their own identity is replaced by an investment in a dominant group’s identity, they may move to the next stage, which is conformity.

In the conformity stage, an individual internalizes or adopts the values and norms of the dominant group, often in an effort not to be perceived as different. Individuals may attempt to assimilate into the dominant culture by changing their appearance, their mannerisms, the way they talk, or even their name. Moises, a Chicano man interviewed in a research project about identities, narrated how he changed his “Mexican sounding” name to Moses, which was easier for his middle-school classmates and teachers to say (Jones Jr., 2009). He also identified as white instead of Mexican American or Chicano because he saw how his teachers treated the other kids with “brown skin.” Additionally, some gay or lesbian people in this stage of identity development may try to “act straight.” In either case, some people move to the next stage, resistance and separation, when they realize that despite their efforts they are still perceived as different by and not included in the dominant group.

Quinn Dombrowski – ASL interpreter – CC BY-SA 2.0.

In the resistance and separation stage, an individual with a nondominant identity may shift away from the conformity of the previous stage to engage in actions that challenge the dominant identity group. Individuals in this stage may also actively try to separate themselves from the dominant group, interacting only with those who share their nondominant identity. For example, there has been a Deaf culture movement in the United States for decades. This movement includes people who are hearing impaired and believe that their use of a specific language, American Sign Language (ASL), and other cultural practices constitutes a unique culture, which they symbolize by capitalizing the D in Deaf (Allen, 2011).

While this is not a separatist movement, a person who is hearing impaired may find refuge in such a group after experiencing discrimination from hearing people. Staying in this stage may indicate a lack of critical thinking if a person endorses the values of the nondominant group without question.

The integration stage marks a period where individuals with a nondominant identity have achieved a balance between embracing their own identities and valuing other dominant and nondominant identities. Although there may still be residual anger from the discrimination and prejudice they have faced, they may direct this energy into positive outlets such as working to end discrimination for their own or other groups. Moises, the Chicano man I mentioned earlier, now works to support the Chicano community in his city and also has actively supported gay rights and women’s rights.

Dominant Identity Development

Dominant identity development consists of five stages (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). The unexamined stage of dominant identity formation is similar to nondominant in that individuals in this stage do not think about their or others’ identities. Although they may be aware of differences—for example, between races and genders—they either don’t realize there is a hierarchy that treats some people differently than others or they don’t think the hierarchy applies to them. For example, a white person may take notice that a person of color was elected to a prominent office. However, he or she may not see the underlying reason that it is noticeable—namely, that the overwhelming majority of our country’s leaders are white. Unlike people with a nondominant identity who usually have to acknowledge the positioning of their identity due to discrimination and prejudice they encounter, people with dominant identities may stay in the unexamined stage for a long time.

In the acceptance stage, a person with a dominant identity passively or actively accepts that some people are treated differently than others but doesn’t do anything internally or externally to address it. In the passive acceptance stage, we must be cautious not to blame individuals with dominant identities for internalizing racist, sexist, or heterosexist “norms.” The socializing institutions we discussed earlier (family, peers, media, religion, and education) often make oppression seem normal and natural. For example, I have had students who struggle to see that they are in this stage say things like “I know that racism exists, but my parents taught me to be a good person and see everyone as equal.” While this is admirable, seeing everyone as equal doesn’t make it so. And people who insist that we are all equal may claim that minorities are exaggerating their circumstances or “whining” and just need to “work harder” or “get over it.” The person making these statements acknowledges difference but doesn’t see their privilege or the institutional perpetuation of various “-isms.” Although I’ve encountered many more people in the passive state of acceptance than the active state, some may progress to an active state where they acknowledge inequality and are proud to be in the “superior” group. In either case, many people never progress from this stage. If they do, it’s usually because of repeated encounters with individuals or situations that challenge their acceptance of the status quo, such as befriending someone from a nondominant group or taking a course related to culture.

The resistance stage of dominant identity formation is a major change from the previous in that an individual acknowledges the unearned advantages they are given and feels guilt or shame about it. Having taught about various types of privilege for years, I’ve encountered many students who want to return their privilege or disown it. These individuals may begin to disassociate with their own dominant group because they feel like a curtain has been opened and their awareness of the inequality makes it difficult for them to interact with others in their dominant group. But it’s important to acknowledge that becoming aware of your white privilege, for instance, doesn’t mean that every person of color is going to want to accept you as an ally, so retreating to them may not be the most productive move. While moving to this step is a marked improvement in regards to becoming a more aware and socially just person, getting stuck in the resistance stage isn’t productive, because people are often retreating rather than trying to address injustice. For some, deciding to share what they’ve learned with others who share their dominant identity moves them to the next stage.

People in the redefinition stage revise negative views of their identity held in the previous stage and begin to acknowledge their privilege and try to use the power they are granted to work for social justice. They realize that they can claim their dominant identity as heterosexual, able-bodied, male, white, and so on, and perform their identity in ways that counter norms. A male participant in a research project on identity said the following about redefining his male identity: I don’t want to assert my maleness the same way that maleness is asserted all around us all the time. I don’t want to contribute to sexism. So I have to be conscious of that. There’s that guilt. But then, I try to utilize my maleness in positive ways, like when I’m talking to other men about male privilege (Jones, Jr., 2009).

The final stage of dominant identity formation is integration. This stage is reached when redefinition is complete and people can integrate their dominant identity into all aspects of their life, finding opportunities to educate others about privilege while also being a responsive ally to people in nondominant identities. As an example, some heterosexual people who find out a friend or family member is gay or lesbian may have to confront their dominant heterosexual identity for the first time, which may lead them through these various stages. As a sign of integration, some may join an organization like PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), where they can be around others who share their dominant identity as heterosexuals but also empathize with their loved ones.

Knowing more about various types of identities and some common experiences of how dominant and nondominant identities are formed prepares us to delve into more specifics about why difference matters.

Difference Matters

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 (Allen, 2011). 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.

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 in the next section. 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 (Allen, 2011). 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. Difference also matters because demographics and patterns of interaction are changing.

In the United States, the population of people of color is increasing and diversifying, and visibility for people who are gay or lesbian and people with disabilities has also increased. The 2010 Census shows that the Hispanic and Latino/a populations in the United States are now the second largest group in the country, having grown 43 percent since the last census in 2000 (Saenz, 2011). By 2030, racial and ethnic minorities will account for one-third of the population (Allen, 2011). Additionally, legal and social changes have created a more open environment for sexual minorities and people with disabilities. These changes directly affect our interpersonal relationships. The workplace is one context where changing demographics has become increasingly important. Many organizations are striving to comply with changing laws by implementing policies aimed at creating equal access and opportunity. Some organizations are going further than legal compliance to try to create inclusive climates where diversity is valued because of the interpersonal and economic benefits it has the potential to produce.

We can now see that 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 (Allen, 2011). Individuals with dominant identities may not validate the experiences of those in nondominant groups because they do not experience the oppression directed at those with nondominant 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.” Recall from our earlier discussion of identity formation that people with dominant identities may stay in the unexamined or acceptance stages for a long time. Being stuck in these stages 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, as we will learn later, developing intercultural communication competence can help us gain new perspectives, become more mindful of our communication, and intervene in some of these negative cycles.

Key Takeaways

  • Culture is an ongoing negotiation of learned patterns of beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors.
  • Each of us has personal, social, and cultural identities.

    • Personal identities are components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connect to our individual interests and life experiences.
    • Social identities are components of self that are derived from our involvement in social groups to which we are interpersonally invested.
    • Cultural identities are components of self based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for our thoughts and behaviors.
  • Nondominant identity formation may include a person moving from unawareness of the importance of their identities, to adopting the values of dominant society, to separating from dominant society, to integrating components of identities.
  • Dominant identity formation may include a person moving from unawareness of their identities, to accepting the identity hierarchy, to separation from and guilt regarding the dominant group, to redefining and integrating components of identities.
  • Difference matters because people are treated differently based on their identities and demographics and patterns of interaction are changing. Knowing why and how this came to be and how to navigate our increasingly diverse society can make us more competent communicators.

Section Two Learning Outcomes

  • List the Dimensions of Difference.
  • Understand Intersectionality.
  • Explain the difference between ascribed and avowed identities.

Dimensions of Difference and Intersectionality

As we stated at the end of the last lesson unit, cultures are very often associated with nation-states or countries; we often hear about US culture or French culture or Chinese culture. However, national culture isn’t the only dimension of culture. Within national boundaries, cultures are rarely monolithic. There tend to be many other kinds of difference, and many other kinds of socializing groups, and we can classify these differences through the Dimensions of Difference model. These twelve dimensions of cultural identity are intersectional – meaning that they are often deeply interwoven and the group socialization we experience in any one dimension can impact other identities. When we examine power and resource access, this intersectionality can potentially lead to greater opportunity and inclusion or greater oppression and marginalization, depending upon the larger social contexts in which we live and work. Though presented here in no particular order, to some degree these twelve dimensions are a part of all of our cultural identities:


Our generational groups can give us a shared language and way of seeing the world. Economic stability or instability, political upheaval, technological advancements and environmental crises can have profound impacts on the values and beliefs of the people living and coming of age during these times.

Class/Socioeconomic Status

Social class is much more than just income, it’s the education level, the family wealth, and the status that comes from family legacy and/or occupation. Our social class cultural experiences have a powerful impact on our assumptions about our place in the world and the choices we make, as well as our beliefs about our ability to shape our destiny.


First of all, a note of your instructor’s preference for terms. My education in the field of intercultural communication has led me away from “race” and towards “ethnicity.” In many ways, both terms try to get at our ancestry and bloodlines and the ways that we build community identity around these, but “race” is a term and an idea with a powerfully problematic and damaging history. Genetic research may reveal important biological aspects of generational DNA changes within migratory groups, but they tell us absolutely nothing of value about human cultural difference. In short, externally labeling people with racial categories – “black” or “white” or “brown” – can reinforce racist categorizations while potentially teaching us nothing about cultural difference.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a deeper, broader and more inclusive term. Ethnicity emphasizes the importance of cultural groups to define their family, tribal or clan ancestry or heritage. Racial categories are simplistic; ethnic categories are often complex. In the US, for example, members of a recent Sudanese Dinka immigrant community and members of a multi-generation southern Haitian-American family would both be racially identified as “black.” However, through the lens of ethnicity, we can learn so much more about how members of these different communities live and identify themselves culturally.

However, even if we choose to set aside the term “race” in our exploration of intercultural communication, this doesn’t mean we can ignore the concept of racism and its devastating impact on cultural groups. Experience with oppression in itself often shapes cultural practices, norms, values and beliefs as well.


Biological sex (male, female or intersexed) may lead human beings to certain universal physiological differences, but gender identity is a process of cultural socialization. Gender performances that are considered “preferable” or “acceptable” by group members can vary greatly at the intersections of ethnic, national and religious cultural identities.


Have you ever lived in a large urban city? A small rural town? A suburban neighborhood? The population density (how many other people live near and around you) of where you live can have a profound impact on your way of life, shaping your social interactions as well as the way you understand the importance of interconnection and human beings’ relationship to the natural environment.

Mental/Physical Variation

You may already be familiar with the term “disability,” but disability too often implies that a mental or physical difference makes one less able to live life fully or complete tasks. Thanks to the testimony of those who live with variations, we know this often isn’t true. Additionally, a mental/physical variation that calls for medical treatment or isolation from the group in one culture, but might instead give the individual greater status in the group and more opportunities for interaction with group members in another culture. Since “disability” limits our understanding in this context, we’ll use the term “mental/physical variation.”

Culture can be formed around these variations. People with certain mental/physical variations – loss of mobility, blindness, deafness, ADHD, etc. – often forge a group identity. They may share a common history of oppression based in others’ perceptions, and they may also share a common bond of resilience in asserting their rights. Members of these groups generate art, music, literature, activism and other expressions in order to communicate their cultural experiences with these variations.

Occupation (or Profession)

The work we do – particularly our longer-term career – shapes our total way of life as well. Occupations often have their own specialized languages and jargon, as well as necessary uniforms and general codes of ethical conduct. Technical colleges like Century College offer programs which serve as cultural adjustment experiences, preparing students to acclimate to the culture of their chosen occupation.


It’s not just what you do for work that shapes you culturally, but also where you do that work or service.  Business and nonprofit organizations often have clear dress codes, expectations for communication with coworkers and clients, and internal management structures that may vary greatly from organization to organization.

And organizations aren’t just about service or labor. Hobbies, sports and shared interests also bind our experience together with others, forming those “small cultures” we explored in the previous lesson.


The nations in which we live or in which we are a citizen shape us in powerful ways. Though national borders can change over time, these territorial lines often serve not only to communicate the boundaries of occupied land but to establish formal ways of life, with common or official languages, customs, formal laws and a systems of authority that are generally intended to culturally unify the people within these borders.


Despite the importance of national culture, regional settlements within nations often contain unique variations of these larger practices and beliefs. Due to historical ethnic settlements, geographic features, or both, we may find different vocal accents, different nonverbal gestures, different customs and maybe even differing belief systems as we travel from region to region within a nation.


Religion is a powerful cultural force, leading to the creation of birth and burial practices, architectural spaces, music and other forms of human expression and art. Religious groups often clarify expectations of behavior for group members as well as help explain the importance of spiritual ideas. Iceberg Model third-level beliefs may be difficult to identify in many cultures, but they are usually clearly identified in religious cultures. Even those who do not identify or affiliate with a religion often share certain worldviews, which may also lead them to a shared cultural identity or shared secular practices.

Sexual Orientation

Also, see Deeper Dive into LGBTQT+ Topics.

Human sexuality is a topic for an entire course or even specialization in graduate school. Intercultural Communication scholars note sexuality comprises a cultural identity as well.

“Some LGBTQ artists and scholars have pointed out that the sexual and relational challenges facing “gay” partners don’t really differ all that greatly from the sexual and relational challenges “straight” partners face. However, the experience of being oppressed or threatened as a result of one’s sexuality may lead to a cultural system of shared practices and beliefs which serve to bond and protect members and help them establish rights and express human experiences” (Jersek, 2022).

The LGBTQ+  community is comprised of a group of individuals who identify as Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Transgender or Nonconforming (T),  Queer (Q), and others (+).  The symbol “+” is used to indicate that more sexual orientations/identities may be included. The basis for initialisms lies with the concept of nonbinary gender identity. These initialisms, in short, help to “move beyond the binary.”

Now, binary refers to either-or, 2 possible choices – much like a bicycle has 2 tires, “male or female” is an example of a binary choice.  However, “throughout history, some people have identified as neither male nor female, or as ‘nonbinary’….Nonbinary people’s gender identity lies outside the boundaries of a strict male–female dichotomy” (National Institute of Health, 2020)



Additional initialisms include LGBT, LGBT+, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+,  where an “I” is included for individuals who are intersexual, an “A” includes individuals who are A-sexual (or, some might claim, Allies).  LGBTTQQIA is a more recent initialism of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies, and pansexual.  Reid-Smith points out that “[s]ome people wrongly think LGBT or LGBTQ are acronyms. In fact, he continues, initial letters are only an acronym if you say them as a word, like “NASA.” Therefore LGBT+ and all the other options are initialisms, because you spell out each letter, like you do in the USA” ( 2020).

Ren and Grace with rainbow unbrella
Literally, an umbrella!

Reid-Smith (2020) asserts that “all of the options are umbrella terms for the same community..[t]hey broadly mean the same.” The interesting part is that adding more letters means one is thereby “explicitly including more identities. On face value, that makes your choice more overtly inclusive. In a like manner, “using the ‘+’ symbol is a more implicit way of doing that. Thus, by “adding the plus, you include everyone else” without having to season a rich, thick alphabet soup of dizzying letter combinations.

Reid-Smith cautions us to “remember that many people feel their own identities are overlooked within our community…” commenting that, “[a]fter all, the initialisms don’t contain ‘pansexual’, ‘non-binary’ or many more. So why stop at just LGBTQ?” Reid-Smith concludes that, simply, the “truth is there is no option that everyone agrees with. And some LGBT+ people actively dislike some of the choices” (2020).

So, why the alphabet soup? Tris Reid-Smith’s (2020) commentary reflects the complexity of initialism:

“…And if you want a ‘house style’ on how to express ‘LGBT+’, understand there are pros and cons to all the options and no right answer. So do your best and be prepared to listen and change as the community moves on. But most importantly, always remember our community is made up of 460 million individuals – so reflect their identities and respect their individuality in everything you do.”

Improving Intercultural Communication Competence

What can you do to improve your skills, motivation, and knowledge?


OutFront Minnesota Education provides educational training sessions and uses the following materials  in the LGBTQ+ 101 & Intersectional Equity Training organized by Kelly Holstine, Director of Education Equity, in entirety, below:

Strategies to Increase Intersectional Equity

  • Creating safe, respectful, and caring environments for every learner (help students & educators feel like they matter) & utilizing restorative practices
  • Celebrating vulnerability, sharing authentic selves, and eliminating perspective gaps
  • Advocating for the rights of people who are discriminated against
  • Including diverse voices in the curriculum
  • Engaging in courageous conversations to challenge prejudice and discrimination (including: owning and improving your own flaws and biases [explicit and implicit])
  • Letting go of needing to be the “expert” and “in charge” (i.e, being open to asking questions and being curious instead of judgmental)
  • Being aware of intention vs. impact
  • Breaking down systems that are creating barriers
Equity = giving someone what they need to be successful

Strategies to increase LGBTQ+ Educational Equity

  • Adding your pronouns to your email signature
  • Not making assumptions when people tell you stories about their lives (e.g., pronouns, sexual orientations, genders, etc.)
  • Introducing yourself with affirmed pronouns and using other people’s affirmed pronouns and names
  • Using gender inclusive language (e.g., folks, humans, learners, etc.)
  • Not gendering students in activities (e.g., having students line up by birthdays or last names instead of by gender identify)
  • Speaking out against LGBTQ+ bullying and harassment (i.e., Immediately addressing the use of anti-
  • LGBTQ+ language in schools, standing up for students when they are being discriminated against, etc.)
  • Displaying posters and art that represent LGBTQ+ culture (e.g, symbols of support, Safe Space signs).
  • Gender Unicorn posters, pictures of LGBTQ+ people, etc.)
  • Having safe restroom access (e.g., gender neutral bathrooms, single stall/private bathrooms, supporting students to use whatever bathrooms make them feel safe)
  • Recognizing families that are diverse in structure and using inclusive, non-gendered terms (e.g., parents, grown-ups, guardians, caregivers, etc.)
  • Including LGBTQ+ voices and examples in the curriculum
  • Starting/Supporting Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSAs)
  • Supporting laws and policies that support LGBTQ+ humans
  • First day with students: read the student’s last name and ask what first name they would like you to use (create rosters with “Student Name” on first line and “Legal name [if different]” on the second line



The Dimensions of Difference model ultimately serves to remind us that culture isn’t something exclusive to certain groups of people; we are all cultured, we are all shaped and socialized in different kinds of groups and we all have multicultural identities. These cultural identities teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting in different contexts (Yep, G. A., 2002). Some of these groups we have been a part of since birth, but any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed. Ascribed identities are cultural identities that are placed on us by others, while avowed identities are those that we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Ascribed and avowed identities may change over the course of our lives, often making our overall cultural identity hard to describe or explain in simple terms. Though these foundational chapters are designed to give us a framework for understanding and navigating cultural difference, there is always more depth and complexity than we initially perceive. Keep this in mind as you connect with others across cultural boundaries, and be willing to let others explain how they view or define themselves culturally before making broad assumptions about their cultural identity.

Deeper Dive – LGBTQ+ Intersectionality, Dominant Culture, and Co-Culture

Oppression is linked…

The Balance of Intersectionality, Dominant Culture, and Co-Culture

When considering co-cultures, one may easily succumb to the assumption that someone from a different co-culture than one’s own would necessarily differ in categories and characteristics such as race, age, ethnic background. Some students looking to complete the co-culture interview assignment infer that there are attributes, readily observable, that identifies another as from a different co-culture. We are immersed within difference whether we can observe it or not.  Conversely, one may also succumb to the assumption that those from one’s own co-culture necessarily share the same behavioral traits, characteristics, and categories common to that co-culture. Both assumptions need to be avoided. The National LGBT Health Education Center  (2020) shares that LGBT people, for example, “are from all different races, ethnicities, ages, social/economic classes, and places. Some in the community are very open about being LGB or T, while some are only “out” to a few people, or just to themselves. In short, one can “never be sure whether someone is LGBT unless they tell you”  (LGBT Health Education).

The assumptions of difference and sameness above, in and of themselves, might possess some level of validity; however, given the concept of intersectionality– the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating [non-discrete] overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” (Oxford Dictionaries)–it is necessary to tread lightly about these assumptions.  Case studies provide a demonstration of how individuals might belong simultaneously to a number of co-cultures such as “Julie,” who identifies as lesbian, Christian, white, middle-class, and American. These five traits form an “intersection” of “overlapping and interdependent systems” which confer privilege/advantage, or conversely in other cases, as we’ll next see, discrimination/disadvantage. Contrast Julie’s “intersection” to that of, “Vithu,” a Cambodian international student attending a US college (on a scholarship) who identifies as Pansexual, and is from a Cambodian Buddhist tradition though has converted to Christianity. The intersection of Vithu’s various co-cultures does not include the same power or social privilege as Julie’s intersection of being white, middle-class, American, and Christain, all aspects of our dominant culture.  However, because Vithu is both a man and now has earned a Ph.D. in Engineering from Harvard University, he may, indeed, jump over Julie in crucial respects of social rank. While not a “competition,” these examples show how intersectionality is a dynamic theory that offers insight into how individuals are not easily defined by one culture (or co-culture) even when it dominates.

Samovar’s concepts of dominant culture and co-cultures, as well as intersectionality, challenge the validity of assumptions surrounding one’s view of co-cultures, whether those of others or one’s own.  Samovar, et. al. (2017) defines dominant culture as:

Referring to a group of people as a culture…applying the term to the dominant culture found in most societies. In the United States, a variety of terms have been coined to represent this group, such as umbrella culture, mainstream culture, U.S. Americans, and Euro-Americans. We prefer to use dominant culture because it clearly indicates that the group we are referring to generally exercises the greatest influence on the beliefs, values, perceptions, communication patterns, and customs of the culture. A dominant group is characteristic of all cultures, and this collective of people possesses those instruments of power that allow it to set the broad societal agenda the majority of others will commonly follow. The power we are referring to does not necessarily reside in numerical dominance but in the ability to control the major institutions within the culture — governmental, educational, mass media, economic, military, religious, and the like. What a dominant cultural group uses as the basis of power (money, fear, the military, and such) may differ from culture to culture, but in every case, the group determines the political, economic, and social agenda. Regardless of the source of power, certain people within every culture possess and exercise disproportionate influence, and that influence is translated into how other members of the culture shape their lives (pp. 8-9).

Regarding the notion of co-cultures, Samovar et. al. (2017) explains that it is rash to make blanket generalizations and assumptions regarding difference or sameness as members of these groups so often tend to have overlapping memberships:

…within the dominant culture are numerous co-cultures and specialized cultures. We believe the best way to identify these groups is with the term co-culture, because it calls attention to the idea of dual membership. Therefore, we use co-culture when discussing groups or social communities exhibiting perceptions, values, beliefs, communicative behaviors, and social practices that are sufficiently different as to distinguish them from other groups and communities and from the dominant culture. Co-cultures may share many of the characteristics of the dominant culture, but their members also exhibit distinct and unique patterns of communication. Co-cultural affiliation can be based on ethnic heritage, gender, age cohort, sexual preference, or other criteria. What is important about all co-cultures is that being gay, disabled, Latino, African American, Chinese American, American Indian, female, young, or old, to name a few examples, exposes a person to a specialized set of messages that helps determine how some aspects of the external world are perceived. It also significantly influences how members of that co-culture communicate those perceptions (p. 9).

Hence, the vibrant LGBTQ co-culture includes a wide spectrum of members, to a lesser or greater aspect part of the dominant culture, and, as part of the LGBTQ co-culture, range from those who openly share nearly all aspects of themselves and their co-culture to those who still opt for “the closet” or who simply are as yet unsure if they are a member of this group.

Personalizing The Theory: Kao Bruce Thao’s “White Washing a Rainbow

Bruce Thao (2016) shares the “magic about rainbows”

“We silence queer people of color into only talking about one aspect of their identity, because the full prism of their identities and experiences is too much for our minds to comprehend. We strip trans undocumented immigrants of their rights and lock them in solitary confinement because we “don’t know what else to do with them”. We lump all Asian Americans under one category and stereotype of “Asian”, even though Asian Americans can trace their heritage to over 48 countries, with countless more ethnic groups, religions and spiritual practices represented.

The ways in which we ask people not to bring their full selves into spaces or conversations can also be subconscious. Here are some examples:

  • When an institution says that it cares about “racial equity” but is silent on gender equity, disability rights, or LGBTQ inclusion
  • When we invite someone to give a presentation because they represent a certain racial/ethnic group, but ask them not to talk about their sexual orientation because it may upset members of the audience
  • When a company trains all of their employees on “diversity and inclusion” but the conversation is only about race, and the race conversation is black and white
  • When co-workers get uncomfortable because some of their colleagues are speaking to each other in a language other than English, or ask their colleagues to translate what they just said in private so all can understand (ain’t none of your business!)

There are many unspoken rules about what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” within many work environments, public spaces, and society in general. Often these unspoken rules force us into diluting the complex, bold rainbow of colors that make us who we are. We are asked to mask, we are asked to dilute, we are asked to withhold, we are asked to erase until all that is left is…. White. And for those of us who cannot erase, cannot dilute, cannot withhold, cannot fade into whiteness, we are deemed “unacceptable” or “inappropriate”.

The above are examples of how we ask people not to bring their full selves into spaces, but why do we do it? Here are some potential reasons:

  • It makes us uncomfortable.
  • It’s confusing to us.
  • Guilt – Guilt that we never knew about their identities, experiences or struggles.
  • Shame – Shame that we may have been complicit in their oppression or discrimination.
  • Ignorance. Not knowing and not caring to know.
  • We feel like we can only focus on one issue at a time.


Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016)

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