3 Perception

Perception and Perception-Checking

How shall I talk of the sea to the frog, if he has never left the pond? How shall I talk of the frost to the bird of the summer land if he has never left the place of his birth? And how shall I talk of life with the sage if he is a prisoner of his doctrine?  ~ Chung Tzu

Overview:

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This section examines, first, the important concept of perception, explaining the three steps involved in creating a perception: selection, organization, and interpretation.

Second, this section explores how the communication skill of a “perception check” can assist one in an intercultural environment.

What is Perception:

In Intercultural Communication, perception itself,  along with the associated skills of perception-checking (often stressed in interpersonal communication), are necessary for the process of intercultural communication to begin. Perception is more of a process whereby each of us creates “mental images” of the world that surrounds us, that is, of the “world out there”  (Green, Fairchild, Knudsen, & Lease-Gubrud, 2018).

Moreover Green, Fairchild, Knudsen, & Lease-Gubrud (2018) explain:

Perceptions determine communication choices, so understanding this process helps us to avoid common perceptual problems.  We gain greater insight into how there can be multiple, equally valid perceptions of the same stimuli, increasing our ability to respect a range of diverse views. A significant implication of this understanding is it reveals how much responsibility we receiver-based communicators have in the success or failure of an event.  We have to be responsible for those perceptions (Module II, Section 1).

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The importance of perception as a concept is evidenced by the nature of communication simply. Communication, recalling Professor Tucker’s three questions (Who am I? Who are you? and What are we doing here together?), may be understood as an intentional relationship between the Self and the Other. Fundamentally, then, the perception one’s Self possesses of the Other, and, vice-versa, informs the nature and character of the communication which establishes, forms, and furthers (or, unfortunately, perhaps may fail to do so) the relationship between the two.

Perception and Barriers to Communication:

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Individual perceptions and intercultural communication are decisively shaped by culture, that is, they are formed by culturally ingrained and instilled attitudes, beliefs, values, media, worldview, and language (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017).

Given certain profound and oftentimes strange differences characterizing various cultures, a heightened sensitivity or apprehension on the part of one or both of the intercultural interlocutors can arise and pose some difficulties. A heightened, uniformed sensitivity or feeling of intense communication apprehension may pose a significant barrier to accurately understanding one another and is a threat to beginning and/or continuing the process towards obtaining intercultural communication/interviewing competence (Communication, 2016).

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There are a number of reasons for intercultural communication apprehension (Cavanaugh, 2015). First, remember that some degree of communication apprehension is quite natural, especially if neither person trying to engage has any substantial knowledge of the other’s culture. If apprehension is not addressed at this beginning stage, intercultural communication incompetence is quite likely to occur. Second, some individuals are, by nature, less comfortable and have difficulty engaging in communication with others of their own culture much less those of other very different cultures (Communicataion, 2016). Introverts often approach a Self-Other situation, intercultural or otherwise, with a need to process their feelings and thoughts so as to be prepared before moving into any intercultural conversation or experience. Extroverts, on the other hand, may very well have moved on or prematurely jumped in before thinking through the complexities of the situation. As always, the middle ground of an equal measure of thought and action is helpful. Third, for many, especially those who have grown up without any contact or experience with people of a different culture, initial encounters with people of different cultures may be anxiety-producing. Such persons may be caught up in culturally ingrained and misguided perceptions of unknown cultures (Cavanauagh, 2015). It is important, then, as  Green, Fairchild, Knudsen, & Lease-Gubrud (2018) point out, that there is a responsibility involved: to “…gain greater insight into how there can be multiple, equally valid perceptions of the same stimuli, increasing our ability to respect a range of diverse views” (Module 2, Section 2). Finally, in the interview process itself, some students worry about sounding like a “therapist” or “salesperson.” Gudykunst and Kim (1995) provide insight which was aptly summarized by Glaser (n.d.):

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The increased uncertainty in interactions with strangers is accompanied by higher levels of anxiety, as we anticipate a wider array of possible negative outcomes. We may worry about damage to our self-esteem from feeling confused and out of control. We may fear the possibility of being incompetent, or being exploited. We may worry about being perceived negatively by the stranger. And we may worry that interacting with a stranger will bring disapproval from members of our own group. Generally these anxieties can be reduced by paying more conscious attention to the communication process, and by gathering more information on the stranger. The authors add a further caution. Generally, individuals tend to explain their own behavior by reference to the situation. Observers tend to attribute an individual’s behavior to elements of that individual’s character. When interacting with strangers we are especially likely to attribute their behavior to their character, and then to view their character as typical of their culture (or race, etc.). That is, we are especially likely to interpret a stranger’s behavior in light of our stereotypes about what ‘those kind of people’ are like (Glaser, n.d.).

Overcoming Perceptional Barriers:

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The concepts of perception and perception checking, then, are skills that help to avoid such perspectives. The key to accurate perception and perception checking is possessing an informed cultural sensitivity. According to McCrosky (2001), sources of communication, and, indeed, intercultural communication anxiety are related to trait, context, audience and situation. Thus, in the process of communicating, taking time to acquire and exercise one’s perception-checking skills with one’s intercultural dialogic interlocutor (and vice versa) is essential. However, an informed cultural sensitivity is necessary for the interviewer in communicating with the interviewee. This sensitivity succinctly conveys respect, honest curiosity, and a desire to learn from and hear the story of the Other–this is something akin to, “compassionate listening” (sometimes also referred to as “deep listening”), which will be explored later. Practically, it also has the effect of lessening communication apprehension thus allowing for richer, deeper conversation.

Selection, Organization, and Interpretation:

Perception itself is further defined by Neuliep (2018) as the “mental interpretation of external stimuli via sensation” (the accumulating of external stimuli through visual, auditory, olfactic, taste, and tactile senses). That is, the first stage of perception must be the selection of sense data or the “raw information,” perceived and taken in by the senses (p.157). As Mclean (2018) explains:

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…[W]hat we perceive is culturally bound. We are taught from a very young age what to pay attention to and what to ignore. We learn what is important in our culture and look for those clues to make meaning. We often ignore clues that we’ve learned are considered unimportant. Sometimes we miss valuable clues that are right under our noses. Learning to recognize that we perceive stimuli in different ways helps us start to address this central question: Why don’t we all see things the same way? Understanding ourselves is fundamental to understanding others and intercultural communication (Section 2.2).

Now, as Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy (2017) point out, we humans live in “an information-saturated world [or culture]”–constantly inundated by physical and psychological factors, that, due to sheer number, we are not able to select and process. Scholars in the Intercultural Communication field, then, usually posit some steps, perceptual filters, often consisting of a three-step process–selection, organization, and interpretation–to help order stimuli (Jandt, 2013). Keep in mind, during the first step of selection, the individual communicator chooses, consciously or unconsciously, which of the stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore. With the second step, that stimuli chosen must be organized, after which, in the third step, interpretation, meaning is assigned to perceived sense data (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017).

Selection:

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Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016) expands upon how selection works:

We tend to pay attention to information that is salient. Salience is the degree to which something attracts our attention in a particular context. The thing attracting our attention can be abstract, like a concept, or concrete, like an object. For example, a person’s identity as a Native American may become salient when they are protesting at the Columbus Day parade in Denver, Colorado. Or a bright flashlight shining in your face while camping at night is sure to be salient. The degree of salience depends on three features (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). We tend to find salient things that are visually or aurally stimulating and things that meet our needs or interests. Lastly, expectations affect what we find salient” (p.55).

Organization:

Again, drawing from the Open Education Resource (OER), Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016), the second step of perception, organization, is also complex:

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Organizing is the second part of the perception process, in which we sort and categorize information that we perceive based on innate and learned cognitive patterns. Three ways we sort things into patterns are by using proximity, similarity, and difference (Coren, 1980). In terms of proximity, we tend to think that things that are close together go together. For example, have you ever been waiting to be helped in a business and the clerk assumes that you and the person standing beside you are together? The slightly awkward moment usually ends when you and the other person in line look at each other, then back at the clerk, and one of you explains that you are not together. Even though you may have never met that other person in your life, the clerk used a basic perceptual organizing cue to group you together because you were standing in proximity to one another. Since we organize perceptual information based on proximity, a person may perceive that two people are together, just because they are standing close together in line.

 

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We also organize information that we take in based on difference. In this case, we assume that the item that looks or acts different from the rest doesn’t belong with the group. Perceptual errors involving people and assumptions  of difference can be especially awkward, if not offensive. My friend’s mother, who is Vietnamese American, was attending a conference at which another attendee assumed she was a hotel worker and asked her to throw something away for her. In this case, my friend’s mother was a person of color at a convention with mostly white attendees, so an impression was formed based on the other person’s perception of this difference.

 

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These strategies for organizing information are so common that they are built into how we teach our children basic skills and how we function in our daily lives. I’m sure we all had to look at pictures in grade school and determine which things went together and which thing didn’t belong. If you think of the literal act of organizing something, like your desk at home or work, we follow these same strategies. If you have a bunch of papers and mail on the top of your desk, you will likely sort papers into separate piles for separate classes or put bills in a separate place than personal mail. You may have one drawer for pens, pencils, and other supplies and another drawer for files. In this case you are grouping items based on similarities and differences. You may also group things based on proximity, for example, by putting financial items like your checkbook, a calculator, and your pay stubs in one area so you can update your budget efficiently. In summary, we simplify information and look for patterns to help us more efficiently communicate and get through life.

 

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We also group things together based on similarity. We tend to think similar-looking or similar-acting things belong together. I have two friends that I occasionally go out with, and we are all three males, around the same age, of the same race, with short hair and glasses. Aside from that, we don’t really look alike, but on more than one occasion a server at a restaurant has assumed that we’re brothers. Despite the fact that many of our other features are different, the salient features are organized based on similarity and the three of us are suddenly related. We also organize information that we take in based on difference. In this case, we assume that the item that looks or acts different from the rest doesn’t belong with the group.

 

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Simplification and categorizing based on patterns isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, without this capability we would likely not have the ability to speak, read, or engage in other complex cognitive/behavioral functions. Our brain innately categorizes and files information and experiences away for later retrieval, and different parts of the brain are responsible for different sensory experiences. In short, it is natural for things to group together in some ways. There are differences among people, and looking for patterns helps us in many practical ways. However, the judgments we place on various patterns and categories are not natural; they are learned and culturally and contextually relative. Our perceptual patterns do become unproductive and even unethical when the judgments we associate with certain patterns are based on stereotypical or prejudicial thinking. We also organize interactions and interpersonal experiences based on our firsthand experiences. When two people experience the same encounter differently, misunderstandings and conflict may result. Punctuation refers to the structuring of information into a timeline to determine the cause (stimulus) and effect (response) of our communication interactions (Sillars, 1980). Applying this concept to interpersonal conflict can help us see how the perception process extends beyond the individual to the interpersonal level. This concept also helps illustrate how organization and interpretation can happen together and how interpretation can influence how we organize information and vice versa (Communication, 2017, pp.58-59).

Interpretation:

The free “OER” online textbook, Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016), explains more about the interpretation step:

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Although selecting and organizing incoming stimuli happens very quickly, and sometimes without much conscious thought, interpretation can be a much more deliberate and conscious step in the perception process. Interpretation is the third part of the perception process, in which we assign meaning to our experiences using mental structures known as schemata. Schemata are like databases of stored, related information that we use to interpret new experiences. We all have fairly complicated schemata that have developed over time as small units of information combine to make more meaningful complexes of information.

…It’s important to be aware of schemata because our interpretations affect our behavior. For example, if you are doing a group project for class and you perceive a group member to be shy based on your schema of how shy people communicate, you may avoid giving him presentation responsibilities in your group project because you do not think shy people make good public speakers. Schemata also guide our interactions, providing a script for our behaviors. We know, in general, how to act and communicate in a waiting room, in a classroom, on a first date, and on a game show. Even a person who has never been on a game show can develop a schema for how to act in that environment by watching The Price Is Right, for example. People go to great lengths to make shirts with clever sayings or act enthusiastically in hopes of being picked to be a part of the studio audience and hopefully become a contestant on the show.

 

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As we have seen, schemata are used to interpret others’ behavior and form impressions about who they are as a person. To help this process along, we often solicit information from people to help us place them into a pre-existing schema. In the United States and many other Western cultures, people’s identities are often closely tied to what they do for a living. When we introduce others, or ourselves, occupation is usually one of the first things we mention. Think about how your communication with someone might differ if he or she were introduced to you as an artist versus a doctor. We make similar interpretations based on where people are from, their age, their race, and other social and cultural factors. We will learn more about how culture, gender, and other factors influence our perceptions as we continue through the chapter. In summary, we have schemata about individuals, groups, places, and things, and these schemata filter our perceptions before, during, and after interactions. As schemata are retrieved from memory, they are executed, like computer programs or apps on your smartphone, to help us interpret the world around us. Just like computer programs and apps must be regularly updated to improve their functioning, competent communicators update and adapt their schemata as they have new experiences (Communication, 2016, pp.61-62).

Summary of the Steps of Perception:

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Selecting, organizing and interpreting, then, all have unique roles in formulating the overall perception one has of a person, place or thing. McLean (2018) stresses the intercultural elements involved in perception:

Our perception process is largely universal, even when we consider the range of sight, hearing, feeling, smell, or taste. What differs is how we perceive it, and our interpretations reflect our cultural backgrounds. We can easily recognize, for example, that some people can discern all the flavor “notes” in a wine, while to others all red wines taste almost the same. We can also acknowledge that we change over time, and young eyes often work better than older eyes. That said, it is not as much about whether our eyes are young or have seen many seasons as what we focus on or ignore during that perception process that makes a significant difference. Indeed, what it means to be “young” or “old” varies by culture. We perceive through our senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound, and we form perceptions through the lens of our cultural background (Section 2.2).

This, then, gives rise to the need to check if our perceptions are correct. Perception checking is a skill used to do just that.

Perception Checking:

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As humans, we often assume that we are aware of, and even understand, what other people are thinking and feeling — of that our own perceptions of others are correct and updated. In truth, though, we usually do not take the time to clearly attempt to ascertain in a nonjudgmental and clarifying way through perception checking questions: “You seem upset;” “Are you?;” or “I get the impression that this exchange has hurt your feelings in some way. Is this true?” (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005). Gudykunst & Kim (1995) points out that one of the ways to reduce ambiguity and facilitate the process of intercultural communication is through frequent perception checking. Simply put, through perception checking, we describe what we perceive the other person to be thinking or feeling and then request clearly and in a non-threatening manner that the other person confirms or corrects our perception. According to Brookfield and Preskill (2005), perception checks send the valuable message to one’s interlocutor of another culture that you truly want to listen, observe, and then understand their communication, verbal or nonverbal. As we shall see, there is a necessary tie between perception checking and compassionate listening.

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Compassionate listening is most simply defined as a “quality of listening which creates a safe container for people to be free to express themselves and to go to the level of their deep concerns….[It means] listening deeply to the needs and suffering of others and respecting their rights to their opinions…[forming the] basis of…successful dialogue, [which] can only take place when people are really ready to listen to each other and to themselves” (Hwoschinsky, 2006, p.3). To adequately practice the dynamic process of compassionate listening, then, perception checks, Brookfield and Preskill (2005) accentuate, are especially important in intercultural communication encounters. Given that individuals from different cultures sense, interpret, and understand the world in different ways, perception checks can help ameliorate the inherent ambiguity that is part of intercultural communication (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017).

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In the process of successful intercultural communication, one need not overly worry about perception checks interrupting the flow of conversation and thus create a burden or barrier to effective communication. It is just the opposite, and, in fact, should take precedence over the discussion. Why?  If a perception check occurs, for example: “I heard you mention the term ‘class’ several times as you described your upbringing. I am wondering, are you saying that racism always has an underlying economic cause or is it primarily a finite issue? Can you explain that a bit more?” Another, less “technically structured” example of a simple perception checking question is: “Did I paraphrase your last comment correctly?” Note, the discussion itself stops so that the person of the other culture may think about and answer the given perception check. The conversation is allowed to check and clarify what was previously said and then confirm the perception check. Only after both interlocutors involved in the conversation have checked their perceptions and made clear their meanings so as they are satisfied with the meaning and nuance of the conversation can the discussion continue (Brookfield and Preskill, 2005).

Brookfield and Preskill (2005) remind us to consider that though the natural flow of the conversation was interrupted, it was necessary to clarify the accuracy of the communication and enhance a mutual common understanding lest the meaning and message of the conversation be lost or diminished and cause unneeded discomfort or even halt the conversation.

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Perception-checking is vital to making sure that all involved are interpreting the meaning and message fully and accurately. Importantly, this process gives those whose voice is habitually misunderstood and are victims of miscommunication, for a number of reasons, e.g., a persecuted minority or practitioner of an alternative lifestyle incongruent with the dominant culture, etc., an opportunity to put forth or communicate honestly and accurately the message or part of their life-narrative that they may desperately want to communicate. Such a process, then, allows those persecuted and misunderstood to express their narrative or story in a dignified, humane fashion, thus giving them an opportunity to express their felt human experience. When creating a perception check, you will use three steps, as quoted below from the free open education resource textbook, Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies (2016):

Step 1: Describe the behavior or situation without evaluating or jvudging it.

Step 2: Think of some possible interpretations of the behavior, being aware of attributions and other influences on the perception process.

Step 3: Verify what happened and ask for clarification from the other person’s perspective. Be aware of punctuation, since the other person likely experienced the event differently than you”
(p.110).

Perception Format:

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During a perception check, the standard format is as follows:

Step 1: Perception checks include “I” language and a clearly stated observation or fact: “I heard you mention ____.

Step 2: This is followed by 2 possible interpretations: I am wondering if ___ or ___ is the case for you?

Step 3: Finally, the perception check is completed with a clarification request: Can you clarify?”

Sample Perception Check

Challenges to Perception

Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT)

The following video (prepared by students of (MC244) Bachelor of Mass Communication (Hons), Advertising UiTM Shah Alam Selangor, Malaysia), demonstrates that awkward shifting of one’s communication style based upon the desire to fit in when we perceive that we are not matching the communication styles of others.

Principles

In the video skit above, the students  are demonstrating  “Communication Accommodation Theory.” The following explanation is from ” Communication Accommodation Theory” by Daniel Usera & contributing authors, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .

First conceived by communication professor Howard Giles in 1971, Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) was mainly about speech, but then adapted to involve verbal and nonverbal communication (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010). Giles described developing the theoretical perspective in his graduate school days in the United Kingdom, and muses that he still is constantly noticing new ways people accommodate others, such as when his wife lost her voice for a few days, and others would whisper to her, thinking she was whispering for another reason (Gallois et al., 2016).

The theory is about convergence and divergence in accommodation, and says that communicators are likely to accommodate the person they are speaking with by adopting their mode of communication. Soliz, Thorson, and Rittenour say accommodation is performed for seeking approval, inclusion, affiliation, or interpersonal goals,” while nonaccommodation serves to highlight differences between people (2009, p. 821).

Divergent communicators maintain their own way of communicating, and then the communication differs from the other communicator. There is also the concept of over accommodating, as Hordila-Vatamanescu (2010) says, and this means they exaggerate the accommodation. There are three types of over accommodation:

“The first is sensory where people tend to over adapt to others who are perceived as limited in their abilities. The second is dependency, where the person who is talking, speaks to others as if they’re in a lower status than them. Lastly, intergroup occurs when the speakers place listeners in cultural groups without acknowledging individual uniqueness” (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010, p. 281).

Within CAT, however it occurs, it’s important to note that communication happens within a context, as always, and that there is always negotiation of relationships within a conversation, including power within a relationship, when communicating. Based on these stereotypes of outgroup members, expectations may arise about people from the culture. Norms of accommodation may appear. When over accommodating happens, it may make the communicator seem condescending, which hopefully, the person does not desire. However, when done well, “communication accommodation becomes a mutual feeling of identification between the source and the receiver” (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010, p. 283). Communicators begin to feel more similarity and commonality, which begets affection, or likeability. When people from different cultures accommodate by moving to Texas and trying to act friendlier to others, people will feel more commonality, even if the person from another state wasn’t used to acting friendly to acquaintances.

Applications

CAT can be used in many contexts, as in between cultures, ages, genders, and virtual communities. Between cultures, people may become more comfortable with someone from a different culture if they mirror nonverbally, and topics of conversation that would interest the other.

For instance, communication accommodation was seen when a Muslim family in a suburb in Texas invited their white neighbors to attend the home petting zoo birthday party of their three-year-old child. At the party, the food was halal, as is customary to the culture of the Muslim family, and most of the party-goers were family members. The white family had older children and instructed their daughter to dress a bit more conservatively than her normal short-shorts as an accommodating nonverbal gesture. Both parties had accommodating behaviors and communication.

Many times, accommodating behaviors occur between people of different ages. If there is a big age difference, for instance, professors need to ensure they are giving examples that are relevant to their students. For instance, using an example of nonverbal communication accommodation between cultures could come from the movie European Vacation, which was created in the 1980s, but a more recent example would be something like the television show Blackish.

Over accommodation is often seen in communication between different age groups, as in communication between parents and children, neither of whom may realize they are maturing as fast as they are. One study discussed CAT and estrangement of adult children, and Rittenour et al (2018) found that there were about an equal number of instances of parents using accommodation (65) and over accommodation (61), which is seen as negative, and fewer cases of under accommodation (30), which is also seen as negative.

Cross-gender communication may be another instance where CAT is employed, and stereotypes are often used in this type of conversation. What’s most important in cross-gender communication is not to make assumptions, and let the person communicate for themselves. Respond to how they respond. Mansplaining is a popular term in which a male explains a topic to a female on which the female is more of an expert the male, yet the male talks about it incessantly anyway. CAT can also be seen in environments of virtual communities, as “it may account for discovering how people perceive, assume and express their identity in a boundless community” (Hordila-Vatamanescu, 2010, p. 287).

Another example of using CAT to study mediated communication is CAT through textisms, which are when people use emojis, shorten words, or use incorrect capitalization in a text. For instance, “R u going 2 the store? :-)” instead of “Are you going to the store?” A study looking at gender and whether people like each other and whether power affects the way people use textisms found that there is a relationship in the use of textisms and whether people like each other and whether they have unequal power balance in a relationship (Adams, Miles, Dunbar, & Giles, 2018). There was a significant correlation between liking and people using more textisms (Adams et al., 2018). Giles (2016) has taken a look at CAT over the years, and showed how it’s truly become multi-disciplinary, it’s studied in many languages, and it’s still relevant today. All of this is amusingly appropriate for a chapter on culture and interpersonal communication.

Activity: CAT in Action

Consider a friend or acquaintance that you have who is from a different culture. Think about a time you have enacted CAT within a conversation interculturally. How did it affect the conversation? Talk with that person now about what they thought was happening in the conversation, and whether they noticed the accommodation was happening. Discuss your observations in a discussion.

Works Cited:

Usera, D., & contributing authors. (2021, April 30). Communication Accommodation Theory. Austin Community College. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/90688

Attributions:

” Communication Accommodation Theory” by Daniel Usera & contributing authors, LibreTexts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA .

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