5 Chapter 5 – Verbal Communication

Verbal Communication

“Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”
~childhood rhyme, am I the only one hurt?

Chapter Overview

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A better understanding of how verbal symbols create meaning helps us move from the first unit of this course (“Who am I?”) to explore further the second unit’s focus on “Who are you?” When exploring cultures, many students wrote about how they fear they might offend others as they ask questions, seek new experiences or even try new phrases in a new language. However, no magic word or combination of terms (of one’s own or those of another culture) exists to reduce uncertainty and create commonly shared meaning. If even possible, this process itself is too complex. This chapter and the next show how verbal and nonverbal symbols provide that necessary interpersonal connection crucial to reaching intercultural communication competence. Conversely, they show how misunderstandings among those who genuinely attempt to communicate may pose a potentially insurmountable barrier or wall preventing conversation between cultures.

Those of an American or Western European culture express an open and direct communication style (e.g., speaking one’s mind). Thus, not considering another culture’s or co-cultures “outdated slang” or “offensive language” creates a barrier that causes some individuals to retreat and stay with what is known, familiar, and characteristic within their culture. However, withdrawing into their culture from an unsavory affront or fear of how to communicate appropriately also prevents them from learning new information and learning about other cultures. We encourage reading this chapter through the lens of asking, “how can this content help me become a better communicator?” When communicating, we risk “saying the wrong thing” and offending those who communicate differently. Yet, sharing talk time and thinking about how our language use can open doors or deny access is an essential consideration. We hope you will consider not just the theory of verbal communication and how sending and receiving verbal messages work but also how they often fail to work. Slowing down and considering what we say and when can help others feel safe, comforted, and a part of the communication situation.

The content of this chapter borrows from the Copywrite free, University of Minnesota’s Communication for the Real World. It contributes to what we will learn about the relationship between language and meaning, how we understand the content and rules of verbal communication within language functions, using words well, and the relationship between language and culture (2016). Additionally, the Cultural Atlas will provide examples of cultural differences and similarities in verbal (and nonverbal) communication. The authors of the Cultural Atlas include community experts and consultants from the communities and cultures described. One may or may not have the same perception of the “do’s and don’ts” of intercultural communication related to the Cultural Atlas, yet understanding its advice allows for constructive conversation and consideration.

Recently, Lori was sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside a restaurant in Rochester, MN with a friend originally from Colombia. An acquaintance from the college where they all work walked by and said, “Hi, Lori! How are you? It has been a long time.” Lori returned the greeting, “It is great to see you too!” The person continued to chat, but, sadly, did not greet Lori’s friend who was sitting right there as well. Then, suddenly, the acquaintance said to Lori’s friend, “Oh, I didn’t see you. I thought you were someone exotic Lori was with.” This conversation happened in September of 2022, not 1984.  Language can damage and define others inappropriately. Slips of the tongue may reveal deeply held bias and conditioning from the dominant culture, whose members might be unaware. The hard part is that one cannot truly “take back” or “walk back” culturally insensitive comments once stated. From telling someone, “I love you,” to screaming, “I hate you,” once noted with spoken words may be exhaustively explained, discussed, and apologized for but can never indeed be “taken back.”

Considering Words Spoken and the Silence of Others

Another area we hope to consider in this chapter is how one’s communication style, influenced by cultural norms and  the learning of the language, positions one “at the conversing table?” For example, how might an American whose language and communication norms intentionally or unintentionally affect the conversations of those of different cultures? Americans are generally not so aware or sensitive to the “other,” and their worldview and communication style. People from low-context cultures value verbal communication.  Additionally, Americans are generally more individualistic and more inclined to share their opinions straightforwardly up front, have much confidence in concrete physical or eyewitness evidence, and desire to quickly get to the point of the conversation. Indeed, the American style may be considered uncivil or rude by cultures that value long, thoughtful silence and consideration before contributing, are circular in using collective experience and context, prefer the cultural value of consensus and saving face, and thus are very sensitive to the straightforward American or Western style of an individualistic, often abrasive and self-serving communicative style. Later, in the last unit of this book, we’ll return to the topic of language when we discuss racism much more directly.

At the same time, in her TED Talk showcased in Chapter 4, America Verrea asserts that dominant and co-culture verbal interactions may be a basis to open, well-founded and genuine conversation. Think:

  • “How can you make room for others to share their stories and lived experiences?”
  • “Who speaks?”
  • “Who does the conversation purposefully or unintentionally silence?”


Chapter Five Learning Outcomes

  1. Define Verbal Communication
  2. Explain how the triangle of meaning describes the symbolic nature of language
  3. Distinguish between denotation and connotation
  4. Discuss the function of the rules of language
  5. Discuss how language can serve as a barrier and a bridge
  6. Distinguish between interpretation and translation
  7. Explore tips for becoming more effective in language use
  8. Define key terms related to allyship

Creating Meaning

Communication in the Real World (2016) outlines and explains language, focusing upon how meaning is created:

The relationship between language and meaning is not a straightforward one. One reason for this complicated relationship is the limitlessness of modern language systems like English (Crystal, 2005). Language is productive in the sense that there are an infinite number of utterances we can make by connecting existing words in new ways. In addition, there is no limit to a language’s vocabulary, as new words are coined daily. Of course, words aren’t the only things we need to communicate, and although verbal and nonverbal communication are closely related in terms of how we make meaning, nonverbal communication is not productive and limitless. Although we can only make a few hundred physical signs, we have about a million words in the English language. So with all this possibility, how does communication generate meaning?

You’ll recall that “generating meaning” was a central part of the definition of communication we learned earlier. We arrive at meaning through the interaction between our nervous and sensory systems and some stimulus outside of them. It is here, between what the communication models we discussed earlier labeled as encoding and decoding, that meaning is generated as sensory information is interpreted. The indirect and sometimes complicated relationship between language and meaning can lead to confusion, frustration, or even humor. We may even experience a little of all three, when we stop to think about how there are some twenty-five definitions available to tell us the meaning of word meaning (Crystal, 2005)! Since language and symbols are the primary vehicle for our communication, it is important that we not take the components of our verbal communication for granted.

Verbal Communication Defined

Central to the definition of language is that a community shares words or symbols to communicate meaning within various contexts. On a deeper level, language is symbolic.  Samovar, et. al defines language as “a shared set of symbols or signs that a cooperative group has mutually agreed to use to help create meaning.”

Symbols stand in for or are representative of something else. Verbal communication uses words that arise within a cultural (or intercultural) context. Again, words are symbolic of the thing or idea it represents. As Communication in the Real World puts it:

Symbols can be communicated verbally (speaking the word “Hello”), in writing (putting the letters H-E-L-L-O together to make an understood communicative whole), or nonverbally (waving your hand back and forth). In any case, we use symbols, verbally and nonverbally, to stand in for something else, like a physical object or an idea; symbols do not actually correspond to the thing being referenced in any direct way, i.e., the word “stone” is symbolic and not the thing in actuality (2016).

As noted above, verbal communication is our language use. In intercultural communication, there may exist either an entirely different language use, a person using a second language, or even both individuals communicating in a common second language.

Photo Submitted by Jordan Wente, used with permission

Speaking in a different language gives one another way of thinking – a new outlook or worldview different from that which one has been acculturated. Jordan, a Rochester Community and Technical College Alum, pursued his master’s degree in Denmark. Because of the number of international students attending, the college used English as the common currency of language. However, as one of his college majors was Spanish, he soon found himself drawn to speaking Spanish with his classmates from Spanish-speaking countries. Doing so, i.e., becoming fluent in a second language, gave him access to another worldview leading to a commonality or shared understanding of norms, behaviors, and practices that allowed him to make special bonds that would otherwise be closed.

The symbols we use combine to form language systems or codes. Codes are culturally agreed on and ever-changing systems of symbols that help us organize, understand and generate meaning (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993). There are about 6,000 language codes used in the world, and around 40 percent of those (2,400) are only spoken and do not have a written version (Crystal, 2005). Remember that for most of human history the spoken word and nonverbal communication were the primary means of communication. Even languages with a written component didn’t see widespread literacy, or the ability to read and write, until a little over one hundred years ago.

Symbolic Nature of Language

Communication in the Real World (2016) examines the symbolic nature of language:

The symbolic nature of our communication is a quality unique to humans. Since the words we use do not have to correspond directly to a ‘thing” in our “reality’ we can communicate in abstractions. This property of language is called displacement and specifically refers to our ability to talk about events that are removed in space or time from a speaker and situation (Crystal, 2005).

…The earliest human verbal communication was not very symbolic or abstract, as it likely mimicked sounds of animals and nature. Such a simple form of communication persisted for thousands of years, but as later humans turned to settled agriculture and populations grew, things needed to be more distinguishable. More terms (symbols) were needed to accommodate the increasing number of things like tools and ideas like crop rotation that emerged as a result of new knowledge about and experience with farming and animal domestication. There weren’t written symbols during this time, but objects were often used to represent other objects; for example, a farmer might have kept a pebble in a box to represent each chicken he owned. As further advancements made keeping track of objects-representing-objects more difficult, more abstract symbols and later written words were able to stand in for an idea or object. Despite the fact that these transitions occurred many thousands of years ago, we can trace some words that we still use today back to their much more direct and much less abstract origins (Communication in the Real World, 2016).

Naming: Case Study of  Language’s ability to Define


In many cultures, knowing and publicly pronouncing one’s name (the symbolic representation of one’s cultural and personal identity) is essential. Through language and communication, naming, at root, shapes who one understands themselves to be, hence helping to create/construct both the individual self and one’s group or cultural identity. Language itself “…is intrinsically related to culture [and] performs the social function of communication of the group’s [culture’s] values, beliefs, and customs and fosters group identity” (Bakhtin, 1981). In other words, language is the medium through which groups or cultures preserve their firmly held beliefs and keep their traditions alive in the hearts and minds of their members. Language and names are vital.

Regarding names, perhaps a short nickname can help others when a name is hard to pronounce and can help one remember a person. Still, if the nickname is not preferred or given with love, its sound to its’ possessor can be as annoying as hearing nails scraping across a chalkboard.

Being called “Jimmy” by one’s grandmother when friends and work associates call him “James” could be endearing but most likely embarrassing if James is called Jimmy at work. Having one’s mother come to her son’s place of work asking loudly, “Is my Baby J in the office?” might be another example. The point is that names are personal and defining. They are also verbal symbols. Symbols stand for something else and allow us to communicate due to the meaning attached to the symbol. All symbolic use is dynamic, meaning fluid, and often powerful. Think about when a bully purposefully calls someone a name. Calling another “fattie” or “blubber butt” takes a toll on the bully’s victim. Whether renaming is out of spite, like the bully example, or perhaps misplaced affection, like being called Baby J, if it is not one’s desired name, one might feel that one is not being “acknowledged” or “affirmed,”–a feeling of disconfirmation arises. This feeling can impact the relationship itself.

Symbols are Arbitrary, Ambiguous, and Abstract

  • Ambiguous – symbols–or words– have several possible meanings, which often change over time.
  • Abstract – words are not material, physical, or have any innate connection to reality. Language is symbolic and uses words to represent objects and ideas.
  • Arbitrary – symbols have no direct relationship to the objects or ideas they represent.
    (Indiana State Department of COMM, 2016)

Example of the Importance of Understanding how Language Works

Interpersonal Communication examines how communication creates confirming or disconfirming communication climates. We experience “Confirming Climates when we receive messages that demonstrate our value and worth from those with whom we have a relationship,” [and], “[c]onversely, we experience Disconfirming Climates when we receive messages that suggest we are devalued and unimportant” (Rice, 2019, pp. 124-125). Disconfirmation leads to feeling objectified or regarded as the “other,” apart from and foreign to one’s own culture and personal experience. Therefore, calling someone as they would like helps create a supportive climate where respectful and impactful intercultural communication can occur. If we generalize and move toward this same treatment to a culture, that too might help create more a supportive environment for intercultural communication. If we see a person or group of people as the Other–apart from us and unknown to us–it may lead to dehumanization. Dehumanization includes “The denial of full humanness to others, and the cruelty and suffering that accompany it” (Haslam, 2006). An example of dehumanization (also highlighted below in the topics section) is the not-so-distant practice of sending Native American children to boarding schools. In the Indian Civilization Act Fund of March 3, 1819, and the Peace Policy of 1869, the United States (along with many Christian churches) allowed for the removal of Native American children from their homes and families so they could be appropriately educated and stripped of their own culture in boarding (or residential) schools (“U.S. Indian boarding school history,” n.d.). “Between 1869 and the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their homes and families and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and participating churches. It is unknown exactly how many children in total lived in such schools, but by 1900 there were 20,000 children in Indian boarding schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled” (“U.S. Indian boarding school history,” n.d.).

An example of taking away a Native American child’s culturally given name and then stating that their new name is, say, “Sarah,” demonstrates the erosion of self (both individual and cultural identity) that many Native American Boarding Schools inflicted upon Native Americans. To clarify, Becky Little (2017), in her article for History.com, reminds us of the phrase, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” (later shortened to “Kill the Indian, save the man”). This phrase, attributed to  Captain Richard Henry Pratt from a speech in 1892 during the National Conference of Charities and Correction, was, in fact, a rejoinder to the widely-endorsed phrase, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Pratt argued that we must move beyond that thinking to adopt a progressive assimilationist program for Indians to educate them as productive members of mainstream society. Boarding schools, such as the Carlisle Indian School (founded in 1879), attempted to fill “young Indians with the spirit of loyalty to the stars and stripes, and then move them out into our [white] communities to show by their conduct and ability that the Indian is no different from the white or the colored, that he has the inalienable right to liberty and opportunity that the white and the negro have.” The residential/boarding schools, then, were to “civilize” and “Americanize” Native Americans and “free” them of their “backward” culture so that they may flourish and no longer be a problem to the dominant white culture and its interests. (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center, n.d.).

Becky Little (2017) remarked that this federal effort toward assimilation mandated that “… boarding schools forbid Native American children from using their languages and names, as well as from practicing their religion and culture. They were given new Anglo-American names, clothes, and haircuts and told they must abandon their way of life because it was inferior to white people’s.” Though the schools “….left a devastating legacy, they failed to eradicate Native American cultures as they’d hoped.” Later, the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the U.S. win World War II would reflect on this forced assimilation’s strange irony in their lives (2017).

What terms to use?

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In his teaching resource, Why Treaties Matter: Terminology Primer (n.d.), Dr. Anton Treuer addresses the confusion surrounding which term to use — “Native American,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” or “American Indian.” There is no one correct answer or term to use, as seen below. Confusion arises due to the notion of language ambiguity. Ambiguity refers to the idea that symbols have several different meanings. The reverse is true too. We have many different symbols to refer to the same referent; e.g., soda, pop, soda pop, and coke can all refer to the same beverage one might be drinking, even if it is “7-up!” The beverage itself is the “referent” or thing being referred to; the symbol is the word used to refer to it. Recall that the nature of language is ambiguous, arbitrary, and abstract. It is not surprising that the language used to name such a large group of individuals from 574 different nations registered in the United States would be hard to determine. Dr. Treuer (n.d.) explains, “This is an area of confusion for many people. Christopher Columbus thought for a long time that he landed in Asia when he first arrived here—China, Japan, India. And from there the term Indian was applied to the peoples of the Americas. It is a misnomer, even if it wasn’t intended to offend. Some native people object to the word because it was applied in error. But some really do prefer the term, including some official organizations like the National Congress of American Indians and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Native American is broadly considered a little more politically correct, even if it isn’t universally embraced. But it can cause confusion in certain circumstances. Is a St. Paul native a Native American from St. Paul or just someone ‘born and bred,’ so to speak? Indigenous is increasingly taking the place of Native American, and some scholars really like the way it draws connections to other groups, but again there is an issue of ambiguity. There are people indigenous to every continent except Antarctica and they are all different. It gets a little long to always say ‘indigenous people of North America.’ Aboriginal was preferred for a while in Canada, although it got confused with Australian aborigine. I tend to use all of these terms fairly interchangeably, aware of their shortcomings… If you know the story behind the words, all you really need is respect in your heart and an open mind” (p. 1).

Suggestions on how to use language respectfully are highlighted in the shared curricular materials from the “Quick Links” resource from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (n.d.):

  • “American Indian, Indian, Native American, or Native are acceptable and often used interchangeably in the United States; however, Native Peoples often have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. To find out which term is best, ask the person or group which term they prefer.”
  • “When talking about Native groups or people, use the terminology the members of the community use to describe themselves collectively.”
  • “There are also several terms used to refer to Native Peoples in other regions of the Western Hemisphere. The Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut Peoples in the Arctic see themselves as culturally separate from Indians. In Canada, people refer to themselves as First Nations, First Peoples, or Aboriginal. In Mexico, Central America, and South America, the direct translation for Indian can have negative connotations. As a result, they prefer the Spanish word indígena (Indigenous), communidad (community), and pueblo (people).”

Book Cover to Everything I wanted to know about Native AmericansIn his book, Everything you Wanted to Know about Indians but were Afraid to Ask (2014), Dr. Treuer shares that “…each tribe has its own terms of self-reference” (p. 9). Truer continues, stressing that “…one should not use words, including ‘squaw,’ ‘brave,’ and ‘papoose.’ He explains that some words “..create distance, use hurtful cliches to point out the difference, and say clearly that ‘those people are not like normal people’ (Treuer, 2014, p. 8). Regarding terminology, Smithsonian’s Native Knowledge 360* posits that one should “[r]efrain from using terminology and phrases that perpetuate stereotypes…. Phrases like ‘Indian Princess,’ ‘Low man on the totem pole,’ ‘sitting Indian style,’ etc., perpetuate stereotypes and imply a monolithic culture.” Native people are also treated as objects in counting songs, books, and toys” (Hirschfelder and Molin, 2018). Singing a song such as “Ten Little Injuns” perpetuates stereotypes and reckons back to genocide (it has also been adapted into a racist image of 10 Little N___r’s). “If you are unsure about a phrase, do some research into its origins and think about its meaning and implications” (National Museum of the American Indian: Smithsonian, n.d.). As with other cultures and co-cultures, avoid generalizations and use context, dates, and more factual information.  Note that stigmatizing language is often determined by that dominant culture–group(s) in positions of power and privilege–Americans of European ancestry–who use language to define and diminish others to further their interests. Remember, too, that social capital can equal privilege. Systematic policy, language structure, and biased attitudes also create damaging language.

In defining privilege, the University Libraries at Rider University (2022) share,

“Privilege” refers to certain social advantages, benefits, or degrees of prestige and respect that an individual has by virtue of belonging to certain social identity groups. Within American and other Western societies, these privileged social identities—of people who have historically occupied positions of dominance over others—include whites, males, heterosexuals, Christians, and the wealthy, among others. García, Justin D. 2018. “Privilege (Social Inequality).” Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Nccj.org (2022) shares:

Privilege: Unearned access to resources (social power) that are only readily available to some people because of their social group membership; an advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by one societal group above and beyond the common advantage of all other groups. Privilege is often invisible to those who have it.

We will expand upon Native American cultures later in this textbook.

*Photo credit: Native American (Chiricahua Apache) boys and girls at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after they arrived from Fort Marion, Florida, in November 1886. Photo by J. N. Choate/Creative Commons

Consider the Boarding School Experience

Reflection Questions:

  • If your language was forbidden, how would that change your worldview?
  • How does the nonverbal action of cutting the students’ hair dehumanize the students?
  • In this instance, communication rules are created. Children are allowed limited access to communication with their family members. How does the lack of communication, verbal and nonverbal, impact the children’s cultural identity formation?
  • What is your reaction to this video? Do words matter?


The Triangle of Meaning

Communication in the Real World (2016) explains the triangle of meaning:

The triangle of meaing is a model of communication that indicates the relationship among a thought, symbol, and referent and highlights the indirect relationship between the symbol and referent (Richards & Ogden, 1923). As you can see in Figure 3.1 “Triangle of Meaning,” the thought is the concept or idea a person references. The symbol is the word that represents the thought, and the referent is the object or idea to which the symbol refers. This model is useful for us as communicators because when we are aware of the indirect relationship between symbols and referents, we are aware of how common misunderstandings occur, as the following example illustrates: Jasper and Abby have been thinking about getting a new dog. So each of them is having a similar thought. They are each using the same symbol, the word dog, to communicate about their thought. Their referents, however, are different. Jasper is thinking about a small dog like a dachshund, and Abby is thinking about an Australian shepherd. Since the word dog doesn’t refer to one specific object in our reality, it is possible for them to have the same thought, and use the same symbol, but end up in an awkward moment when they get to the shelter and fall in love with their respective referents only to find out the other person didn’t have the same thing in mind.


Language Defines

The defining ability of language relates to intercultural communication and barriers, such as stigma, that language can impose. Goffman along with Galinsky, A. D., Hugenberg, K., Groom, C., & Bodenhausen, G. (2003), explains the power of stigma:

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

Stigma, according to Goffman, an attribute that discredits and reduces the person ‘from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one’ (Goffman, 1963, p. 3). Social stigma links a negatively valued attribute to a social identity or group membership. Stigma is said to exist when individuals ‘possess (or are believed to possess) some attribute,Stigma or characteristic, that conveys a social identity that is devalued in a particular social context’ (Crocker, Major & Steele, 1998, p.505). Given these criteria, there are myriad groups in our own culture that tend to be the reappropriation of stigmatizing labels considered stigmatized. Marginalized groups, such as African Americans or Native Americans, persons with physical or mental disabilities, LGBTQ indentifying individuals, and the obese can all be considered stigmatized groups. To be stigmatized often means to be economically disadvantaged, to be the target of negative stereotypes, and to be rejected interpersonally (Crocker, Voelkl, Testa & Major, 1998). Name calling (Smythe & Seidman, 1957) may be a favorite strategy for calling forth these harmful sequelae of stigma (pp. 224-225).

Halverson-Wente submitted photo, used with permission

While stigmatizing language generally comes from persons in positions of “privilege” to define others in some way (remember social capital can equal privilege too), systematic policy, language structure, and attitudes can also create damaging language. Think of individuals with disabilities being called “crippled” or how often one hears, “Oh, that is handicapped parking.” Remember the person first – the “person with a disability” is not a “disabled person” simply. The order of the words can demonstrate an emphasis upon the person. Another example is the stigma surrounding how individuals with a mental health diagnosis are called: crazy, insane, mentally ill, nuts, loco, etc. Moving past the stigmatized “other” and into a healthy image means re-evaluating the language used to name, define, detain, diagnose, and otherwise label others. We live in an era where the listing of pronouns or other inclusive language choices are often quickly dismissed as politically correct and careless. Moreover, “Can’t you take a joke?” statements come from our own leaders after making racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or otherly offensive phases. Making a personal choice to avoid words that cause offense or poorly define others is one way to practice compassion and intercultural communication competence.

Galinsky, A. D., Hugenberg, K., Groom, C., & Bodenhausen, G. (2003) further examine how labels can be “reappropriated” to change the meaning of the word, if only for the person themselves:

creative commons photo from burst.shopify.com

Given that to appropriate means “to take possession of or make use of exclusively for oneself,” we consider reappropriate to mean to take possession for oneself that which was once possessed by another, and we use it to refer to the phenomenon whereby a stigmatized group revalues an externally imposed negative label by selfconsciously referring to itself in terms of that label. Instead of passively accepting the negative connotative meanings of the label, …[one can reject] those damaging meanings and through reappropriation imbued the label with positive connotations. By reappropriating this negative label, …[one can seek] to renegotiate the meaning of the word, changing it from something hurtful to something empowering…[Such] actions imply two assumptions that are critical to reappropriation. First, names are powerful, and second, the meanings of names are subject to change and can be negotiated and renegotiated (p. 222).

Reappropriation of language is often confusing and nebulous. As one mindfully decides (or not) to use terms in new ways, remember, many times others outside a peer group, co-culture or culture may not understand. For example, the true meaning of a female calling another female friend a “bitch” to reappropriate the term and give it a “hip” or “warrior-goddess” sound might be lost on the average passerby who might, then, believe it is acceptable for him or her to likewise use such language.

Case Study: What is Privilege?

Language Is Dynamic

The authors of Communication in the Real World (2016) help us understand how reappropriation occurs as a function of language being “dynamic.” They explain the nature of neologisms and slang as shared below:

As we already learned, language is essentially limitless. We may create a one-of-a-kind sentence combining words in new ways and never know it. Aside from the endless structural possibilities, words change meaning, and new words are created daily. In this section, we’ll learn more about the dynamic nature of language by focusing on neologisms and slang.


Neologisms are newly coined or used words. Newly coined words are those that were just brought into linguistic existence. Newly used words make their way into languages in several ways, including borrowing and changing structure. Taking is actually a more fitting descriptor than borrowing, since we take words but don’t really give them back. In any case, borrowing is the primary means through which languages expand. English is a good case in point, as most of its vocabulary is borrowed and doesn’t reflect the language’s Germanic origins. English has been called the “vacuum cleaner of languages” (Crystal, 2005).Weekend is a popular English word based on the number of languages that have borrowed it. We have borrowed many words, like chic from French, karaoke from Japanese, and caravan from Arabic.

Structural changes also lead to new words. Compound words are neologisms that are created by joining two already known words. Keyboardnewspaper, and giftcard are all compound words that were formed when new things were created or conceived. We also create new words by adding something, subtracting something, or blending them together. For example, we can add affixes, meaning a prefix or a suffix, to a word. Affixing usually alters the original meaning but doesn’t completely change it. Ex-husband and kitchenette are relatively recent examples of such changes (Crystal, 2005). New words are also formed when clipping a word like examination, which creates a new word, exam, that retains the same meaning. And last, we can form new words by blending old ones together. Words like breakfast and lunch blend letters and meaning to form a new word—brunch.

Existing words also change in their use and meaning. The digital age has given rise to some interesting changes in word usage. Before Facebook, the word friend had many meanings, but it was mostly used as a noun referring to a companion. The sentence, I’ll friend you, wouldn’t have made sense to many people just a few years ago because friend wasn’t used as a verb. Google went from being a proper noun referring to the company to a more general verb that refers to searching for something on the Internet (perhaps not even using the Google search engine). Meanings can expand or contract without changing from a noun to a verb. Gay, an adjective for feeling happy, expanded to include gay as an adjective describing a person’s sexual orientation. Perhaps because of the confusion that this caused, the meaning of gay has contracted again, as the earlier meaning is now considered archaic, meaning it is no longer in common usage.

The American Dialect Society names an overall “Word of the Year” each year and selects winners in several more specific categories. The winning words are usually new words or words that recently took on new meaning.[2] In 2011, the overall winner was occupy as a result of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The word named the “most likely to succeed” was cloud as a result of Apple unveiling its new online space for file storage and retrieval. Although languages are dying out at an alarming rate, many languages are growing in terms of new words and expanded meanings, thanks largely to advances in technology, as can be seen in the example of cloud.


Slang is a great example of the dynamic nature of language.  Slang refers to new or adapted words that are specific to a group, context, and/or time period; regarded as less formal; and representative of people’s creative play with language. Research has shown that only about 10 percent of the slang terms that emerge over a fifteen-year period survive. Many more take their place though, as new slang words are created using inversion, reduction, or old-fashioned creativity (Allan & Burridge, 2006). Inversion is a form of word play that produces slang words like sickwicked, and bad that refer to the opposite of their typical meaning. Reduction creates slang words such as picsec, and later from picturesecond, and see you later. New slang words often represent what is edgy, current, or simply relevant to the daily lives of a group of people. Many creative examples of slang refer to illegal or socially taboo topics like sex, drinking, and drugs. It makes sense that developing an alternative way to identify drugs or talk about taboo topics could make life easier for the people who partake in such activities. Slang allows people who are in “in the know” to break the code and presents a linguistic barrier for unwanted outsiders. Taking a moment to think about the amount of slang that refers to being intoxicated on drugs or alcohol or engaging in sexual activity should generate a lengthy list.

When I first started teaching this course in the early 2000s, Cal Poly Pomona had been compiling a list of the top twenty college slang words of the year for a few years. The top slang word for 1997 was da bomb, which means “great, awesome, or extremely cool,” and the top word for 2001 and 2002 was tight, which is used as a generic positive meaning “attractive, nice, or cool.” Unfortunately, the project didn’t continue, but I still enjoy seeing how the top slang words change and sometimes recycle and come back. I always end up learning some new words from my students. When I asked a class what the top college slang word should be for 2011, they suggested deuces, which is used when leaving as an alternative to good-bye and stems from another verbal/nonverbal leaving symbol—holding up two fingers for “peace” as if to say, “peace out.”

It’s difficult for my students to identify the slang they use at any given moment because it is worked into our everyday language patterns and becomes very natural. Just as we learned here, new words can create a lot of buzz and become a part of common usage very quickly. The same can happen with new slang terms. Most slang words also disappear quickly, and their alternative meaning fades into obscurity. For example, you don’t hear anyone using the word macaroni to refer to something cool or fashionable. But that’s exactly what the common slang meaning of the word was at the time the song “Yankee Doodle” was written. Yankee Doodle isn’t saying the feather he sticks in his cap is a small, curved pasta shell; he is saying it’s cool or stylish.

Language Is Relational

Communication in the Real Word (2016) shares:

We use verbal communication to initiate, maintain, and terminate our interpersonal relationships. The first few exchanges with a potential romantic partner or friend help us size the other person up and figure out if we want to pursue a relationship or not. We then use verbal communication to remind others how we feel about them and to check in with them—engaging in relationship maintenance through language use. When negative feelings arrive and persist, or for many other reasons, we often use verbal communication to end a relationship.

Language Can Bring Us Together

Communication in the Real Word (2016) examines the ability of language that unites. As you look to the Cultural Atlas, consider whether the culture’s norms promote these concepts:

Interpersonally, verbal communication is key to bringing people together and maintaining relationships. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, our use of words like Iyouweour, and us affect our relationships. “We language” includes the words weour, and us and can be used to promote a feeling of inclusiveness. “I language” can be useful when expressing thoughts, needs, and feelings because it leads us to “own” our expressions and avoid the tendency to mistakenly attribute the cause of our thoughts, needs, and feelings to others. Communicating emotions using “I language” may also facilitate emotion sharing by not making our conversational partner feel at fault or defensive. For example, instead of saying, “You’re making me crazy!” you could say, “I’m starting to feel really anxious because we can’t make a decision about this.” Conversely, “you language” can lead people to become defensive and feel attacked, which could be divisive and result in feelings of interpersonal separation.

Aside from the specific words that we use, the frequency of communication impacts relationships. Of course, the content of what is said is important, but research shows that romantic partners who communicate frequently with each other and with mutual friends and family members experience less stress and uncertainty in their relationship and are more likely to stay together (McCornack, 2007). When frequent communication combines with supportive messages, which are messages communicated in an open, honest, and nonconfrontational way, people are sure to come together.

Moving from the interpersonal to the sociocultural level, we can see that speaking the same language can bring people together. When a person is surrounded by people who do not speak his or her native language, it can be very comforting to run into another person who speaks the same language. Even if the two people are strangers, the ease of linguistic compatibility is comforting and can quickly facilitate a social bond. We’ve already learned that language helps shape our social reality, so a common language leads to some similar perspectives. Of course, there are individual differences within a language community, but the power of shared language to unite people has led to universal language movements that advocate for one global language.

Serious attempts to create a common language, sometimes referred to as a lingua franca or auxiliary language, began in the 1600s as world exploration brought increased trade and Latin was no longer effective as the language of international business. Since then, hundreds of auxiliary languages have been recorded but none have achieved widespread international usage or been officially recognized as an international language (Crystal, 2005). While some such movements were primarily motivated by business and profit, others hoped to promote mutual understanding, more effective diplomacy, and peaceful coexistence.  Esperanto, which means “hopeful,” is the most well-known and widely used auxiliary language that was intended to serve as a common international language. Esperanto was invented by a Polish eye doctor at the end of the 1800s and today has between one and two million fluent speakers worldwide. Many works of literature and important manuscripts like the Bible and the Qur’an have been translated into Esperanto, and many original works of literature and academic articles have been written in the language. Some countries also broadcast radio programs in Esperanto. Several barriers will have to be overcome in order for an auxiliary language like Esperanto to gain international acceptance. First, there would have to be a massive effort put into a period of simultaneous learning—otherwise it is difficult to motivate people to learn a language that is not necessary for their daily lives and that no one else speaks. Second, as we have learned, people take pride in their linguistic identity and find pleasure in playing with the rules of language, creatively inventing new words and meanings that constantly change a language. Such changes may be impossible to accommodate in an auxiliary language. Lastly, the optimism of an internationally shared language eventually gives way to realism. If a shared language really brings peaceful coexistence, how do we explain all the civil wars and other conflicts that have been fought between people who speak the same language?

As new languages are invented, many more languages are dying. Linguists and native speakers of endangered languages have also rallied around so-called dying languages to preserve them. In the United States, Cajun French in Louisiana, French Canadian in Maine, and Pennsylvania Dutch are examples of language communities that are in danger of losing the language that has united them, in some cases for hundreds of years (Dorian, 1986). Although American English is in no danger of dying soon, there have been multiple attempts to make English the official language of the United States. Sometimes the argument supporting this proposition seems to be based on the notion that a shared language will lead to more solidarity and in-group identification among the speakers. However, many of these movements are politically and ideologically motivated and actually seek to marginalize and/or expel immigrants—typically immigrants who are also people of color. The United States isn’t the only country that has debated the merits of officially recognizing only certain languages. Similar debates have been going on for many years regarding whether French, English, or both should be the official language in Quebec, Canada, and which language(s)—French, Dutch, or Flemish—should be used in what contexts in Belgium (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). In such cases, we can see that verbal communication can also divide people.

Language Can Separate Us

In addition to building bridges, language can separate as explained below by Communication in the Real Word (2016):

Whether it’s criticism, teasing, or language differences, verbal communication can also lead to feelings of separation. Language differences alone do not present insurmountable barriers. We can learn other languages with time and effort, there are other people who can translate and serve as bridges across languages, and we can also communicate quite a lot nonverbally in the absence of linguistic compatibility. People who speak the same language can intentionally use language to separate. The words us and them can be a powerful start to separation. Think of how language played a role in segregation in the United States as the notion of “separate but equal” was upheld by the Supreme Court and how apartheid affected South Africa as limits, based on finances and education, were placed on the black majority’s rights to vote. Symbols, both words and images, were a very important part of Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe. Various combinations of colored stars, triangles, letters, and other symbols were sewn onto the clothing or uniforms of people persecuted by the Nazis in order to classify them. People were labeled and reduced to certain characteristics rather than seen as complete humans, which facilitated the Nazis’ oppression, violence, and killing (Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, 2012).

At the interpersonal level, unsupportive messages can make others respond defensively, which can lead to feelings of separation and actual separation or dissolution of a relationship. It’s impossible to be supportive in our communication all the time, but consistently unsupportive messages can hurt others’ self-esteem, escalate conflict, and lead to defensiveness. People who regularly use unsupportive messages may create a toxic win/lose climate in a relationship. Six verbal tactics that can lead to feelings of defensiveness and separation are global labels, sarcasm, dragging up the past, negative comparisons, judgmental “you” messages, and threats (McKay, Davis & Fanning, 1995).

Common Types of Unsupportive Messages

    1. Global labels. “You’re a liar.” Labeling someone irresponsible, untrustworthy, selfish, or lazy calls his or her whole identity as a person into question. Such sweeping judgments and generalizations are sure to only escalate a negative situation.
    2. Sarcasm. “No, you didn’t miss anything in class on Wednesday. We just sat here and looked at each other.” Even though sarcasm is often disguised as humor, it usually represents passive-aggressive behavior through which a person indirectly communicates negative feelings.
    3. Dragging up the past. “I should have known not to trust you when you never paid me back that $100 I let you borrow.” Bringing up negative past experiences is a tactic used by people when they don’t want to discuss a current situation. Sometimes people have built up negative feelings that are suddenly let out by a seemingly small thing in the moment.
    4. Negative comparisons. “Jade graduated from college without any credit card debt. I guess you’re just not as responsible as her.” Holding a person up to the supposed standards or characteristics of another person can lead to feelings of inferiority and resentment. Parents and teachers may unfairly compare children to their siblings.
    5. Judgmental “you” messages. “You’re never going to be able to hold down a job.” Accusatory messages are usually generalized overstatements about another person that go beyond labeling but still do not describe specific behavior in a productive way.
    6. Threats. “If you don’t stop texting back and forth with your ex, both of you are going to regret it.” Threatening someone with violence or some other negative consequence usually signals the end of productive communication. Aside from the potential legal consequences, threats usually overcompensate for a person’s insecurity.


The practice of civility might be one area that unites speakers and listeners when intercultural communication breaks down. Communication in the Real Word (2016) shares:

Our strong emotions regarding our own beliefs, attitudes, and values can sometimes lead to incivility in our verbal communication. Incivility occurs when a person deviates from established social norms and can take many forms, including insults, bragging, bullying, gossiping, swearing, deception, and defensiveness, among others (Miller, 2001). Some people lament that we live in a time when civility is diminishing, but since standards and expectations for what is considered civil communication have changed over time, this isn’t the only time such claims have been made (Miller, 2001). As individualism and affluence have increased in many societies, so have the number of idiosyncratic identities that people feel they have the right to express. These increases could contribute to the impression that society is becoming less civil, when in fact it is just becoming different. As we learned in our section on perception and personality, we tend to assume other people are like us, and we may be disappointed or offended when we realize they are not. Cultural changes have probably contributed to making people less willing to engage in self-restraint, which again would be seen as uncivil by people who prefer a more restrained and self-controlled expression (Miller, 2001).

Some journalists, media commentators, and scholars have argued that the “flaming” that happens on comment sections of websites and blogs is a type of verbal incivility that presents a threat to our democracy (Brooks & Greer, 2007). Other scholars of communication and democracy have not as readily labeled such communication “uncivil” (Cammaerts, 2009). It has long been argued that civility is important for the functioning and growth of a democracy (Kingwell, 1995). But in the new digital age of democracy where technologies like Twitter and Facebook have started democratic revolutions, some argue that the Internet and other new media have opened spaces in which people can engage in cyberactivism and express marginal viewpoints that may otherwise not be heard (Dahlberg, 2007). In any case, researchers have identified several aspects of language use online that are typically viewed as negative: name-calling, character assassination, and the use of obscene language (Sobieraj & Berry, 2011). So what contributes to such uncivil behavior—online and offline? The following are some common individual and situational influences that may lead to breaches of civility (Miller, 2001):

    • Individual differences. Some people differ in their interpretations of civility in various settings, and some people have personality traits that may lead to actions deemed uncivil on a more regular basis.
    • Ignorance. In some cases, especially in novel situations involving uncertainty, people may not know what social norms and expectations are.
    • Lack of skill. Even when we know how to behave, we may not be able to do it. Such frustrations may lead a person to revert to undesirable behavior such as engaging in personal attacks during a conflict because they don’t know what else to do.
    • Lapse of control. Self-control is not an unlimited resource. Even when people know how to behave and have the skill to respond to a situation appropriately, they may not do so. Even people who are careful to monitor their behavior have occasional slipups.
    • Negative intent. Some people, in an attempt to break with conformity or challenge societal norms, or for self-benefit (publicly embarrassing someone in order to look cool or edgy), are openly uncivil. Such behavior can also result from mental or psychological stresses or illnesses.

Polarizing Language

Polarized language certainly has seeped into discussions of political candidates but also within discussions about the environment, economic policy, and reproduction/abortion are often polarized.  An article that summarizes polarized language shares, “It’s not news that U.S. politics are highly polarized or that polarization affects cable news channels. But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, using computer translation tools in an unprecedented way, have found that even the meanings of some words are now polarized” (Carnegie Mellon University, 2020).

The authors of Communication in the Real World (2016) explain:

Philosophers of language have long noted our tendency to verbally represent the world in very narrow ways when we feel threatened (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). This misrepresents reality and closes off dialogue. Although in our everyday talk we describe things in nuanced and measured ways, quarrels and controversies often narrow our vision, which is reflected in our vocabulary. In order to maintain a civil discourse in which people interact ethically and competently, it has been suggested that we keep an open mind and an open vocabulary.

One feature of communicative incivility is polarizing language, which refers to language that presents people, ideas, or situations as polar opposites. Such language exaggerates differences and overgeneralizes. Things aren’t simply black or white, right or wrong, or good or bad. Being able to only see two values and clearly accepting one and rejecting another doesn’t indicate sophisticated or critical thinking. We don’t have to accept every viewpoint as right and valid, and we can still hold strongly to our own beliefs and defend them without ignoring other possibilities or rejecting or alienating others. A citizen who says, “All cops are corrupt,” is just as wrong as the cop who says, “All drug users are scum.” In avoiding polarizing language we keep a more open mind, which may lead us to learn something new. A citizen may have a personal story about a negative encounter with a police officer that could enlighten us on his or her perspective, but the statement also falsely overgeneralizes that experience. Avoiding polarizing language can help us avoid polarized thinking, and the new information we learn may allow us to better understand and advocate for our position. Avoiding sweeping generalizations allows us to speak more clearly and hopefully avoid defensive reactions from others that result from such blanket statements.


Accountability, according to the authors of Communication in the Real World (2016), is essential for healthy communication:

The complexity of our verbal language system allows us to present s as facts and mask judgments within seemingly objective or oblique language. As an ethical speaker and a critical listener, it is important to be able to distinguish between facts, inferences, and judgments (Hayakawa & Hayakawa, 1990). Inferences are conclusions based on thoughts or speculation, but not direct observation. Facts are conclusions based on direct observation or group consensus. Judgments are expressions of approval or disapproval that are subjective and not verifiable.

Linguists have noted that a frequent source of miscommunication is inference-observation confusion, or the misperception of an inference (conclusion based on limited information) as an observation (an observed or agreed-on fact) (Haney, 1992). We can see the possibility for such confusion in the following example: If a student posts on a professor-rating site the statement “This professor grades unfairly and plays favorites,” then they are presenting an inference and a judgment that could easily be interpreted as a fact. Using some of the strategies discussed earlier for speaking clearly can help present information in a more ethical way—for example, by using concrete and descriptive language and owning emotions and thoughts through the use of “I language.” To help clarify the message and be more accountable, the student could say, “I worked for three days straight on my final paper and only got a C,” which we will assume is a statement of fact. This could then be followed up with “But my friend told me she only worked on hers the day before it was due and she got an A. I think that’s unfair and I feel like my efforts aren’t recognized by the professor.” Of the last two statements, the first states what may be a fact (note, however, that the information is secondhand rather than directly observed) and the second states an inferred conclusion and expresses an owned thought and feeling. Sometimes people don’t want to mark their statements as inferences because they want to believe them as facts. In this case, the student may have attributed her grade to the professor’s “unfairness” to cover up or avoid thoughts that her friend may be a better student in this subject area, a better writer, or a better student in general. Distinguishing between facts, inferences, and judgments, however, allows your listeners to better understand your message and judge the merits of it, which makes us more accountable and therefore more ethical speakers.

Language and Cultural Context

This section, shared from Communication in the Real World (2016) narrows the focus on language and the cultural context:

Culture isn’t solely determined by a person’s native language or nationality. It’s true that languages vary by country and region and that the language we speak influences our realities, but even people who speak the same language experience cultural differences because of their various intersecting cultural identities and personal experiences. We have a tendency to view our language as a whole more favorably than other languages. Although people may make persuasive arguments regarding which languages are more pleasing to the ear or difficult or easy to learn than others, no one language enables speakers to communicate more effectively than another (McCornack, 2007).

From birth we are socialized into our various cultural identities. As with the social context, this acculturation process is a combination of explicit and implicit lessons. A child in Colombia, which is considered a more collectivist country in which people value group membership and cohesion over individualism, may not be explicitly told, “You are a member of a collectivistic culture, so you should care more about the family and community than yourself.” This cultural value would be transmitted through daily actions and through language use. Just as babies acquire knowledge of language practices at an astonishing rate in their first two years of life, so do they acquire cultural knowledge and values that are embedded in those language practices. At nine months old, it is possible to distinguish babies based on their language. Even at this early stage of development, when most babies are babbling and just learning to recognize but not wholly reproduce verbal interaction patterns, a Colombian baby would sound different from a Brazilian baby, even though neither would actually be using words from their native languages of Spanish and Portuguese (Crystal, 2005).

The actual language we speak plays an important role in shaping our reality. Comparing languages, we can see differences in how we are able to talk about the world. In English, we have the words grandfather and grandmother, but no single word that distinguishes between a maternal grandfather and a paternal grandfather. But in Swedish, there’s a specific word for each grandparent: morfar is mother’s father, farfar is father’s father, farmor is father’s mother, and mormor is mother’s mother (Crystal, 2005). In this example, we can see that the words available to us, based on the language we speak, influence how we talk about the world due to differences in and limitations of vocabulary. The notion that language shapes our view of reality and our cultural patterns is best represented by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Although some scholars argue that our reality is determined by our language, we will take a more qualified view and presume that language plays a central role in influencing our realities but doesn’t determine them (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).

Culturally influenced differences in language and meaning can lead to some interesting encounters, ranging from awkward to informative to disastrous. In terms of awkwardness, you have likely heard stories of companies that failed to exhibit communication competence in their naming and/or advertising of products in another language. For example, in Taiwan, Pepsi used the slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi” only to later find out that when translated it meant, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” (Kwintessential Limited, 2012). Similarly, American Motors introduced a new car called the Matador to the Puerto Rico market only to learn that Matador means “killer,” which wasn’t very comforting to potential buyers (Kwintessential, 2012). At a more informative level, the words we use to give positive reinforcement are culturally relative. In the United States and England, parents commonly positively and negatively reinforce their child’s behavior by saying, “Good girl” or “Good boy.” There isn’t an equivalent for such a phrase in other European languages, so the usage in only these two countries has been traced back to the puritan influence on beliefs about good and bad behavior (Wierzbicka, 2004). In terms of disastrous consequences, one of the most publicized and deadliest cross-cultural business mistakes occurred in India in 1984. Union Carbide, an American company, controlled a plant used to make pesticides. The company underestimated the amount of cross-cultural training that would be needed to allow the local workers, many of whom were not familiar with the technology or language/jargon used in the instructions for plant operations to do their jobs. This lack of competent communication led to a gas leak that immediately killed more than two thousand people and over time led to more than five hundred thousand injuries (Varma, 2012).

Accents and Dialects

Accents and dialects, as note below from Communication in the Real World (2016), are present in all communication contexts – often, though, we don’t realize our own accent or dialect until we travel and hear the differences in how others accent words or use different dialects:

The documentary American Tongues, although dated at this point, is still a fascinating look at the rich tapestry of accents and dialects that makes up American English. Dialects are versions of languages that have distinct words, grammar, and pronunciation. Accents are distinct styles of pronunciation (Lustig & Koester, 2006). There can be multiple accents within one dialect. For example, people in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States speak a dialect of American English that is characterized by remnants of the linguistic styles of Europeans who settled the area a couple hundred years earlier. Even though they speak this similar dialect, a person in Kentucky could still have an accent that is distinguishable from a person in western North Carolina.

Dialects and accents can vary by region, class, or ancestry, and they influence the impressions that we make of others. When I moved to Colorado from North Carolina, I was met with a very strange look when I used the word buggy to refer to a shopping cart. Research shows that people tend to think more positively about others who speak with a dialect similar to their own and think more negatively about people who speak differently. Of course, many people think they speak normally and perceive others to have an accent or dialect. Although dialects include the use of different words and phrases, it’s the tone of voice that often creates the strongest impression. For example, a person who speaks with a Southern accent may perceive a New Englander’s accent to be grating, harsh, or rude because the pitch is more nasal and the rate faster. Conversely, a New Englander may perceive a Southerner’s accent to be syrupy and slow, leading to an impression that the person speaking is uneducated.

Customs and Norms

In addition to reading the materials below  on cultural norms and code switching from Communication in the Real World (2016), also explore the Cultural Atlas:

Social norms are culturally relative. The words used in politeness rituals in one culture can mean something completely different in another. For example, thank you in American English acknowledges receiving something (a gift, a favor, a compliment), in British English it can mean “yes” similar to American English’s yes, please, and in French merci can mean “no” as in “no, thank you” (Crystal, 2005). Additionally, what is considered a powerful language style varies from culture to culture. Confrontational language, such as swearing, can be seen as powerful in Western cultures, even though it violates some language taboos, but would be seen as immature and weak in Japan (Wetzel, 1988).

Gender also affects how we use language, but not to the extent that most people think. Although there is a widespread belief that men are more likely to communicate in a clear and straightforward way and women are more likely to communicate in an emotional and indirect way, a meta-analysis of research findings from more than two hundred studies found only small differences in the personal disclosures of men and women (Dindia & Allen, 1992). Men and women’s levels of disclosure are even more similar when engaging in cross-gender communication, meaning men and woman are more similar when speaking to each other than when men speak to men or women speak to women. This could be due to the internalized pressure to speak about the other gender in socially sanctioned ways, in essence reinforcing the stereotypes when speaking to the same gender but challenging them in cross-gender encounters. Researchers also dispelled the belief that men interrupt more than women do, finding that men and women interrupt each other with similar frequency in cross-gender encounters (Dindia, 1987). These findings, which state that men and women communicate more similarly during cross-gender encounters and then communicate in more stereotypical ways in same-gender encounters, can be explained with communication accommodation theory.

Communication Accommodation and Code-Switching

Communication accommodation theory is a theory that explores why and how people modify their communication to fit situational, social, cultural, and relational contexts (Giles, Taylor, & Bourhis, 1973). Within communication accommodation, conversational partners may use convergence, meaning a person makes his or her communication more like another person’s. People who are accommodating in their communication style are seen as more competent, which illustrates the benefits of communicative flexibility. In order to be flexible, of course, people have to be aware of and monitor their own and others’ communication patterns. Conversely, conversational partners may use divergence meaning a person uses communication to emphasize the differences between his or her conversational partner and his or herself.

Convergence and divergence can take place within the same conversation and may be used by one or both conversational partners. Convergence functions to make others feel at ease, to increase understanding, and to enhance social bonds. Divergence may be used to intentionally make another person feel unwelcome or perhaps to highlight a personal, group, or cultural identity. For example, African American women use certain verbal communication patterns when communicating with other African American women as a way to highlight their racial identity and create group solidarity. In situations where multiple races interact, the women usually don’t use those same patterns, instead accommodating the language patterns of the larger group. While communication accommodation might involve anything from adjusting how fast or slow you talk to how long you speak during each turn, code-switching refers to changes in accent, dialect, or language (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). There are many reasons that people might code-switch. Regarding accents, some people hire vocal coaches or speech-language pathologists to help them alter their accent. If a Southern person thinks their accent is leading others to form unfavorable impressions, they can consciously change their accent with much practice and effort. Once their ability to speak without their Southern accent is honed, they may be able to switch very quickly between their native accent when speaking with friends and family and their modified accent when speaking in professional settings.

People who work or live in multilingual settings may engage in code-switching several times a day. Eltpics – Welsh – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Additionally, people who work or live in multilingual settings may code-switch many times throughout the day, or even within a single conversation. Increasing outsourcing and globalization have produced heightened pressures for code-switching. Call center workers in India have faced strong negative reactions from British and American customers who insist on “speaking to someone who speaks English.” Although many Indians learn English in schools as a result of British colonization, their accents prove to be off-putting to people who want to get their cable package changed or book an airline ticket. Now some Indian call center workers are going through intense training to be able to code-switch and accommodate the speaking style of their customers. What is being called the “Anglo-Americanization of India” entails “accent-neutralization,” lessons on American culture (using things like Sex and the City DVDs), and the use of Anglo-American-sounding names like Sean and Peggy (Pal, 2004). As our interactions continue to occur in more multinational contexts, the expectations for code-switching and accommodation are sure to increase. It is important for us to consider the intersection of culture and power and think critically about the ways in which expectations for code-switching may be based on cultural biases.

Language and Cultural Bias

The authors of Communication in the Real World (2016) further examine language and cultural bias:

In the previous example about code-switching and communication accommodation in Indian call centers, the move toward accent neutralization is a response to the “racist abuse” these workers receive from customers (Nadeem, 2012). Anger in Western countries about job losses and economic uncertainty has increased the amount of racially targeted verbal attacks on international call center employees. It was recently reported that more call center workers are now quitting their jobs as a result of the verbal abuse and that 25 percent of workers who have recently quit say such abuse was a major source of stress (Gentleman, 2005). Such verbal attacks are not new; they represent a common but negative way that cultural bias explicitly manifests in our language use.

Cultural bias is a skewed way of viewing or talking about a group that is typically negative. Bias has a way of creeping into our daily language use, often under our awareness. Culturally biased language can make reference to one or more cultural identities, including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ability. There are other sociocultural identities that can be the subject of biased language, but we will focus our discussion on these five. Much biased language is based on stereotypes and myths that influence the words we use. Bias is both intentional and unintentional, but as we’ve already discussed, we have to be accountable for what we say even if we didn’t “intend” a particular meaning—remember, meaning is generated; it doesn’t exist inside our thoughts or words. We will discuss specific ways in which cultural bias manifests in our language and ways to become more aware of bias. Becoming aware of and addressing cultural bias is not the same thing as engaging in “political correctness.” Political correctness takes awareness to the extreme but doesn’t do much to address cultural bias aside from make people feel like they are walking on eggshells. That kind of pressure can lead people to avoid discussions about cultural identities or avoid people with different cultural identities. Our goal is not to eliminate all cultural bias from verbal communication or to never offend anyone, intentionally or otherwise. Instead, we will continue to use guidelines for ethical communication that we have already discussed and strive to increase our competence. The following discussion also focuses on bias rather than preferred terminology or outright discriminatory language.


While we will explore the topic of race in much more detail later in the text, Communication in the Real World (2016) shares the following discussion of race and language:

People sometimes use euphemisms for race that illustrate bias because the terms are usually implicitly compared to the dominant group (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010). For example, referring to a person as “urban” or a neighborhood as “inner city” can be an accurate descriptor, but when such words are used as a substitute for racial identity, they illustrate cultural biases that equate certain races with cities and poverty. Using adjectives like articulate or well-dressed in statements like “My black coworker is articulate” reinforces negative stereotypes even though these words are typically viewed as positive. Terms like nonwhite set up whiteness as the norm, which implies that white people are the norm against which all other races should be compared. Biased language also reduces the diversity within certain racial groups—for example, referring to anyone who looks like they are of Asian descent as Chinese or everyone who “looks” Latino/a as Mexicans. Some people with racial identities other than white, including people who are multiracial, use the label person/people of color to indicate solidarity among groups, but it is likely that they still prefer a more specific label when referring to an individual or referencing a specific racial group.

Racist Language

“Just before tipoff at the high school girls’ basketball tournament near Tulsa, Oklahoma, two announcers were caught on a hot mic reacting as team members kneeled during the national anthem. The announcers used racist and explicit language, including a racial slur. NBC’s Blayne Alexander reports for Weekend TODAY” (2021):


Gender-based topics will be a focus within our last unit of this book. The authors of Communication in the Real World (2016) share foundational research related to gender and communication below:

Language has a tendency to exaggerate perceived and stereotypical differences between men and women. The use of the term opposite sex presumes that men and women are opposites, like positive and negative poles of a magnet, which is obviously not true or men and women wouldn’t be able to have successful interactions or relationships. A term like other gender doesn’t presume opposites and acknowledges that male and female identities and communication are more influenced by gender, which is the social and cultural meanings and norms associated with males and females, than sex, which is the physiology and genetic makeup of a male and female. One key to avoiding gendered bias in language is to avoid the generic use of he when referring to something relevant to males and females. Instead, you can informally use a gender-neutral pronoun like they or their or you can use his or her (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010). When giving a series of examples, you can alternate usage of masculine and feminine pronouns, switching with each example. We have lasting gendered associations with certain occupations that have tended to be male or female dominated, which erase the presence of both genders. Other words reflect the general masculine bias present in English. The following word pairs show the gender-biased term followed by an unbiased term: waitress/server, chairman / chair or chairperson, mankind/people, cameraman / camera operator, mailman / postal worker, sportsmanship / fair play. Common language practices also tend to infantilize women but not men, when, for example, women are referred to as chicksgirls, or babes. Since there is no linguistic equivalent that indicates the marital status of men before their name, using Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs. helps reduce bias.


The authors of Communication in the Real World (2016) explain how age impacts verbal communication:

Language that includes age bias can be directed toward older or younger people. Descriptions of younger people often presume recklessness or inexperience, while those of older people presume frailty or disconnection. The term elderly generally refers to people over sixty-five, but it has connotations of weakness, which isn’t accurate because there are plenty of people over sixty-five who are stronger and more athletic than people in their twenties and thirties. Even though it’s generic, older people doesn’t really have negative implications. More specific words that describe groups of older people include grandmothers/grandfathers (even though they can be fairly young too), retirees, or people over sixty-five (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010). Referring to people over the age of eighteen as boys or girls isn’t typically viewed as appropriate.

Age bias can appear in language directed toward younger or older people. Davide Mauro – Old and young – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Sexual Orientation

We have visited topics related to LGBTQ+ communities before. You can learn more, too, in the cultural highlights section of this book about LGBTQ+ concerns. In the following section, the authors of Communication in the Real World (2016) share observations/research on sexual orientation and language use:

Discussions of sexual and affectional orientation range from everyday conversations to contentious political and personal debates. The negative stereotypes that have been associated with homosexuality, including deviance, mental illness, and criminal behavior, continue to influence our language use (American Psychological Association, 2012). Terminology related to gay, lesbian, and bisexual (GLB) people can be confusing, so let’s spend some time raise our awareness about preferred labels. [From Lori and Mark – note, often LGBTQ is used today].

First, sexual orientation is the term preferred to sexual preferencePreference suggests a voluntary choice, as in someone has a preference for cheddar or American cheese, which doesn’t reflect the experience of most GLB people or research findings that show sexuality is more complex. You may also see affectional orientation included with sexual orientation because it acknowledges that GLB relationships, like heterosexual relationships, are about intimacy and closeness (affection) that is not just sexually based. Most people also prefer the labels gaylesbian, or bisexual to homosexual, which is clinical and doesn’t so much refer to an identity as a sex act. Language regarding romantic relationships contains bias when heterosexuality is assumed. Keep in mind that individuals are not allowed to marry someone of the same gender in most states in the United States. For example, if you ask a gay man who has been in a committed partnership for ten years if he is “married or single,” how should he answer that question? Comments comparing GLB people to “normal” people, although possibly intended to be positive, reinforces the stereotype that GLB people are abnormal. Don’t presume you can identify a person’s sexual orientation by looking at them or talking to them. Don’t assume that GLB people will “come out” to you. Given that many GLB people have faced and continue to face regular discrimination, they may be cautious about disclosing their identities. However, using gender neutral terminology like partner and avoiding other biased language mentioned previously may create a climate in which a GLB person feels comfortable disclosing his or her sexual orientation identity. Conversely, the casual use of phrases like that’s gay to mean “that’s stupid” may create an environment in which GLB people do not feel comfortable. Even though people don’t often use the phrase to actually refer to sexual orientation, campaigns like “ThinkB4YouSpeak.com” try to educate people about the power that language has and how we should all be more conscious of the words we use.


Consideration of ability and how verbal language represents ability is shared by the authors of Communication in the Real World (2016):

People with disabilities make up a diverse group that has increasingly come to be viewed as a cultural/social identity group. People without disabilities are often referred to as able-bodied. As with sexual orientation, comparing people with disabilities to “normal” people implies that there is an agreed-on definition of what “normal” is and that people with disabilities are “abnormal.” Disability is also preferred to the word handicap. Just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean he or she is also handicapped. The environment around them rather than their disability often handicaps people with disabilities (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010). Ignoring the environment as the source of a handicap and placing it on the person fits into a pattern of reducing people with disabilities to their disability—for example, calling someone a paraplegic instead of a person with paraplegia. In many cases, as with sexual orientation, race, age, and gender, verbally marking a person as disabled isn’t relevant and doesn’t need spotlighting. Language used in conjunction with disabilities also tends to portray people as victims of their disability and paint pictures of their lives as gloomy, dreadful, or painful. Such descriptors are often generalizations or completely inaccurate.

Recently, in the area of ability, a woman contacted grammy award-winning musician, Lizzo, about a lyric in the song GRRRLS. Within hours, Lizzo apologized, changed the word, re-recorded, and promoted the new version of the song.  Entertainment Tonight posted the following story:

Lizzo is changing a line in her new song, “GRRRLS,” after facing backlash for a lyric that some listeners called an “ableist slur.” Fans took to social media following the release of the track to call out the singer for her use of the word “spaz” in the song’s opening verse, calling it a derogatory term.

“Hold my bag, b***h/ Hold my bag/ Do you see this s**t?/ I’m a spaz/ I’m about to knock somebody out/ Yo, where my best friend?/ She the only one I know to talk me off the deep end,” Lizzo sings.

“Hey @lizzo my disability Cerebral Palsy is literally classified as Spastic Diplegia (where spasticity refers to unending painful tightness in my legs) your new song makes me pretty angry + sad. ‘Spaz’ doesn’t mean freaked out or crazy. It’s an ableist slur. It’s 2022. Do better,” a disappointed listener tweeted.”

When deciding which video to include in this section, we decided to include both a BBC video from a United Kingdom perspective.

BBC News Report:


Daily Show

Tervor Noah provides commentary on this topic stating, “Lizzo does what society asks us to do…” He shares how connotative meaning differs by culture. Note – he does swear in this piece (and of course, some folks are offended by swearing)…He talks about the words and the context and how it matters.

“Getting Critical”

Hate Speech – shared with permission from the authors of Communication in the Real World (2016)

Hate is a term that has many different meanings and can be used to communicate teasing, mild annoyance, or anger. The term hate, as it relates to hate speech, has a much more complex and serious meaning. Hate refers to extreme negative beliefs and feelings toward a group or member of a group because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ability (Waltman & Haas, 2011). We can get a better understanding of the intensity of hate by distinguishing it from anger, which is an emotion that we experience much more regularly. First, anger is directed toward an individual, while hate is directed toward a social or cultural group. Second, anger doesn’t prevent a person from having sympathy for the target of his or her anger, but hate erases sympathy for the target. Third, anger is usually the result of personal insult or injury, but hate can exist and grow even with no direct interaction with the target. Fourth, anger isn’t an emotion that people typically find pleasure in, while hatred can create feelings of self-righteousness and superiority that lead to pleasure. Last, anger is an emotion that usually dissipates as time passes, eventually going away, while hate can endure for much longer (Waltman & Haas, 2011). Hate speech is a verbal manifestation of this intense emotional and mental state.

Hate speech is usually used by people who have a polarized view of their own group (the in-group) and another group (the out-group). Hate speech is then used to intimidate people in the out-group and to motivate and influence members of the in-group. Hate speech often promotes hate-based violence and is also used to solidify in-group identification and attract new members (Waltman & Haas, 2011). Perpetrators of hate speech often engage in totalizing, which means they define a person or a group based on one quality or characteristic, ignoring all others. A Lebanese American may be the target of hate speech because the perpetrators reduce him to a Muslim—whether he actually is Muslim or not would be irrelevant. Grouping all Middle Eastern- or Arab-looking people together is a dehumanizing activity that is typical to hate speech.

Incidents of hate speech and hate crimes have increased over the past fifteen years. Hate crimes, in particular, have gotten more attention due to the passage of more laws against hate crimes and the increased amount of tracking by various levels of law enforcement. The Internet has also made it easier for hate groups to organize and spread their hateful messages. As these changes have taken place over the past fifteen years, there has been much discussion about hate speech and its legal and constitutional implications. While hate crimes resulting in damage to a person or property are regularly prosecuted, it is sometimes argued that hate speech that doesn’t result in such damage is protected under the US Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees free speech. Just recently, in 2011, the Supreme Court found in the Snyder v. Phelps case that speech and actions of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who regularly protest the funerals of American soldiers with signs reading things like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Fag Sin = 9/11,” were protected and not criminal. Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the decision, “We cannot react to [the Snyder family’s] pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate” (Exploring Constitutional Conflicts, 2012).

  1. Do you think the First Amendment of the Constitution, guaranteeing free speech to US citizens, should protect hate speech? Why or why not?
  2. Visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Map” (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012) (http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map) to see what hate groups they have identified in your state. Are you surprised by the number/nature of the groups listed in your state? Briefly describe a group that you didn’t know about and identify the target of its hate and the reasons it gives for its hate speech.

Translation & Interpretation

Translation and interpretation are two processes, as well as two occupations, while similar are quite different.  Due to our globalized world, it is likely that you have already encountered a text or comment that was translated, and perhaps you have been in a situation where someone has helped interpret your message. In Minnesota, you can take your driver’s license in six different languages (English, Hmong, Russian, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese) while in California, there are thirty-three languages to choose from when taking your driver’s license exam (usenglish.org, 2022). In Rochester, MN, you can find interpreter services at the Mayo Clinic in 200+ languages as well as services to support people with hearing impairment (Mayo Clinic, 2020). Rochester, MN Public Schools shares, ” The Multi-Language Learning Program serves a very diverse group of students. There are currently 2,090 multilingual students, which is about 11% of the total student population. These students speak more than 80 languages and dialects. Our largest groups are refugees or descendants of former refugees, migrants or settled migrants, and long-term medical visitors. Our multi-language learning team’s goal is to collaborate and advocate to inspire, challenge, and empower multilingual learners as they develop their social and academic English language while maintaining their multicultural identities” (RPS, 2022). 

With this great diversity in our own backyard, it is helpful to better understand the distinction between interpretation and translation. Grand Canyon University shares the difference between translation and interpretation (2022):

Main Responsibilities

Both interpreters and translators convey meaning from one language into another. Usually, they translate into their native language. For instance, if you are a native English speaker, you might interpret or translate Spanish into English. The main difference between these two professions is the medium they work with. An interpreter works with spoken language, whereas a translator works with written materials.

In order to do their jobs effectively, interpreters and translators must have not only a solid grasp of at least two languages but also an in-depth understanding of foreign cultures. Quite often, culture influences linguistic meaning. For instance, in America, nodding or saying “Yes” indicates agreement. In Japan, nodding or saying “Hai” (“Yes”) means “I understand” or “I am listening.” It doesn’t necessarily mean the person agrees.

Interpreters and translators do not always translate language word-for-word. Rather, they seek to convey the original meaning and intent of the language. As another example, in America, one might say, “I’m tickled to death to meet you.” If you were to translate this word-for-word into another language, the original meaning might be lost; the listener might hear with bewilderment: “I’ve met you, so scratch me until I die,” rather than: “I’m happy to meet you.”

Although interpreters and translators share the goal of conveying meaning and intent, the similarities generally end there.

Kent State University further explains:


When working within the translation field, one is working to successfully decipher the meaning of written content from a source language into the language that is targeted. One of the biggest differences between translation vs. interpretation is that translators often use a wider range of computer-assisted tools when working.

Translators are able to use software, such as a translation memory and a termbase, that facilitates the translation process and quickly fills in the missing gaps. They are able to go through text and refer to other written materials such as parallel texts to ensure an accurate translation. Translators focus on working with written materials like print or websites, which is one main difference between translation and interpretation.


Interpretation focuses more on paraphrasing the content that the speaker is trying to convey. An interpreter, someone who repeats the message but in a different language, deals with live conversation, which can include translating meetings, conferences, appointments, live TV, and more. Since interpretation is in real time, it requires someone who is able to work under pressure with excellent communication skills.

Interpreters translate phrases and idioms between two languages instantly, which leaves a lot of room for inaccuracies. Conversely, translators have more time to analyze a text and research the best transference of meaning. As a result, translations tend to be much more accurate than interpretations (interproinc.com, 2022).



Final Thoughts – Verbal Communication Advice

Most often, thinking before speaking is an adage one can benefit from taking. Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy (2017) offer additional advice as summarized below:

Life if Greece: Photo submitted by Jordan Wente, used with permission
  • Slow Down
    • The phrase, “The slower you go, the faster you go,” can apply to conversing with someone who does not share the same native language.
  • Keep it Sweet and Simple (KISS)
    • English learners will appreciate clear, concise, and concrete language choices — so will native English speakers. If one’s intercultural communication partner has limited shared language, simplicity helps both increase shared meaning. Remember, though, speaking louder does not help if one does not know the language. This generally becomes more insulting to the English learner and can become a barrier in the interview process.
  • Research
    • If you can, research the language of the speaker prior to your interview.
  • Listen Beyond Accents
    • A Minnesotan will speak with a different accent, generally, than a Mississippian. Remembering that we “all have accents” to individuals not from the same region or country helps to gain patience for the decoding process.
  • Dialects are Distinctive
    • “Dialects not only identify someone as being from a certain region, but also are distinctive of a person’s country” (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017, p. 274). Try not to be diverted by someone’s dialect.
  • Use “I” language to explain this is what “I” heard
    • Good paraphrasing and perception checking begin with “I” language.
  • So Many Questions?
    • While it sounds contradictory, preparation does not mean listing more questions than the interviewee has time to thoughtfully address without information overload. Sometimes, less is more. While preparation is helpful, decide upon a few key questions for the interview and keep open to the possibility of new topics coming up during the interview.
  • Clarify Expectations
    • Ensure both you and the interview share the same meaning for the interview.
  • Avoid Slang and Idioms
    • Remember there is a difference between connotative (commonly/emotionally powered meanings) and denotative (more dictionary-based and “proper”) meanings. Individuals speaking in a second language, initially, rely more on the denotative meaning of a term as they learn the new language.
    • The meaning one has by using slang is often connotatively confusing between co-cultures (age, race, region); it’s best to avoid.
    • “By definition, idioms are a group of words that when used together have a particular meaning different from the sum of the meanings of the individual words in isolation. Hence, idioms are not capable of literal translation” (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017, p. 276).
  • Recognize Argot
    • Argot is a “…specialized informal language used by people who are affiliated with a particular co-culture. This dedicated vocabulary serves two main purposes. First, it is an in-group and secret language. While ‘outsiders’ may understand the language and even try to use it, it is, nevertheless, part of the domain of the co-culture. Second, the language establishes a strong sense of identity, as it is associated only with members of the co-culture” (Samovar, Porter, McDaniel, & Roy, 2017, pp. 274-275).

Case Study: How to be a Good Ally

What is an Ally?

As you consider your role in using language to build bridges vs. barriers, you might consider what it means to be an “ally.” As the speaker in the video below suggests, being an “ally” is more than just saying, “Sure, I am an ally.” The Open Education Sociology Dictionary (2022) defines an ally as: “(noun) An individual with a privileged status that supports efforts to eliminate the systemic oppression that grants them greater power and privilege.” As an advisor to the RCTC LGBTQ+ Alliance Club, Lori has encountered many faculty, staff, and students who support the club and want to assist. This support can come in terms of announcing meetings, helping put up fliers, and promoting the mission of the organization. Allies and members of the LGBTQ+ Community often join the club or support the cause by taking pronoun buttons, taking a Pride flag at a table, or sharing their support in some fashion. When it comes to attending the club meetings, all RCTC students are welcome per RCTC Student Life guidelines (as with all clubs on campus). What can be hard, though, is determining how to take on the role of ally for individuals who identify as straight and/or cis-gender.  At one tabling event, Lori heard one student tell club members, “I don’t personally condemn you.”

In some identity-based clubs, “I support you” might become a half-hour statement — understanding how to balance the talk time is hard. Some groups, such as the RCTC MSCF Chapter (Faculty Union), have created new guidelines for talk time to better “share the talk time.” Knowing when to step back and listen is a key role for allies and is often a lesson that might need to be revisited. Just like a nonmusician attending a band rehearsal might not have full comprehension or ability to contribute to the musicality of the group, some groups are more prone to membership qualities. Mark played basketball his whole life, but as he has aged, he is not the first one selected as he might have been while a captain of his high school team.


How to be an Ally

Being an ally requires mindful consideration of supporting marginalized individuals – generally, this would include supporting individuals in a co-culture to which you do not belong. The Harvard Business Review’s authors Tsedale M. Melaku, Angie Beeman, David G. Smith, and W. Brad Johnson suggest:

“We view allyship as a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy. Allies endeavor to drive systemic improvements to workplace policies, practices, and culture. In a society where customers, employees, and investors increasingly see equity and inclusion as not just a nice-to-have but a must-have, allyship by an organization’s senior leaders has become essential” (2020).

They further suggest:

  1. Educate yourself. “Do your homework. It can be tempting to simply ask women, people of color, and women of color about their experiences with inequality and injustice. But that unfairly burdens them with emotional and cognitive labor. An ally takes the time to read, listen, watch, and deepen understanding first. White leaders at U.S. companies, for example, should not only study the country’s history of systemic racism and the struggles people of color face but also consider how their own behaviors have perpetuated discrimination.”
  2. Own your privilege. “Being an ally requires recognizing the advantages, opportunities, resources, and power you’ve automatically been accorded as a white man while others have been overtly or subtly denied them. This can be painful because it often means admitting that you haven’t entirely earned your success. But it’s necessary. It’s also important to understand that privilege is a resource that can be deployed for good.”
  3. Accept feedback. “You need to establish trusting relationships with people from marginalized groups (especially those disadvantaged in multiple ways) who will give you unvarnished feedback about your workplace conduct. Receive their comments as a gift. Even when you’re surprised or dismayed by what others tell you, show that you value candor. Be thoughtful and sincere. Appropriate responses include:
    • I recognize I have work to do.
    • How can I make this right?
    • I believe you.”
  4. Become a confidant. “Make yourself available, listen generously, and try to empathize with and validate their experiences.”
  5. Bring diversity to the table.
  6. See something, say something. “Also look out for gaslighting—psychological manipulation that creates doubt in victims of sexist or racist aggression, making them question their own memory and sanity. This tactic is designed to invalidate someone’s experience.
  7. Sponsor marginalized coworkers.
  8. Insist on diverse candidates.
  9. Build a community of allies.

Read the full article: Be a Better Ally

How to be a Good Ally – Identity, Privilege, Resistance

The following video explains how one can enact the advice above in a more personalized manner:

Case Study: Latin Americans, Latinos, Latinas, Latinx, and Hispanics

The materials below are shared by Grothe (2021):

The label Latin American generally refers to people who live in Central American countries. Although Spain colonized much of what is now South and Central America and parts of the Caribbean, the inhabitants of these areas are now much more diverse. Depending on the region or country, some people primarily trace their lineage to the indigenous people who lived in these areas before colonization, or to a Spanish and indigenous lineage, or to other combinations that may include European, African, and/or indigenous heritage. Latina and Latino are labels that are preferable to Hispanic for many who live in the United States and trace their lineage to South and/or Central America and/or parts of the Caribbean. In verbal communication you might say “Latina” when referring to a particular female or “Latino” when referring to a particular male of Latin American heritage. When referring to the group as a whole, you could say “Latinx” instead of just “Latinos,” which would be more gender inclusive. While Hispanic is used by the US Census, it refers primarily to people of Spanish origin, which doesn’t account for the diversity of background of many Latinx. The term Hispanic also highlights the colonizer’s influence over the indigenous, which erases a history that is important to many. Additionally, there are people who claim Spanish origins and identify culturally as Hispanic but racially as white. Labels such as Puerto Rican or Mexican American, which further specify region or country of origin, may also be used. Just as with other cultural groups, if you are unsure of how to refer to someone, you can always ask for and honor someone’s preference (Grothe, 2021).

What Word to Use? Hispanics and Identity

The emergence of Hispanic, Latino and Latinx
(Pew Research Center, 2021)

Throughout the last half-century in the U.S., different pan-ethnic terms have arisen to describe Americans who trace their roots to Latin America and Spain.

The term Hispanic was first used by the U.S. government in the 1970s after Mexican American and other Hispanic organizations lobbied the federal government to collect data on the population. Subsequently, the U.S Congress passed Public Law 94-311 in 1976, mandating the collection of information about U.S. residents of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, South American and other Spanish-speaking country origins. The law called for the U.S. Census Bureau to create a broader category that encompassed all people who identified having roots from these countries. The term Hispanic was first used in a full census in 1980.

The 1990s brought resistance to the term Hispanic, as it embraced a strong connection with Spain, and an alternative term emerged: Latino. By 1997, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued a directive adding the term Latino to government publications. The two terms are used interchangeably, with Latino first appearing on the U.S. census in 2000, alongside Hispanic.

More recently, Latinx has emerged as an alternative to Hispanic and Latino. Online searches for the term among the general U.S. population appeared online in the early 2000s. But the first substantial rise in searches (relative to all online searches) appeared in June 2016 following a shooting at Pulse nightclub, an LGBTQ dance club in Orlando, Florida, that was hosting its Latin Night on the date of the attack. In subsequent years, the term’s use on social media by celebritiespoliticians and grassroots organizations has grown. In addition, some academic centers at community collegespublic universities and Ivy League universities are replacing Latino program names that were established in previous decades with new Latinx-focused names.

In more than 15 years of polling by Pew Research Center, half of Americans who trace their roots to Spanish-speaking Latin America and Spain have consistently said they have no preference for either Hispanic or Latino as a term to describe the group. And when one term is chosen over another, the term Hispanic has been preferred to Latino. Importantly, the same surveys show, country of origin labels (such as Mexican or Cuban or Ecuadorian) are preferred to these pan-ethnic terms among the population they are meant to describe.

Attribution: this section was written by the Pew Research Center

Noe-Bustamante, L., Mora, L., & Lopez, M. H. (2021, March 15). Latinx used by just 3% of U.S. Hispanics. About one-in-four have heard of it. Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/11/about-one-in-four-u-s-hispanics-have-heard-of-latinx-but-just-3-use-it/

Featured TED Talk: Ibram X. Kendi

“The difference between being ‘not racist’ and antiracist”


English and Intercultural Communication – Case Study



Appendix – NEA’s Racial Justice in Education: Key Terms and Definitions

The following terms are from the National Education Association


NEA’s Source: Equity in the Center (equityinthecenter.org) and Dismantling Racism Works (dismantlingracism.org)

Affirmative action — This term describes policies adopted since the 1960s that require “affirmative” (or positive) actions be to taken to ensure people of color and women have opportunities equal to those of white men in the areas of promotions, salary increases, school admissions, financial aid, scholarships, and representation among vendors in government contracts. Although they have been effective in redressing injustice and discrimination that persisted in spite of civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees, the policies have been attacked because of perceived “reverse discrimination.” The Supreme Court has not ruled all affirmative action unconstitutional, but it has limited the use and ways which policies can be written and applied. See “Reverse Racism” below.

Anti-racism — The work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life. Anti-racism tends to be an individualized approach, and set up in opposition to individual racist behaviors and impacts.

Civil rights — A group of laws designed to protect various groups against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, age, national origin, and other characteristics. Often used in connection to the civil rights movement, widely recognized as taking place from 1954 to 1968, which included issues and practices such as school desegregation, sit-ins, “Freedom Rides,” voter registration campaigns, and acts of civil disobedience to protest racial discrimination.

Class — Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups, held in place by attitudes that rank people according to economic status, family lineage, job status, level of education, and other divisions. One’s race can be a major determinant of one’s social or economic class. The variables of race and class, though closely connected, each need distinct attention.

“Colorblind” — A term used to describe the act or practice of disregarding or ignoring racial characteristics, or being uninfluenced by racial prejudice. The concept of colorblindness is often promoted by those who dismiss the importance of race in order to proclaim the end of racism. It presents challenges when discussing diversity, which requires being racially aware, and equity that is focused on fairness for people of all races.

Colorism — Discrimination based on skin color, which often privileges lighter-skinned people within a racial group, positioning people with darker complexions at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. It is an example of how white supremacy can operate amongst the members of a single racial or ethnic group. This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against, and numerous studies have revealed differences in life outcomes by complexion.

Cultural appropriation or “misappropriation” — Adoption of elements of a culture that has been subordinated in social, political, economic, status by a different cultural group. It may rely on offensive stereotypes, and is insensitive to how the culture of a group has been exploited by the culture in power, often for profit.

Discrimination — Treatment of an individual or group based on their actual or perceived membership in a social category, usually used to describe unjust or prejudicial treatment on the grounds of race, age, sex, gender, ability, socioeconomic class, immigration status, national origin, or religion.

Diversity — There are many kinds of diversity, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, country of origin, education, religion, geography, physical, or cognitive abilities. Valuing diversity means recognizing differences between people, acknowledging that these differences are a valued asset, and striving for diverse representation as a critical step towards equity. See “Equity.”

Equity — Equity means fairness and justice and focuses on outcomes that are most appropriate for a given group, recognizing different challenges, needs, and histories. It is distinct from diversity, which can simply mean variety (the presence of individuals with various identities). It is also not equality, or “same treatment,” which doesn’t take differing needs or disparate outcomes into account. Systemic equity involves a robust system and dynamic process consciously designed to create, support and sustain social justice. See “Racial Justice.”

Ethnicity — A socially constructed grouping of people based on culture, tribe, language, national heritage, and/or religion. It is often used interchangeably with race and/or national origin, but should be instead considered as an overlapping, rather than identical, category. See “Racial & Ethnic Categories.”

Hate crime — Criminal acts, motivated by bias, that target victims based on their perceived membership in a certain social group. Incidents may involve physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse, offensive graffiti, letters or email. Hate crime laws enhance the penalties associated with conduct that is already criminal under other laws.

Implicit bias/unconscious bias — Attitudes that unconsciously affect our decisions and actions. People often think of bias as intentional, i.e. someone wanted to say something racist. However, brain science has shown that people are often unaware of their bias, and the concept of implicit bias helps describe a lot of contemporary racist acts that may not be overt or intentional. Implicit bias is just as harmful, so it is important to talk about race explicitly and to take steps to address it. Institutions are composed of individuals whose biases are replicated, and then produce systemic inequities. It is possible to interrupt implicit bias by adding steps to decision-making processes that thoughtfully consider and address racial impacts.

Inclusion — Being included within a group or structure. More than simply diversity and quantitative representation, inclusion involves authentic and empowered participation, with a true sense of belonging and full access to opportunities.

Intersectionality — The acknowledgement that multiple power dynamics and ”isms” are operating simultaneously — often in complex and compounding ways — and must be considered together in order to have a more complete understanding of oppression and ways to transform it. There are multiple forms of privilege and oppression based on race, gender, class, sexuality, age, ability, religion, citizenship or immigration status, and so on. These social hierarchies are products of our social, cultural, political, economic, and legal environment. They drive disparities and divisions that help those in power maintain and expand their power. There’s a danger in falsely equating different dynamics (e.g. racism and sexism) or comparing different systems to each other (sometimes referred to as the “oppression Olympics”). It is important to give each dynamic distinct, specific and sufficient attention. Every person is privileged in some areas and disadvantaged in other areas.

Minority/minorities — A term that has historically referred to non-white racial groups, indicating that they were numerically smaller than the dominant white majority. Defining people of color as “minorities” is not recommended because of changing demographics and the ways in which it reinforces ideas of inferiority and marginalization of a group of people. Defining people by how they self-identify is often preferable and more respectful. The term “minority” may be needed in specific cases (such as “minority contracting” and “minority-owned businesses”) to reflect data that is collected using those categories. See the term “People of color.”

Mixed race, biracial, multiracial — Generally accepted terms to describe a person who has mixed ancestry of two or more races. Many terms for people of various multiracial backgrounds exist, some of which are pejorative or are no longer used. The U.S. Census first gave the option for a person to identify as belonging to more than one race in 2000, at which time approximately 9 million individuals, or 2.9 percent of the population, self-identified as multiracial.

Multicultural — Involving various cultures in a society, usually with intent to promote tolerance, inclusion, and equal respect for cultural diversity. Does not include an explicit racial lens. Multiculturalism often focuses on interpersonal interaction and communication between people of different cultures rather than a systemic approach to advance equity.

People of color — Often the preferred collective term for referring to non-white racial groups, rather than “minorities.” Racial justice advocates have been using the term “people of color” (not to be confused with the pejorative “colored people”) since the late 1970s as an inclusive and unifying frame across different racial groups that are not white, to address racial inequities. While “people of color” can be a politically useful term, and describes people with their own attributes (as opposed to what they are not, eg: “non-white”), it is also important whenever possible to identify people through their own racial/ethnic group, as each has its own distinct experience and meaning and may be more appropriate.

“Post-racial” — A term used to describe a time in which racial prejudice and discrimination no longer exist. Deep racial disparities and divisions exist across our society, and some are even widening. Much like the notion of “colorblindness,” the idea of a “post-racial” society does not acknowledge that racism and inequity sit at the core of many of our nation’s deepest challenges. See “Colorblind.”

Privilege — A set of advantages systemically conferred on a particular person or group of people. White people are racially privileged, even when they are economically underprivileged. Privilege and oppression go hand-in-hand: They are two sides of the same power relationship, and both sides of the equation must be understood and addressed. People can be disadvantaged by one identity and privileged by another. See “Intersectionality” and “White supremacy.”

Race — While often assumed to be a biological classification, based on physical and genetic variation, racial categories do not have a scientific basis. However, the consequences of racial categorization are real, as the ideology of race has become embedded in our identities, institutions, and culture, and is used as a basis for discrimination and racial profiling. How one is racialized is a major determinant of one’s socioeconomic status and life opportunities. See “Racial & ethnic categories.”

Racial & ethnic categories — System of organizing people into groups based on their identified race and ethnicity, with categories that may change over time. Data is derived from self-identification questions; however, people often do not get to select the categories from which they must choose, making most methods of categorizing and counting highly political and often problematic.

Racial hierarchy — Ranking of different races/ethnic groups, based on physical and perceived characteristics. Racial hierarchy is not a binary of white vs. non-white, rather a complex system where groups occupy different rungs of political, economic and cultural power. Racist ideology relies on maintaining hierarchies, even among racial groups.

Racial justice — The systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. Racial justice — or racial equity — goes beyond “anti-racism.” It is not just the absence of discrimination and inequities, but also the presence of deliberate systems and supports to achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventative measures.

Racial profiling — The discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting people of color for suspicion of crime without evidence of criminal activity, based on their perceived race, ethnicity, national origin or religion (e.g., “stop-and frisk”). Racial profiling is ineffective, damages community-police relationships, and is being litigated around the country as a violation of constitutional rights. However, racial profiling continues to be used by law enforcement authorities at the federal, state, and local levels.

Racial slur — Derogatory, pejorative, or insulting terms for members of a racial or ethnic group. While some slurs, like the “n-word” are understood as such and are avoided, some slurs are still used in everyday speech, with little understanding of their harm.

Racism — Historically rooted system of power hierarchies based on race — infused in our institutions, policies and culture — that benefits white people and hurts people of color. Racism isn’t limited to individual acts of prejudice, either deliberate or accidental. Rather, the most damaging racism is built into systems and institutions that shape our lives. Most coverage of race and racism is not “systemically aware,” meaning that it either focuses on racism at the level of an individuals’ speech or actions, individual-level racism, dismisses systemic racism, or refers to racism in the past tense.

Racist — Describes a person, behavior, or incident that perpetuates racism. Stories of race and racism that focus on personal prejudice (“who’s a racist?”) get a disproportionate share of attention in the media. This reinforces the message that racism is primarily a phenomenon of overt, intentional acts carried out by prejudiced individuals who need correcting and/or shaming, and tends to spark debates of limited value about that individual’s character. It is important for media and racial justice advocates to use a systemic lens on race-related stories and topics to examine systems, institutional practices, policies, and outcomes.

“Reverse racism” — A concept based on a misunderstanding of what racism is, often used to accuse and attack efforts made to rectify systemic injustices. Every individual can be prejudiced and biased at one time or another about various people and behaviors, but racism is based on power and systematic oppression. Individual prejudice and systemic racism cannot be equated. Even though some people of color hold powerful positions, white people overwhelmingly hold the most systemic power. The concept of “reverse racism” ignores structural racism, which permeates all dimensions of our society, routinely advantaging white people and disadvantaging people of color. It is deeply entrenched and in no danger of being dismantled or “reversed” any time soon.

Stereotype — Characteristics ascribed to a person or groups of people based on generalization and oversimplification that may result in stigmatization and discrimination. Even so-called positive stereotypes (e.g., Asians as “model minorities”) can be harmful due to their limiting nature.

Systemic analysis — A comprehensive examination of the root causes and mechanisms at play that result in patterns. It involves looking beyond individual speech, acts, and practices to the larger structures — organizations, institutions, traditions, and systems of knowledge.

White supremacy — A form of racism centered upon the belief that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds and that whites should politically, economically, and socially dominate non-whites. While often associated with violence perpetrated by the KKK and other white supremacist groups, it also describes a political ideology and systemic oppression that perpetuates and maintains the social, political, historical and/or industrial white domination.

White Supremacy Culture — Characteristics of white supremacy that manifest in organizational culture, and are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the full group. The characteristics are damaging to both people of color and white people in that they elevate the values, preferences, and experiences of one racial group above all others. Organizations that are led by people of color or have a majority of people of color can also demonstrate characteristics of white supremacy culture.


Sample Discussion Board Topics

Verbal Communication

This week we are looking at the topic of language or “verbal communication.” This chapter focuses on communication theory and please know we will come back to this topic with more contemporary concepts related to verbal (and nonverbal) communication in the last unit – “What are we doing here together.” In other words, this is just the first look into the power of language.

Your class is wonderful! I have looked at Think Piece 1 and they are AMAZING.  In Think Piece 2, you will explore a culture or co-culture different than your own. This week you can begin your research.


First, read Chapter 5.  Also, you will explore the Cultural Atlas.


Post to the Discussion (about 500 words):

1) What did you learn about “verbal communication” this week from the textbook?

  • List 1 concept that you were impacted by in the chapter and explain the concept. How/why did this concept impact you?
  • List 1 idea you have to add to this chapter for future classes (we are constantly updating the e-book).

2) How does the Cultural Atlas describe “American” verbal communication?

3) Choose at least 1 other country you are interested in learning more about and explore the Cultural Atlas’ resources for that country.

  • See: https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/countries
  • What country did you explore?
    • Describe 5 norms/rules of verbal communication pattern norms from this country.
    • Is there a way you can learn more about this culture in your own area?

4) Use of Words

  • Look at the tips/suggestions for using language effectively in Chapter 5 as well as the do’s and don’ts in professional communication listed at the Cultural Atlas.
  • Imagine you are the HR manager at work or a Dean at the College or Club President – what rules might you enact about the use of verbal communication in a professional setting?
  • This week, explore the rules of language use. What will you do/did you do?


Original Posts Due on Wednesday @ 11:59 pm.

Replies: Due Sunday @ 11:59 pm

Video Reply to yourself: What did you do? How did it go?  What rules of language did you discover? What do you want to learn next? What do you have questions about?

Reply to 2 classmates:

  • Reply to 2 peers. Try to dig in and share ideas. Where might this person go to learn more about this topic? As before, remember to react to their posts respectfully.
  • How do you or do you not share the reactions of your classmates mentioned in their posts?


Chapter 5 Key Terms:

  • Language
  • Verbal Symbol
  • Symbol
  • “Acculturation is the process of social, psychological, and cultural change that happens when cultures blend.”
  • Codes Codes are culturally agreed on and ever-changing systems of symbols that help us organize, understand and generate meaning (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993)
  • Naming
  • Ambiguous
  • Abstract
  • Arbitrary
  • Confirmation
  • Disconfirmation
  • Triangle of meaning
  • Translation and Interpretation
  • How to be an Ally
  • How language can be a barrier
  • How language can be a bridge
  • Dialects, slang, idioms, argot, accents
  • How to use language more effectively


Communication in the Real World by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Resources from other OER Books

Addtional Works Cited

Noe-Bustamante, L., Mora, L., & Lopez, M. H. (2021, March 15). Latinx is used by just 3% of U.S. Hispanics. About one-in-four have heard of it. Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/11/about-one-in-four-u-s-hispanics-have-heard-of-latinx-but-just-3-use-it/



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Developing Intercultural Communication Competence Copyright © 2018 by Lori Halverson-Wente is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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