Identity plays a key role in intercultural communication, serving as a bridge between culture and communication. It is through communication with our family, friends, sometimes with people from different cultures that we come to understand ourselves and our identity. And it is through communication that we express our identity to others. Knowing about our identity is particularly important in intercultural interactions.Conflicts may arise when there are sharp differences between who we think we are and who others think we are. We examine the relationship between communication and identity, and the role of identity in intercultural communication. After we define identity, we focus on the development of specific aspects of our social and cultural identity including those related to gender, age, race or ethnicity.
Identities emerge when communication messages are exchanged between persons. This means that presenting our identities is not a simple process. Does everyone see you as you see yourself? Probably not. Different identities are emphasized depending on whom we are communicating with and what the conversation is about. In a social conversation with someone we are attracted to, our gender or sexual orientation identity is probably more important to us than our ethnic or national identities. And our communication is probably most successful when the person we are talking with confirms the identity we think is most important at the moment. Our identities are formed through communication with others, but societal forces related to history, economics, and politics also have a strong influence. To grasp this notion, think about how and why people are identified with particular groups and not others. What choices are available to them? The reality is, we are all pigeonholed into identity categories, or contexts, even before we are born. Many parents give a great deal of thought to a name for their unborn child, who is already part of society through his or her relationship to the parents. It is very difficult to change involuntary identities rooted in ethnicity, gender, or physical ability, so we cannot ignore the ethnic, socioeconomic, or racial positions from which we start our identity journeys.
To illustrate, imagine two children on a train that stops at a station. Each child looks out from a window and identifies their location. One child says that they are in front of the door for the women’s room; the other says that they are in front of the door for the men’s room. Both children see and use labels from their seating position to describe where they are; both are on the same train but describe where they are differently. And like the two children, where we are positioned – by our background and by society – influences how and what we see, and, most important, what it means.
Societal influences also relate to intercultural communication by establishing the foundation from which the interaction occurs. But the social forces that give rise to particular identities are always changing. For example, the identity of “woman” has changes considerably in recent years in the United States. Historically, being a woman has variously meant working outside the home to contribute to the family income or to help out the country when men were fighting wars, or staying at home and raising a family. Today, there are many different ideas about what being a woman means – from wife and mother to feminist and professional. In the United States, young people often are encouraged to develop a strong sense of identity, to “know who they are”, to be independent. However, this individualistic emphasis on developing identity is not shared by all societies. In many African, Asian, and Latino societies, the experience of childhood and adolescence revolves around the family. In these societies, educational, occupational, and even marital choices are made with extensive family guidance. Thus, identity development does not occur in the same way in every society.