In a multicultural setting, communication may diverge into unintended directions due to misunderstandings occurring after misreading and misrepresenting particular notions. The application of the theory of symbolic interactionism allows dissecting the described problem and prevent the cases in question by using its theoretical tenets in the course of a multicultural conversation. The unique combination of theoretical principles and practical notions in its fabric makes the theory of symbolic interactions a perfect tool for analyzing the instances of multicultural communication and creating prerequisites for a strong intercultural bond.
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The analysis of symbols and signs as inherent elements of the linguistic framework provides a chance at gaining an insight into the process and structure of communication, whereas the integration of the sociocultural context makes it possible to understand how the dialogue is perceived by the interloper. As a result, the opportunity for keeping the intended message clear and devoid of any threats of misinterpretation becomes possible. Moreover, the theoretical framework of symbolic interactionism helps to define the role of an individual in shaping the discourse, thus contributing to the efficacy of interpersonal collaboration.
However, the incorporation of the described perspective is not enough to understand the process of communication fully. For this purpose, considering Goffman’s theoretical framework and its integration into the analysis is essential. Goffman’s theory revolves around the perceptions and the related modeling and idealization of the dialogue by an individual. Therefore, the inclusion of Goffman’s theory into the evaluation of the theory of communication as a single entity is necessary.
Goffman’s perspective introduces one to the position of an individual and unique models that are used when shaping one’s interactions, especially during the cross-cultural dialogue. Thus, a three-dimensional picture of communication can be seen.
Social interactions have a distinctively complex nature due to the vast array of symbols used to convey meanings, the countless interpretations of these symbols based on one’s sociocultural background and personal philosophy, and the iterations through which messages go while being transferred from one participant to another. While most theories of communication and sociolinguistic analysis of discourse tend to distance themselves from practice, the theory of symbolic interactionism allows placing the use of linguistic tools and symbols into context.
By exploring the effects that the theory of symbolic interactionism has on the communication skills of interlopers, as well as on their propensity toward gaining new knowledge that they can use in their further cross-cultural interactions, one can reduce the probability of misconceptions leading to conflicts and, instead, develop a strong platform for the intercultural dialogue.
The theory of symbolic interactionism was developed only several decades ago, yet it has already warranted a valid position in the pantheon of sociological theories addressing the process of using signs to convey information within society. According to the current definition of the framework, the main premise of the theory of symbolic interactionism lies in its empirical approach toward studying real-life communication and interpreting the observed phenomena to derive crucial ideas about the nature of communication (Blumer 67).
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In addition, the application of the theory of symbolic interactionism allows stretching the boundaries of the acceptance within the linguistic analysis. The proposed framework creates the scenario in which varieties of linguistic expression can be placed into a context. As Blumer puts it, “training in naturalistic inquiry is soft-pedaled or not given at all in our major graduate departments” (63). Because of the described omission, the analysis of the meanings that can be constructed and construed within a larger sociocultural narrative is ignored, which hurts the effectiveness and accuracy of the analysis.
The incorporation of symbolic interactionism, in turn, allows scrutinizing how theoretical tenets can be placed into a wider socio-cultural narrative. Thus, opportunities for testing the theories of communication and studying how the choice of linguistic tools defines the meaning of a message become possible.
Among doubtless advantages of the theory, one should mention the fact that it is fully compatible with the analysis of individual linguistic specifics and characteristics of a discourse. The theory encompasses personal specifics of communication through the analysis of cultural characteristics of the communication process, which leads to combining the assessment of internal (personal) and external (larger sociocultural) influences affecting one’s discourse. Indeed, based on what Blumer suggests, the exploration of how different linguistic devices can be used to construct a narrative within a specific context implies the study of how the objective reality can be represented through different lenses based on an individual’s perception and unique concept of the subject matter.
Herein lies the primary difficulty of applying the theory in question to a particular scenario in an attempt to perform a linguistic analysis. Judging by Blumer’s commentary, the implementation of the theory suggests embracing sociocultural differences and viewing a specific issue from the perspective of the interloper (Blumer 64). Specifically, Blumer posits:
To try to identify the objects that comprise the world of an individual or a collectivity is not simple for a scholar who is not familiar with that world. It requests, first of all, the ability to place oneself in the position of the individual or collectivity. This ability to take the roles of others, like any other potential skill, requires cultivation to be effective. (65)
Herein lies the gravity of failing to introduce a sociocultural analysis into the perspective and integrate the principles of the cross-cultural dialogue into the use of symbolic interactionism as a theoretical framework. The theory of symbolic interactionism implies delving into the notion of self and identity, as well as the ways in which two are expressed during the communication process. Consequently, the study of self and identity as the key constituents of the analysis is no only necessary but inevitable since it will define the outcomes of the evaluation and the effectiveness and adequacy of one’s response, in general.
Consequently, by viewing society as a continuous process of symbolic interactions between individuals, one needs to apply cultural analysis to the communication process in order to elicit the necessary information and participate in a conversation. Herein lies the need to decipher and utilize signs correctly and in accordance with the standards accepted within the selected cultural context (Blumer 67). There is no secret that, due to cultural differences, similar signs can be interpreted quite differently when placed within the settings of different cultures, which may lead to misconceptions and even conflicts when ignored (Blumer 68).
For example, the elements of verbal communication, such as words and collocations, or nonverbal ones, such as facial expressions and gestures, maybe misunderstood when taken from one culture and utilized to convey an idea in another one.
The latter scenario is notoriously common and dangerously plausible, which is why the application of a sociocultural analysis and a proper understanding of the target culture is crucial for effective and conflict-free intercultural communication. According to Blumer, the inconsistency in the individual perception of a particular set of symbols and the difficulty in predicting a reaction to the use thereof in a cross-cultural environment is at the crux of most misconceptions and conflicts occurring in the process: “The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or ‘define’ each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions” (Blumer 71).
The described approach toward the analysis of cross-cultural miscommunication, however, seems to contain an inherent contradiction since the process of reacting to a specific message is defined by the sociocultural context in which it is perceived and the sociocultural background of the participants. Arguably, Blumer’s message could become more palatable if, instead of considering the term “reacting,” which implicitly suggests an emotional response, the idea of “eliciting meaning” could be used (72).
If approaching the discourse solely as a piece of information that needs to be integrated into a larger narrative, one may avoid the instances of confrontations and, instead, adders the cases of miscommunication through negotiation and conflict management. As a result, numerous confrontations spurred by the misunderstanding of a cross-cultural discourse could be de-escalated comparatively painlessly for all parties involved.
In the context of the described phenomenon, one should also mention the nuances associated with the theoretical framework provided by Goffman. The specified theory is typically seen as an important addition to the perspective offered by Blumer. According to Goffman, to understand the way in which interactions between people occur, one has to study the perception of self and the presentation thereof (Goffman 46).
The specified perspective allows locating the role of an individual in communication and the manner in which one’s view of reality defines the course of the dialogue (Goffman 47). The proposed theoretical framework allows delineating the differences between a sincere and a cynical performer, making the process of communication more natural and ensuring that no miscommunication occurs in the process. The significance of the theoretical framework proposed by Goffman is critical to the understanding of communication s a series of interactions since it allows viewing how the specific properties and perceptions of an individual’s communication style define the course and general efficacy of the dialogue.
By scrutinizing the role that individual factors play in the development of a conversation, one may avoid a range of instances of miscommunication or a misunderstanding. Consequently, conflicts can be prevented from taking place, which is essential in a multicultural context, where miscommunication may lead to drastic outcomes due to the differences in linguistic specifics and various aspects of reality perception.
In relation to Goffman’s theory, one should mention several important concepts that define his theoretical framework. The dramatic realization of communication agents is one of these elements. Implying that an individual would typically place especially heavy emphasis on particular aspects of discourse, it suggests that the location of the emphasis and the intensity thereof may depend on the culture of the people participating in the dialogue. As Goffman explains, “The individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts that might otherwise remain unapparent or obscure” (50).
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Therefore, the introduction of the specified perspective invites additional opportunities for the participants of a conversation to locate the common grounds based on which their communication can be structured. As a result, obstacles to understanding created by cultural factors can be removed for people to engage in a meaningful discussion. The described framework also implies that each of the interlopers has an idealized version of their communication in mind when structuring their approach toward managing the conversation and forming messages.
According to Goffman, from this standpoint, communication becomes “an expressive rejuvenation and reaffirmation of the moral values of the community” (Goffman 53). The inconsistency between the models of communication that people involved in the dialogue may have is likely to condition several misunderstandings, the severity of which hinges on the extent of their differences. Thus, a clear strategy for managing misconceptions during communication has to be built prior to engaging in the conversation.
Last but not least, the theory of symbolic interactionism allows studying the manner in which people structure their communication as a direct result of their previous communication-related experiences. As Blumer explains, “Usually, most of the situations are defined or ‘structured’ by them in the same way. Through previous interactions, they develop and acquire common understandings or definitions of how to act in this or that situation” (71).
As the researcher explains further, “These common definitions enable people to act like” (71). The described statement contains an intrinsic contradiction since, if understanding it in the literal sense, one may infer that the creation of an original discourse is impossible since every new one will have to borrow solely from the previous ones. However, on closer scrutiny of the proposed idea, one will concede that Blumer’s representation of symbolic interactionism in action suggests only that every new communication process is likely to be structured and balanced in a manner similar to the previous ones. Thus, Blumer’s statement does not exclude the possibility of building an entirely new narrative within a specific sociocultural context.
Consequently, learning from previous interactions and the information inferred from them, one will gain the knowledge that will allow one to participate in complex multicultural discourse and address instances of misconceptions adequately (Blumer 71).
Although avoiding the latter fully is barely possible when coordinating the dialogue in a cross-cultural setting, reducing the scale of the conflict that it may entail becomes a possibility once the principles of the theory of symbolic interactions are incorporated. The theory teaches that the process of learning symbols and using them appropriately in intercultural communication is achievable (Blumer 73).
Thus, the theory serves as the basis for constructing a complex, multidimensional narrative in a cross-cultural environment, enabling participants to convey the needed messages without major miscommunication occurring in the process.
The theory of symbolic interactionism allows shedding light on the process of communication by placing the tenets of theoretical frameworks into the context of the real-life conversation and examining the associated problems. As a result, the selected approach can be used to navigate the discourse in different sociocultural settings, addressing possible hindrances to understanding the intended message and creating an appropriate environment for effective dialogue.
The profound methodology of the approach allows dissecting the nature of a conversation and elicits important characteristics of a well-developed statement. As a result, a speech built based on the results of a symbolic interactionism application becomes imbued with additional layers of sense and engages with the audience. Inviting people to participate and helping to arrange the dialogue in a manner as productive as possible, symbolic interactionism should be incorporated into strategic communication that involves complex tasks.
Blumer, Herbert. “Symbolic Interactionism.” Contemporary Sociological Theory, 3rd edition, edited by Craig Calhoun et al., pp. 62-74, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.