4 Ch. 4: Self and Identity


Ch. 4: Self and Identity

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, readers should:

  • Understand the three components that make up the “self”.
  • Be able to explain how social comparison plays a role in self.
  • Identify and define Co-cultural Communication Theory along with the role of in-groupers and out-groupers.
  • Articulate what constitutes culture shock.
  • Be able to discuss the various theories and models associated with culture shock.

Key Vocabulary

  • self awareness

  • social comparison
  • self-concept

  • self-esteem

  • Co-Cultural Communication Theory

  • in-groupers
  • out-groupers
  • culture shock

  • U-curve Model

  • W-curve Model

To understand our communication interactions with others, we must first understand ourselves.  Although each of us experiences ourselves as a singular individual, our sense of self is actually made up of three separate, yet integrated components:  self-awareness, self-concept, and self-esteem.

  • Self Awareness can be defined in many ways, including “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.”  (Google Dictionary 2/4/19) If the word “awareness” means consciously taking note of the world around us, then self-awareness should mean bringing an awareness to yourself.  In other words, noticing your feelings, your reactions, your thoughts, your behaviors, and more. According to sociologist George Herbert Mead (1934), it helps if you have a strong sense of yourself because you monitor your own behaviors and form impressions of who you are through self-observation.  As you are watching and observing your own actions, you are also engaging in social comparison, which is observing and assigning meaning to others’ behavior and then comparing it with our own.  Social comparison has a particularly potent effect on self when we compare ourselves to those we wish to emulate.
  • Self-concept is your overall perception of who you thing you are.  Self-concept answer the question of who am I?  Your self-concept is based on the beliefs, attitudes, and values that you have about yourself.  Identity and self-concept are so intertwined that any lasting desired change or improvement becomes very difficult (Fishe & Taylor, 1991).
  • Self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves.  Whereas self-awareness prompts us to ask, “Who am I?” and self-concepts answers that question, self-esteem lets us know how we feel about the answer.  If the feeling is negative, then we have low self-worth or self-esteem and if the feeling is positive, then we have high self-esteem.  Whether positive or negative, your self-concept influences your performance and the expression of that essential ability: communication. In addition to gender, friends, and family, our culture is a powerful source of self (Vallacher, Nowak, Froehlich & Rockloff, 2002).  Culture is an established, coherent set of beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices shared by a large group of people (Keesing, 1974).  If this strikes you as similar to the definition of self-concept and worldview, you are correct; culture is like a collective sense of self that is shared by a large group of people.

Thinking about intercultural communication in terms of self and identity has some important implications.  First, identities are created through communication.  As messages are negotiated, co-created, reinforced, and challenged through communication, identities emerge.  Different identities are emphasized depending on the topic of the conversation and the people you are communicating with.  Second, identities are created in spurts.  There are long time periods where we don’t think much about ourselves or our identities.  Whereas other times, events cause us to focus on our identity issues and the insights gained modify our identities.

Third, most individuals have developed multiple identities because of membership in various groups and life events.  Societal forces such as history, economics, politics, and communities influence identities.  Fourth, identities may be assigned by societies or they may be voluntarily assumed, but the forces that gave rise to particular identities are always changing.

Lastly, it is important to remember that identities are developed in different ways in different cultures. Individualistic cultures encourage young people to be independent and self-reliant whereas collectivistic cultures may emphasize interdependency and the family or group.

There are many types of identities that humans can adopt or be assigned into.  Identities can be organized around gender, sexual, age, race, ethnicity, physical ability, mental ability, religion, class, national, regional, and so on.  Culture includes many types of large-group influences on identities.  We learn our cultural beliefs, attitudes, and values from parents, teachers, religious leaders, peers, and the mass media (Gudykunst & Kim 2003).

At times, our various identities clash.  When they do, we often have to choose the identity of which we value the most.  In today’s diverse world of interweaving cultures, it is an attractive notion to celebrate all one’s identities by identifying as multi-cultural, but the reality still might be difficult to achieve.


As societies and nations become more culturally diverse, and awareness of how various cultures and the people within them interact, the more the idea of co-cultures takes root.  Within any nation or society there will be a group or groups of people who have more power than other groups.  Power generally comes from having control over governmental, economic, legal, or educational institutions.  According to Co-cultural Communication Theory, the people who have more power within a nation or society, determine the dominant culture, because they get to determine the values and traditions of the nation or society (Orbe, 1998).

Members of a nation or society who do not conform to the dominant culture often form what are called co-cultures or cultures that co-exist within the dominant cultural perimeters (Orbe, 1998).  By definition, co-cultures can range from slightly different to very different than the dominant culture, therefore, they develop communication practices that help them interact with people in the culturally dominant group (Ramirez-Sanchez, 2008).  These practices can help co-cultures assimilate or attempt to become accepted into the dominant culture. The practices might also attempt to get the dominant culture to accommodate the co-culture, or separate from the dominant culture altogether.  Examples of this might be using overly polite language with individuals from dominant cultures, attempting to look or talk like members of the dominant culture, or behaving in ways that shock or scare members of the dominant culture.  Immigrants frequently form co-cultures in their new countries, which can lead to conflict between immigrant communities and the dominant culture.


Where did you start reading on this page? The top left corner. Why not the bottom right corner, or the top right one? In English we read left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom. But not everyone reads the same. If you read and write Arabic or Hebrew, you will proceed from right to left. Neither is right or wrong, simply different. You may find it hard to drive on the other side of the road while visiting England, but for people in the United Kingdom, it is normal and natural.

Your culture and identity strongly influences your perception.  Whenever you interact with others, you interpret their communication by drawing on information from your stereotypes.  Stereotyping is a term first coined by journalist Walter Lippmann (1922).  When we stereotype others, we replace human complexities of personality with broad assumptions about character and worth based on social group affiliation.  We stereotype people because it streamlines the perception process.  Once we’ve categorized a person as a member of a particular group, you can categorize a person as a member of a particular group and form a quick impression of them  (Macrae et al., 1999), which might be efficient for the communication process, but frequently leads us to form flawed impressions.

Although stereotyping is almost impossible to avoid, and most of us presume that our beliefs about other groups are valid, it’s crucial to keep in mind that just because someone belongs to a certain group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the defining characteristics of that group apply to that person.  Rigid stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are detrimental to all aspects of the communication process and have no redeeming qualities within the human experience.

Communication patterns are filled with the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that you have learned in your own culture (Gudykunst & Kim, 2003), therefore, people raised in different cultures interpret one another’s communication in very different ways.  You may be from a culture that is collectivistic or values community and reads an advertisement that says: Stand out from the crowd. Given your cultural background, it may not be a very effective slogan because you do not want to stand out from the crowd.

Culture also effects whether you perceive others as similar or different from yourself.  When you grow up within a certain culture, you naturally perceive those who are fundamentally similar to yourself as ingroupers and those who aren’t perceived to be similar to yourself as outgroupers (Allport, 1954).  You may consider individuals from a variety of co-cultures as your ingroupers as long as they share substantially similar points of culture with you, such as nationality, religious beliefs, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or political views (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987).

Perceiving others as ingroupers or outgroupers is one of the most important perceptual distinctions that we make.  We often feel strongly connected to our ingroups, especially when they are centrally tied to our identities and culture.

Culture  Shock

When a person moves from to a cultural environment that is different than their own, they often experience personal disorientation called culture shock.  It’s common to experience culture shock when you are an immigrant, visit a new country, move between social environments, or simply become stressed by trying to deal with lots of new cultural information all at once.  The impact intensifies due to the “need to operate” in unfamiliar and difficult contexts.  Functioning without a clear understanding of how to succeed or avoid failure along with modifying your normal behavior tends to compound the problem.  As symptoms of culture shock intensify, the ability to function declines making culture shock an intense version of frustration.

Common symptoms of culture shock include: homesickness, feelings of helplessness, disorientation, isolation, depression, irritability, sleeping and eating disturbances, loss of focus, and more.  Although most people recover from culture shock fairly quickly, a few find it to be profoundly disorienting, and take much longer to recover, particularly if they are unaware of the sources of the problem, and have no idea of how to counteract it.

Many studies  have been done on when culture shock occurs and how to work through the stages.  There is the U-Curve Model by Lysgaard (1955) that introduced the honeymoon, shock, recovery and adjustment stages.  Or the W-Curve Model adapted by Gullahorn and Gullahorn (1963) of honeymoon, culture shock, initial adjustment, mental isolation, and plus acceptance & integration.  Adler (1975) proposed a “contact-disintegration-reintegration-autonomy-independence” model.  Recently Ward, Bochner, & Furnham (2001), and Berado (2006) have proposed that the curve models do not reflect the universal reality.  In The Psychology of Culture Shock, Ward, Bochner, & Furnham (2001) propose that learning new cultural specific skills in the affective, behavioral, and cognitive component areas will minimize the adverse effects of culture shock.  Berado’s (2006) cultural adjustment model identifies five key factors (routines, reactions, roles, relationships, and reflections) that are exposed when moving across cultural boundaries.

While the idea of culture shock remains a viable and useful explanatory term, some individuals never experiences symptoms while others encounter an amazing range of reactions.  There appears to be no one-size-fits-all model.  Some people skip certain stages, experience them in a different order, or have a longer or shorter adjustment period than others.  What researchers do agree upon is that it is natural to feel some degree of culture shock.

Advice for dealing with culture shock varies as much the symptoms and is dependent upon individual traits.  Helpful tips include:

  1. Be flexible and try new things.
  2. Get involved in the things that you already like.
  3. Do not expect to adjust overnight.
  4. Process your thoughts and feelings.
  5. Use the resources available to help you handle the stress.


    Allport, G. W. (n.d.). The nature of prejudice. Perseus Book Publishers.
    Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition(2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
    (n.d.). self-awareness. Google Dictionary.
    Gudykunst, W. B., & Kim, Y. Y. (2003). Communicating with strangers: an approach to intercultural communication. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
    Gullahorn, J. T., & Gullahorn, J. E. (1963). An Extension of the U-Curve Hypothesis. Journal of Social Issues19(3), 33–47. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1963.tb00447.x
    Keesing, R. M. (1974). Theories of Culture. Annual Review of Anthropology3(1), 73–97. doi: 10.1146/annurev.an.03.100174.000445
    Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. London: Allen & Unwin.
    (2019, January 20). LYSGAARD 1955 PDF. Retrieved from http://mati-pvk.ru/lysgaard-1955-72/
    Macrae, C. N., Bodenhausen, G. V., Schloerscheidt, A. M., & Milne, A. B. (1999). Tales of the unexpected: Executive function and person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology76(2), 200–213. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.76.2.200
    Mead. (1934). Mind, self and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
    Orbe, M. (1998). Constructing Co-Cultural Theory: An Explication of Culture, Power, and Communication. doi: 10.4135/9781483345321
    Ramírez-Sánchez, R. (2008). Marginalization from Within: Expanding Co-cultural Theory Through the Experience of theAfro Punk. Howard Journal of Communications19(2), 89–104. doi: 10.1080/10646170801990896
    (n.d.). The Transitional Experience: an Alternative View of Culture Shock, 1975. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/002216787501500403
    (n.d.). THE USE OF AUTHENTIC MATERIALS IN THE TEACHING OF READING … Retrieved from http://www.readingmatrix.com/articles/berardo/article.pdf
    Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Retrieved from https://doi.apa.org/psycinfo/1987-98657-000
    Vallacher, R. R., Nowak, A., Froehlich, M., & Rockloff, M. (2002). The Dynamics of Self-Evaluation. Personality and Social Psychology Review6(4), 370–379. doi: 10.1207/s15327957pspr0604_11
    Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The Psychology of Culture shock. London: Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Books Ltd.

Share This Book