April 2003

From Penn State

Inter-cultural relationships work best when both sides treat each other as equals

"Why can't we all get along" is the often-cited phrase when national discussions focus on race relations, class divisions or gender differences. But men and women, Whites and Blacks, poor and rich, or disabled and able-bodied often bring pre-set ideas and expectations to the table, rather than an open mind. That precludes complete understanding, says a Penn State researcher.

"Everybody brings to a relationship a set of cultural values (i.e. cultural contracts) that helps constitute that person's identity," says Dr. Ronald L. Jackson II, associate professor of intercultural communication. "Therefore, conflict begins when people with different values attempt to coordinate their relationships. At that critical moment when differences are recognized, a certain amount of negotiation takes place between people, especially those representing widely different cultures."

Jackson, the first communication specialist to develop and articulate the cultural contract theory, says there are at least three different kinds of cultural contracts: ready-to-sign, quasi-completed and co-created cultural contracts.

The most common -- and at least effective -- cultural contract is the ready-to-sign or pre-negotiated contract where people believe their culture or worldview is superior and expect conformity from others, he notes.

"People in dominant, empowered groups almost always present these kinds of 'contract' to others who are considered different," he adds. "The problem is that when this happens, marginalized group members have little recourse. Usually, they can either assimilate to the dominant cultural perspective or suffer losses or penalties. Certainly, one example of this is with regard to language varieties. Any deviation in standard or proper language behavior is often frowned upon by the dominant group."

For instance, Black English with its distinct grammar and structure is a legitimate and structured language variety spontaneously spoken within certain Black American communities, yet it is considered "inferior" by the general public. It has been stigmatized as the language of the Black underclass and "low-brow popular culture," associated primarily with hip hop and rap music. Essentially, it has moved beyond slang to a jargon of the ghetto.

This negative perception of Black English can be understood as a ready-to-sign cultural contract. Those who speak Black English believe they have to sound "White" and "talk proper" in order to avoid racially based treatment in the workplace or schools, according to Jackson.

The Penn State communication arts and sciences researcher has published his findings in the book, "African American Communication: Exploring Identity and Culture" (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003). His co-authors are Dr. Michael L. Hecht, chair of Penn State's department of communication arts and sciences, and Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, president of Bowling Green State University.

"The second and most common type of cultural contract is the partial or quasi-completed cultural contract, where people from different cultures or groups feel their identities are partially valued, so they can maintain portions of their cultural worldviews without fear of penalty," Jackson notes. "The concern is that code switching, or changing ways of behaving and talking, becomes a very important survival tool with this contract. Because one's identity is only partially valued and appreciated, it keeps an individual guessing whether his or her values are the right ones to enact at any given moment.

"As one might imagine, code switching can become quite exhausting," he adds. "A quasi-completed cultural contract is being negotiated when an individual feels the need to shift identities or ways of defining self temporarily at home, work, school or public places to make others comfortable.

"It can even happen among peers," says Jackson. "Imagine a student athlete who feels he is valued when he is scoring points for the school's basketball team, but off court, no one seems to want to recognize or appreciate his African-American cultural traditions like celebrating Kwanzaa. That person is negotiating a quasi-completed cultural contract."

In another instance, within academia, professors will deliberately avoid addressing racial issues both in their classes and textbooks. For many, if not most, White students, this likely presents no problem because they either believe racial concerns are not important or they feel they are unprepared to discuss them. African-American, Latino and Asian students, on the other hand, benefit from discussions of race that allow them to see their proper place in American history and culture.

Partial cultural contracts leave marginalized students, including African-Americans, still feeling marginalized, Jackson notes. Co-created cultural contracts are the third type and are the best bridges across cultures, since they make clear that the relationship is completely negotiable and open to differences in color, creed and class, according to Jackson. These contracts are mutually arrived at by both parties.

An example would be an interracial adoption either by a White or Black couple, in which the foster parents take the trouble to research and understand the child's culture. The message the parents send to the child is: "We not only acknowledge your differences, but we value them. We want you to grow up proud of who you are and the legacy of achievement that is already part of your culture."

The Penn State researcher notes, "Co-created cultural contracts transcend mere tolerance, which can amount to little more than putting up with people and cultures we personally dislike. Co-created cultural contracts also go beyond color-blindness, which, like tolerance, fails to truly affirm and welcome cultural differences.

"In a world fast becoming a global village, co-created cultural contracts are by far the best option," Jackson says. "Otherwise, our relationships result not only in the marginalization and isolation of others but ultimately of ourselves."

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright 2004

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