Language and Power

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All language is social and powerful and complicates the view of intercultural interaction. The language that is used, the words and the meanings that are communicated depend not only on the context but also on the social relations that are part of that interaction. Persons in positions of power and their co-workers may use the same words, but the meanings that are communicated will differ due to the power differential.

Organizations have particular structures and specific job positions within them. Those positions and the differences are central to understanding communication. Power is an important element of this focus on differences in position. When we communicate, we note the group membership and positions of others. Groups hold different positions of power in society. Groups with the most power and who are in power—whites, men, heterosexuals—consciously or unconsciously use a communication system that supports their perception of the world. This means that co-cultural groups, ethnic minorities, women and gays, have to function within communication systems that may not represent their lived experience. These non-dominant groups find themselves in a struggle of whether to adapt to dominant communication or to maintain their own styles.

There are three general ways that co-cultural groups relate to the powerful group. They communicate non-assertively, assertively or aggressively. Within each of these communication postures, co-cultural individuals may emphasize assimilation -- trying to become like the power group, or they can try to accommodate or adapt to the group in power. They can also try to remain separate from the dominant group as much as possible. There are costs and benefits for co-cultural groups when they choose which of these strategies to use because language is structured in ways that do not reflect their experiences.

Tips for Improving Language Usage

  • Become more conscious of how you use language. Send the message you intend to send. Sharpen your own skills by checking to see if people are interpreting messages the way you intend in intercultural situations. Paraphrase if others don’t understand.
  • Become more aware of others’ verbal messages in diverse encounters. Be aware of your own assumptions about others’ language skills.
  • Practice expanding your language repertoire in diverse situations. Be flexible and adapt to others’ language style.
  • Use labels that are preferred by group members.


Casmir, F. L. (1999) Foundations for the Study of Intercultural Communication Based on a Third Culture Building Model. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23, 91-116.

Daniel, J. L. & Smitherman, G. (1976) How I Got Over: Communication Dynamics in the Black Community. In African American Communication & Identities: Essential Readings, edited by Ronald Jackson (2004) Sage.

Gudykunst, W. B., & Ting-Tomey (1988) Culture and Interpersonal Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Kim, M. S. (2002) Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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