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Change the Cultural Cave: Convergence and Divergence

Viewed 1395 times 2015-11-30 22:56 |Personal category:Opinion|System category:Others| culture, communication


Cross-cultural communications take place at the moment in which people changes their “culture cave” from one to another. This is quite easy to understand. When your culture cave is changed, the “shadows” you’re viewing will accordingly change too. Even if the “shadows” stay quite the same, the pattern of decoding the images in the new culture cave will definitely differ from the old one. It is just a matter of degree. So under most circumstances, people stepping into a new cultural environment will feel cognitive dissonance at the beginning as an outsider of the present culture cave. 

I’d like to talk about two strategies in cross-cultural communication activities: convergence and divergence.

Convergence is a strategy by which you adapt your communication behavior to the custom of your communicating partner’s behavior. That means, as a newcomer who wants to fit in, you’d better get familiar with the new type of “shadows” as soon as possible, and adapt your old coding /decoding pattern to the new interpreting one. For example, as a Chinese girl arrives at the USA and faces a totally different western culture, one of the convergence strategies is to adjust your introverted speaking style to an extraverted one, like the other communicating partners in the new culture. Through such convergence, the new comer is more likely being understood by others as well as understanding others. and as a result, fit in the new culture cave. 

Divergence is another communication strategy which is, rather than weakening but accentuating the differences between yourself and people in the new culture. If you choose a divergence strategy to deal with cross-cultural communication, you will ignore or even refuse to change, persisting in your original communication patterns regardless of the new communication norms within the new culture cave. And in such cases, people are more likely to return back to the former culture cave rather than staying as a member of the new one.

Literally, it seems that convergence is a better way to achieve mutual understanding. However, according to the research of Communication Accommodation Theory of Howard Giles (Em Griffin, 2009), during intercultural encounters, divergence is the norm and convergence the exception. This is an interesting phenomenon worth further exploration too.


Culture, which is to a large extent related to the cognitive process happening in people’s mind, can be seen as a combination of “shadows” appearing in the culture cave and the common pattern how people inside perceive and interpret those shadows. Besides, there are various influencing factors contributing to culture differences, such as geographical location, population structure, political institution, language, religion and so on. And it is those influencing factors as a whole that form a complex system leading to a culture’s development and evolution.

Reflecting on cross-cultural communication activities and problems from the perspective of Plato’s Cave Theory is intellectually stimulating, and probably worth further studies.


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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