Sex, Communication Values, and Cultural Values: Individualism-Collectivism as a Mediator of Sex Differences in Communication Values in Two Cultures

By Mortenson, Steven T. | Communication Reports, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Sex, Communication Values, and Cultural Values: Individualism-Collectivism as a Mediator of Sex Differences in Communication Values in Two Cultures


Mortenson, Steven T., Communication Reports


In an effort to understand how socialization shapes value orientations, the current study examined the mediating role of individualism-collectivism on the connection between sex and communication values in two cultures, American and Chinese. Participants (97 Americans, 39 men and 58 women; 105 Chinese, 44 men and 61 women) completed scales providing assessments of communication values and individualism-collectivism. Regression analyses showed that collectivism was an especially strong mediator of the sex-communication values association among Americans, but not among Chinese. In addition, collectivism made strong, independent contributions to the prediction of communication values. These results are interpreted in terms of how broad-scale value orientations (such as collectivism) shape more specific orientations to particular forms and functions of communication.

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* Recent research has found that the value placed on supportive forms of communication, including comforting and ego support, is associated with the kinds of messages used in support situations, as well as with the quality of people's interpersonal relationships (Samter & Burleson, 1990). Ego support generally refers to making people feel good about who they are or the things they have accomplished (Burleson & Samter, 1990). Two common forms of ego support include encouraging support (providing encouragement for undertaking a difficult or challenging task) and celebratory support (celebrating another's achievements or accomplishments). Comforting skill refers to the ability to alleviate another's emotional distress (Burleson, 1994). These two forms of communication play central roles in most close personal relationships, including friendships and romantic relationships (Buhrmester, Furman, Wittenberg, & Reis, 1988; Burleson & Samter, 1994; Westmyer & Myers, 1996). That is, in most close relationships, people look to their partners for ego support in both good and uncertain times, and for comfort in difficult times. Thus, it makes good sense that people who place a high value on these supportive forms of communication are themselves viewed as desirable relationship partners. Indeed, people who value these forms of communication highly have been found to have more friends and to be better liked by peers (Samter, 1992, 1994; Samter & Burleson, 1990).

Not surprisingly, reliable (if small) sex differences have been found in the value placed on comforting and ego support skills, with women placing somewhat greater value on these forms of communication than men (Burleson, Kunkel, Samter, & Werking, 1996). This pattern of sex differences is consistent with broader patterns of sex differences in orientations to friendships (see the summary by Fehr, 1996) and romantic relationships (see the summary by Winstead, Derlega, & Rose, 1997). For example, in contrast to those of men, women's friendships have been described as: affectively richer (Booth, 1972), focused on reciprocity rather than commonality and association (Reisman, 1990; Weiss & Lowenthal, 1975) and "expressive" rather than "instrumental" (Bakan, 1966). These differences suggest that women emphasize the importance of skills through which feelings and emotions are expressed and discussed. Thus, it makes sense that women generally place greater value than men on affectively oriented skills such as comforting and ego support. Men, in contrast, appear to emphasize the importance of communication skills through which activities are smoothly and enjoyably coordinated; thus, men tend to value instrumental forms of communication such as persuasion and narrative skill more highly than women.

Cross-cultural research suggests that such differences may be more a product of cultural orientation than sex. Research examining sex differences across cultures suggest that sex, as an organizing principle for the development of communication styles, does not often operate the same way in different cultures (Waldron & Di Mare, 1998).

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