Southern U.S. identity and the struggle to overcome cultural gaps within a nation

On the day I post this article, the government of the U.S. State of South Carolina lowered the Confederate battle flag from outside its State House, where it had flown for more than 50 years. The removal of this flag follows a heated public debate about what this flag symbolizes: Southern heritage or white supremacy. This debate has been around for decades and was amplified in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting. While the Confederate flag itself – like all other symbols – only carries the meaning that people attach to it, it became a cultural symbol, especially around the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s when white Southerners started to feel threatened by the rapidly changing social order.

The charged symbolism of this flag never eliminated its racist stigma and having lived in the U.S. South for the past 11 years, my observation has been that, despite the Civil Rights Act and all the work the American society has done to tackle racism, there still seems to exist an artificial, sometimes self-imposed segregation in the Southeast. We still see and talk about “predominantly white” and “predominantly black” neighborhoods. This also extends to other ethnic clusters, like the Latino/Hispanic-Americans or Asian-Americans.

As a European, this has been fascinating for me and at the same time I keep wondering how long it will take for the national wound of the Civial War to heal. As a German who has learned to overcome his Holocaust guilt complex, it saddens me to see how the world’s oldest democracy is still burdened with slavery guilt and failing to create true equality among all its diverse people.

Can we agree that racism, or simply conflicts between ethnicities, are a result of a failure to truly connect via communication? Too often different cultures (or, as in the U.S., different ethnicities/subcultures) only talk about each other rather than with each other. That’s the mindset which perpetuates stereotypes and biases. Isn’t it time we break this cycle? My friend and esteemed colleague Doug Stuart published an article about the “differing communication patterns among native-born workplace groups” which, he says, can “cause a great deal of misunderstanding, often to the detriment of the minority group.”

In this article, which I encourage you to read, Dr. Stuart points out how most miscommunication between the ethnic groups in the U.S. can be explained using Mitch Hammer’s ICS model:

Two primary speech features are 1) whether emotion is expressed or repressed, and 2) to what degree speech is direct or indirect. If we graph these together in a 2×2 chart, we have 4 quadrants with Direct speech on the top left and right quadrants, and Indirect speech across the bottom; Emotional expression is low on the left side and high on the right, so the 4 quadrants are:

So, the primary black/white miscommunication in the workplace happens because they communicate from different quadrants. A majority of white male management tends to speak from the upper left quadrant, where emotion can be seen as a weakness, and should be used carefully. Additionally, white males stand typically a couple of feet apart, don’t touch much, and don’t hold the gaze when talking. They look/look away/look/look away to signal 1) I’m paying attention, but 2) I’m not challenging.

Black males talk more from the upper right quadrant. They typically speak louder than whites, stand closer together, touch more frequently, and hold the gaze as a sign of respect. Normal male black speech is often perceived as aggressive by white males. Women are typically more complex communicators than males, more aware of subtle differences, and more apt to adjust their speaking style to their audience and message. Black women adapt quite well to white style, relapsing into their own styles when whites are absent or when they gather together in the lunchroom. They may or may not be conscious of this style switching, but the phrase “I have to leave myself at the door to work here” is reflective of the conscious need to “tone down” their speech at work. As an aside, while Black women feel comfortable reverting to their primary style at the lunch table, Black males, however, know better. You don’t see them eating together in groups, and that’s a conscious but unspoken decision.

Males are typically neither so sensitive nor adaptive as their female counterparts. And Black males pay for this at work. They may be judged too aggressive for promotion to upper management by whites who misinterpret the communication style difference. [continue reading]

As is stated in our company’s mission, we strongly believe that all conflicts between people can be resolved, if we understand each other’s cultures – our own, and the ones which are foreign to us. We can create peace, if we become agents of cultural understanding. 

It’s time the different cultures of North America understand each other.
Let’s get started!


Christian Höferle


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Comments 5

  1. Hey Christian, nice piece and plea to finally get over it in the South! Glad you added the graphic for Hammers ICS Inventory. And thanks again for the kudos. I have something else, related, to post tomorrow and a third piece in mind, though I don’t think I’ll get to that for a while.

    Keep up the good work at TCM!

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  2. I agree with most of this and find it interesting. (The other part I am just not sure about, so no DIS-agreement.) I have always wondered why southern whites needed to feel superior to blacks. I suspect it had to do with sexual competition and myths about black men. And there is general competition for jobs, especially those which do not require much training.

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      Thank you for sharing, Fred.
      Dr. Williams bemoans an ignorance of American history and while I don’t have a way to assess the educational levels of the entire U.S. public, I do feel that cultures give symbols meaning. Note that I didn’t say symbols have an inherent meaning. Nothing has meaning except the meaning we give it.
      What a majority of people (a cultural consensus, if you will) decides to make a symbol mean can change. In 1848, during the failed German revolution, nationalists (btw, a term which changed its meaning since then) introduced a flag with three horizontal stripes in the colors black, red, and gold. Roughly 100 years later that flag which was introduced by “revolutionary agitators” became a symbol for the Federal Republic of Germany. The swastika would be another great example for a symbol with widely diverging meanings.
      With that being said, no matter whether the U.S. Civil War was started over slavery or not (I do recommend reading the South Carolina secession declaration, though), the meaning which the Confederate Battle Flag has been given by the majority of people in the U.S. is one that glorifies the values of the antebellum South, including slavery.
      I respect Dr. Williams’ wish to honor the dead of the Civil War. I also hope he can do so without the Confederate Flag. My grandfather died in WW2 as a German Wehrmacht soldier. I honor his death. Most certainly without the Nazi swastika or the Reichskriegsflagge.

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