Interpersonal communication is emergent. This is a motto that I find myself repeating time and again in my activities as a communication researcher and teacher. But what does seeing interpersonal communication as emergent mean? How does this assumption guide my work? My research interests have focused on the much debated area of intercultural communication that, on interpersonal level, is basically concerned with the relevance of people’s cultural identities (mostly national, ethnic, and linguistic) in interaction. How I deal with this problem illustrates my understanding of the principle of emergence.

Let’s start by unveiling the clout of mystery. Emergence may sound somewhat esoteric but treating interpersonal communication as emergent basically means acknowledging that we can’t say for sure how any instance of human interaction will unfold since it is bound to the specific circumstances in which it occurs (Denzin, 1971, p. 171). This is in strike contrast to methodological objectivism, the cornerstone assumption of post-positivism, that conceives of interpersonal communication as predictable: objectively describable and reducable to universal law-like explanations.

Methodological objectivism forms the basis of much of the traditional intercultural communication literature. According to this scholarship, the way people communicate is shaped by their national, ethnic and linguistic identities. By means of their membership in specific national, ethnic or linguistic groups, people are seen as endowed with specific values and communication traits that they share with other members of the group, and that are mutually exclusive with the values and communication characteristics of other groups. It is also assumed that cultural identities will shape communication in mostly unrecognised ways. Interactions between persons who come from different countries, identify with different ethnic groups or speak different first languages are, therefore, considered to be different from “normal” interpersonal encounters, doomed to misunderstandings, stereotyping, prejudice and conflict, but also carrying the promise of learning and synergy.

Examining the issue from the vantage point of emergence, I feel sceptical about the claims described above. I argue that cultural identities can’t be systematically described. They may emerge as relevant in different ways, and may mean different things to different people in different situations. By way of illustration, in my study into how highly-skilled female Russian immigrants in Finland perceived Russianness in their everyday workplace interactions, I found that this identity mattered in unique ways to each and every respondent. While someone might consider it important to bring cherished dishes from their childhood for their colleagues to try, someone else may feel upset when strangers notice their foreign-looking name and fire a series of probing questions about their background and how they ended up in Finland. Cultural identities are crafted and negotiated between and among people in specific relationships and communication situations.  In this sense, the principle of emergence takes seriously the idea that cultural identities are constructed (and not simply revealed) in communication.
Seeing interaction as unpredictable does not equal with seeing it as free-floating and open to endless possibilities. We can’t claim any identity we please for ourselves if the people we’re interacting with won’t let us. Similarly, we can’t ignore the existence of material and discursive constraints related to cultural identities, such as passports and visas or negative images of some cultural groups maintained in the society and media. These may enter interaction and have very real implications for people’s lives.

By the same token, emergent isn’t synonymous with directionless or chaotic. As people engage in interaction, local order will emerge: recurrent themes in meaning-making, interactional patterns and sequences. In another study of mine, I looked into how members of an internationally-dispersed team shared cultural knowledge in their chat conversations. I noticed that such knowledge was shared in remarkably systematic, recurrent and down-to-earth ways to consult the other, criticise a proposed course of action, clear out unfamiliar concepts and share interpretations of events. No misunderstandings, no synergy.

Such regularities are unique as they’re crafted and negotiated by specific interactants in specific circumstances. At the same time, I’m not excluding the possibility that similar patterns may be observed in other communication settings and situations. The thing is that I don’t approach different situations with the expectation of the pattern being there as this would make me find what I’ve set out to find in the first place, diverting my focus from anything novel and surprising. This issue is related to how I work with theory. Though you may have guessed by now that I work with qualitative research designs, a qualitative approach doesn’t automatically connote emergence. A qualitative deductive (theory-driven) approach certainly doesn’t, and I will associate emergence with abductive (theory-guided), and inductive (data-driven) approaches.

My message is that we can’t say for sure if and how cultural identities will become evident in interaction; intercultural interaction is primarily interaction. This isn’t a very appealing message and it can’t compete with popular romanticised stories about intercultural encounters. Then again, I don’t see that my job as a communication teacher and researcher is about issuing easy and entertaining answers to complicated problems. My job is to encourage people to become critical of taken-for-granted a priori explanations of interpersonal communication, and to appreciate the complex and multivocal character of the social world.

I would like to thank Dr Margarethe Olbertz-Siitonen for her comments on the earlier, much messier draft of this post.

Malgorzata Lahti, PhD
University teacher
University of Jyväskylä