This article begins with the unchallenged assertion that intercultural communication episodes are necessarily imperfect. The disciplinary corpus reflects the correct assumption that much of this failure is attributable to the lock of various competencies on the part of the communicants. Experts become vague, however, where the line should be drawn, if at all, beyond which increased competency will not yield improved communication.

The principle of psychic unity assures us that there will be some experiences (not many, but some) which are so far removed from the ordinary processes of categorization and conceptualization that the raw data cannot be encapsulated faithfully into language systems constructed for the communication of mundane realities. If so, limits arise as to what messages can be successfully "encoded" in the first place. On the other hand, if an experience becomes common enough to generate a shared linguistic vocabulary in one language community, odds are that these terms and concepts can be communicated only very crudely to participants of other cultures which have not routinized that specific experience or concept, limiting what can be "decoded."

The very quality which makes any communication at all possible, psychic unity, guarantees that successful communication will vary on a continuum from the universally understandable to the solipsistically incommunicable. This range will appear even in an ideal world of perfectly competent communicators. This conclusion arises because while the biological foundations of psychic unity constrain cognitive category formation so that no language system is utterly alien when compared to any other, the needs and interests of particular cultural emphases, which provide the universal process of category formation with the raw material of content for crystallization leading to lexical glossing, are necessarily variable. Divergence within limits is the result, with that divergence occurring in predicable contexts. At least some miscommunication is built into the essence of communication, and cannot be characterized as performance failure.

Document Type


Publication Date

August 1997

Included in

Anthropology Commons



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