2003). The Chinese and American subjects were very similar in their ratings of messages that were person-centered to a moderate or high degree, but the Americans did not find low person-centered messages to be particularly helpful, whereas the Chinese found them almost as helpful as highly person-centered messages.

Why should that be the case? “Our hypothesis,” Burleson said, “is that Americans focus more on the content of the message, which is why they discriminate more between low person-centered and high person-centered messages. In contrast, Asians focus more on the source of the message, the helper, and the relationship they have with that helper and give less attention to the actual content of the message.” The technical terms for the two types of cultures are high-context cultures for Asian and other cultures in which people pay more attention to the context and less attention to the content of the message, and low-context cultures, which do the opposite (Hall, 1976).

More specifically, Burleson’s group has developed what they refer to as a “dual-process model of supportive communication outcomes” to explain why comforting communication has different effects for different people and different cultures (Bodie and Burleson, 2008; Burleson, 2009, 2010). In essence, the model predicts that the effectiveness of a supportive communication will depend not only on the features of the message—both its content and its context—but also on how thoroughly those features are processed by the recipient of the message. Thus the content of a message will have the strongest effect when it is processed extensively, as happens in low-context cultures, and will have less effect when processed superficially, as happens in high-context cultures. Conversely, the external features of the message—who sent it, what the relationship is between the sender and the recipient, and so on—will be most important when the content of the message is processed less extensively and least important when the content receives a great deal of attention.

The model is still mostly speculative, Burleson said, and needs to be tested experimentally, particularly the idea that the cultural differences are essentially a product of differences in the processing of messages. His group is hoping to perform some of these tests, and it would also like to manipulate processing motivation to see if that could attenuate the differences between cultures. Theoretically, if people in the studies could be induced to focus more on processing the content of the messages, it should diminish the cultural differences in how helpful comforting messages are perceived to be.

“Pretty clearly,” Burleson concluded, “we would like to think that this work ultimately has some deliverables for the Department of Defense, particularly in terms of communication skill training and training those who are on the ground in how to be supportive to those that they encounter.”



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