UNSPOKEN CONVERSATIONS: Exploring dynamics of culture in hidden bias

People talk to themselves all the time. They carry on a constant inner conversation while listening to the radio, watching television or reading the paper or online. We don’t know what they say to themselves about the messages we give them.

If we were talking directly to them, we could ask questions and listen “actively” to their responses. Through the media, however, we rarely know who they are personally, to say nothing of knowing what goes through their minds as they take in what me send. So, we guess. We try to construct a message that will reach them. We weigh words and images to avoid “red flags” and “red herrings.” We want them to track in the direction we intend.

If we could know more about the conversations people have with themselves, we could create more effective messages. This analysis will help.

We are born into a Prevailing Conversation carried on by the people about us-our parents, family, neighborhood, etc. We learn our inner language and our culture via the images, meanings, feelings, beliefs, and values that our inner conversations contain from what people around us say and do. We talk to ourselves as others have talked to us. We have no other choice. It is our Primal Conversation about who we are and what the world is like.

Many men, for example, were born into a Prevailing Conversation which states, “Women are the weaker sex,” or, “Women need men to look after them and protect them.” This becomes their Primal Conversation about women.

This conversation is automatically present when the word “woman” is mentioned and shows up spontaneously and mostly unconsciously when men are called to interact with women. They interpret new situations in the light of their Primal Conversations along with conversations derived from them.

So, for example, when a daughter is about to go off to summer camp, dad has a different Derivative Conversation with himself about her than he might if his son were about to do the same thing, e.g., “I wonder if Amy will be OK and can take care of herself,” or, “Will the environment be ‘safe’ for a 14-year-old girl?”, – compare with, “Camp is good for boys– makes ‘em self-reliant,” or “It’ll be a great adventure for him.”

Unexamined, our Primitive and Derivative Conversations become the active and automatic “prejudices” or “biases” with which we listen to and “understand” what others say to us and the “reality” out of which we act.

As individuals grow and mature, particularly in a pluralistic environment, they are challenged with other Prevailing Conversations of a new time and place. They begin to create new or Alternative Conversations for themselves, which both allow them and force them to make choices about how they will understand others and act toward them.

For a man such an Alternative Conversation might be, “Girls are as intelligent and capable as boys and can have similar experiences as they grow up.” Obviously these conversations function in the same way in women, although women’s Primitive Conversations may say different things because they as children were spoken to differently that men were.

When we speak to people either directly or through the media, we can ask of ourselves and our sources of information:

  • What are the Primitive and Derivative conversations of our audience likely to be, given the Prevailing Conversations both of the time and place in which they have grown up and in which they are now immersed?
  • What Alternative Conversations will they be challenged to accept for themselves or to defend themselves against, given,
    1. the various new conversations that are prevailing in our society, and
    2. what we are now saying to them.

When we have constructed our hypothetical answers, we can aim our message at our audience and try it out. We can then test our hypothesis by getting feedback from a sample of the population we are reaching. Such feedback can be had, even informally, by questions that ask people to share the conversations they have been having with themselves. Here are samples of such questions:

  • What did … mean to you?
  • What came to mind when you read …?
  • What did you tell yourself when you saw …?
  • What would you have liked to have heard or seen instead of …?
  • What sort of discussion did you have with yourself about the pros and cons of …?
 Dr. George F. Simons is an international intercultural communications consultant who is now researching the relationship between human and electronic communication. Reach him at:
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©1985. George F. Simons