22 Adapting Communication

Adapting Communication

Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • understand the importance of adapting communication for different people;
  • consider how identities can lead to communication barriers;
  • adapt written and verbal communication for instructors and students at college.

Why Is This Important?

The way we communicate with each other is culturally dependent. Our use of formal or informal titles or formal or informal language sends a message to the receiver about the nature of our communication. When adapting to a new culture it is important to take note of the level of formality of communication and adapt your communication to fit in order to build relationships with those around you and reduce miscommunication.

Communication and Context

The circumstances surrounding a message provide the context. These include the setting you are in, the culture that guides you, whomever you are communicating with, and the purpose of the communication. Context also includes the values people have, appropriateness of the message, the timing with which you choose to convey your message, and the reason behind your wanting to communicate. This means considering your audience, the place, the time, and all other variables that impact communicating constructively.

A set of two photos show people working in different office environments.
A set of two photos show people working in different office environments. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/8-4-the-context-of-communication, Attribution: (both photos): Lyncconf Games / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0)

Generally, all communication happens for a reason. When you are communicating with people, do you always understand each other? Are you wide awake and your roommate almost asleep? Is the football game really important to you but totally boring to the person you are talking with? It is important that everyone involved understands the context of the conversation. Is it a party, which lends itself to frivolous chatter? Is the conversation about something serious that just occurred? What are some of the relevant steps to understanding context? Pay attention to timing. Is there enough time to cover what you are trying to say? Is this the right time to ask the instructor about an assignment due date extension? What about the location? Should your conversation take place in person, over email, in a chat room? Is everyone in the conversation involved for the same reason?


Each situation has different communication expectations. Consider the context of a family dinner. You are at the table with siblings, cousins, parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. A wide variety of age groups are present around the dinner table. Are there any rules about how you behave in this circumstance? What are they?

Now put yourself in the context of a chat room with people you might know and some that you do not know. Are there rules for communicating in that situation? What are they?

Sometimes we have misconceptions about what is going on in a group situation. Perhaps we think that everyone there knows what we are talking about. Or we think we know everyone’s opinions on an issue or situation. Or we come into the conversation already thinking we are right and they are wrong. Communication in these instances can go very wrong. Why? We aren’t listening or even preparing ourselves adequately for the conversation we hope to have. So often we are only concerned about what we have to say to an individual or a group and we don’t step back long enough to reflect on what our message might mean to them. We seem to not care about how the message will be received and are often surprised by how poorly the communication actually went. Why? Because we didn’t step back and think, “Hmmmm, my classmate is a vegetarian and probably would be offended by a conversation about beef farming.” Or, “My friend is having a bit of financial trouble, and this might not be the right time to ask them if they want to go out for dinner to an expensive restaurant.”

Communication and the Audience

There are so many instances in our lives when we think about our needs first and blurt out exactly what we are thinking, leading to some critical misunderstandings. It is really important to not only be concerned about our need to communicate, but to also take into consideration who we are communicating with, when and where we are communicating, and how we are going to do so in a positive way. First, you should step back and think about what you want to say and why. Then reflect on who you are attempting to communicate with.

Identities and Communication Barriers

Aside from our actual communication abilities and tools, we bring to each interaction many unique aspects based on who we are and where we come from. Diversity requires us to consider the different perspectives and experiences others bring to a discussion or interaction, and to understand that our own views and contexts may be unfamiliar to others. We should exercise patience and practice when communicating with new people or groups.

Identity is generally a feeling of belonging to a group. It is your self-perception and is usually related to nationality, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexual orientation, gender, generation, region, or any social group that has its own distinct identity. Examples of cultural identity markers include the rituals people observe, the music that a group prefers, the style of clothing that is worn, the languages spoken, the ethnic group one belongs to, and its various foods and celebrations. Cultural identity also includes the way people from a group communicate, act as leaders, manage time, value hierarchy, and many other values. All of these variables can constitute a cultural identity for people. Belonging to these groups gives people an identity and a frame of reference on how to communicate and relate to the world around them.

Gender identity refers to the deeply held, internal sense of a person’s gender. Sometimes, a person’s sex assigned at birth does not line up with their gender identity. These individuals might refer to themselves as transgender, non-binary, or gender-non-conforming.

While gender is internal, social influences and perceptions can shape a person’s attitude and method of communication. For example, in some families and cultures, men are raised to be more dominant or less emotionally expressive. Their use of that approach may lead to communication problems with others. However, people’s assumptions about men may also lead to communication problems. The same can happen with other gender identities.


What are your communication experiences with different genders? Have you seen people communicate a specific way based on the genders involved in the conversation? For example, does a classmate have a way of speaking to men that is different from their way of speaking to women? Does that difference become a barrier or issue in the communication?

Age can also have a significant impact on communication. People from varying generations bring very different experiences to their contact with others. We all grow up surrounded by certain music, clothing styles, language, and cultural influences. Modes of parenting have evolved, food choices have expanded, tragedies and world politics have occurred, and each of these has had an effect on the generation that experienced them firsthand. Additionally, most of us live or have lived with multiple generations in our lives and have experienced many of the differences ourselves.

The above categories of cultural identity, gender, age, and your own stereotypes about people illustrate that there are many barriers that can come into play when you are trying to communicate with someone. On a college campus, you probably will run into a large variety of differences in the people you meet. Many come from other countries, cultures, religions, and family backgrounds. Some may be in the country solely for the purpose of going to college and intend to return home when they graduate. Some may have a lot of life experience, while others could have just graduated from high school. All of that will have an effect on how they communicate, as your own upbringing and experiences have had an influence on how you communicate. Keep that in mind as you try to create relationships with the many people that you meet, both face-to-face and online.

Using Pronouns Respectfully

A person’s gender identity is an important feature of who they are. We can show respect during communication when we use the correct pronouns that are aligned with a person’s gender identity. Any pronoun that a person wants to use is valid. Each person gets to decide.

  • Pronouns replace people’s names. For example, “Sam is nice” could be replaced with “He is nice.” It makes sense to give pronouns the same respect we give people’s names.
  • Pronouns add gender. With gender comes all the implicit assumptions and associations we have with it. For example, “He is nice” and “[Everything the listener associates with men] is nice.”
  • We don’t have to use pronouns, ever. We can always just use the person’s name (or language like “the person”), it just might sound repetitive.

Sometimes we need to ask about a person’s pronouns so that we can communicate respectfully. There are a few ways to ask.

  • Offer your own name and pronouns. This will indirectly ask the person you are speaking to share their name and pronouns.
  • Explain why you are asking. For example, “I want to introduce you to my friend and want to make sure I get your pronouns right. What are they?”
  • Just ask! “What are your pronouns?” Be ready to explain why you’re asking, or for the person to be confused and need a little coaching.[1]

Multiple Perspectives

Gender and Pronouns

Gender is an identity that we understand to be less clearly defined as was previously the norm. Some people identify themselves as male or female and some as gender fluid or non-binary. “Binary” refers to the notion that gender is only one of two possibilities, male or female. Fluidity suggests that there is a range or continuum of gender expression. Gender fluidity acknowledges that a person may vacillate between different gender identities. When addressing other people, it is important to recognize their gender correctly as they express it, not how you perceive it to be. People who identify as non-binary or other genders, may choose to use they/them pronouns or other pronouns that resonate with them.

Transgender men and women were assigned a gender identity at birth that does not fit their true identity. They may transition to a different gender in order to become their true selves. It is important to use a person’s pronouns that align with their self-identified gender.

To make ourselves feel comfortable, we often want people to fall into specific categories so that our own social identity is clear. However, instead prioritizing our own comfort, we should accept the identity people choose for themselves. Cultural competency includes respectfully addressing individuals as they ask to be addressed.


The following table outlines pronouns for different genders.
Subjective Objective Possessive Reflexive Example
She Her Hers Herself

She is speaking.

I listened to her.

The backpack is hers.

He Him His Himself

He is speaking.

I listened to him.

The backpack is his.

They Them Theirs Themself

They are speaking.

I listened to them.

The backpack is theirs.

Ze Hir/Zir Hirs/Zirs Hirself/Zirself

Ze is speaking.

I listened to hir.

The backpack is zirs.

The website Transstudent.org provides educational resources, such as the above graphic, for anyone seeking clarity on gender identity. Note that these are only examples of some gender pronouns, not a complete list.

Communicating in College

In North American culture, we often address people by their first names, even when they may have higher positions of power than we do. This is important to remember when communicating with staff and students. Instead of showing respect by using formal titles or honorifics (Mr. or Ms., for example), we use a person’s first name and then adjust our words to become more formal. In college, it is generally accepted to address your instructor by their first name in verbal and written communication. Using formal titles or honorifics will cause discomfort and misunderstandings. Similarly, students use first names when addressing each other in both verbal and written communication.


Read the following emails between students and instructors. Click on the exclamation marks to learn more. As you read think about:
  • How are the emails the same? How are they different?
  • What types of greetings are used?
  • What types of words and phrases are used?

Key Takeaway

As we interact with different groups of people we need to adapt our communication to fit the situation. It is important to consider formality, age, pronouns, titles, and power level, among other considerations, when communicating with others. When we adapt our communication to fit the receiver, we are more likely to succeed in delivering our intended message.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from College Success by Amy Baldwin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  1. https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2018/04/pronoun-best-preferred-practices/