Communication Cultural Persuadables
Kristine L. Muñoz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0219


Cultural persuadables refers to a perspective on persuasion that focuses on the power of membership in a cultural group to influence the actions of individuals. The nature and boundaries of cultural groups fall within the intellectual tradition of the ethnography of communication, in which group membership is a matter of understanding and having available for use the resources of distinctive codes of meaning that pertain to that group. Three forms of observable resources for persuasion exist within cultural codes. First, in every culture there is a range of actions that people may be persuaded to do. Outside of that range are (a) actions that no amount of persuasion, as distinct from coercion, would be effective, and (b) actions that are so fully prescribed and expected within the culture that no persuasive attempt would be understood as sensible. The range of persuadable action is thus the range of what people may be persuaded. Knowing how to frame persuasive attempts to fall within that range is one resource for persuasion. Second, among the many patterned forms of speaking that compose cultural codes there are some that are particularly functional for persuasive attempts because of their ability to encode the norms, premises, and symbolic meanings of the group of people. Examples of these forms are native terms for kinds of persuasive talk, accounts, gossip, and relationship-specific systems of meaning (relational codes). To know how to formulate and deploy these forms in both public and private contexts is to know with what members of the group may be persuaded. Finally, the strategies and tactics observed in overt persuasive attempts themselves constitute the how of persuasion within a given culture. The cultural persuadables perspective emphasizes the sociopragmatic aspects of influence attempts—sequential organization of talk, facework, impression management and the cultural elements described above—over the traditional psychological phenomena used to explain persuasion such as attitudes, emotions, cognition, and personality. Cultural persuadables applies to interpersonal processes of social influence as well as public forms of persuasion, otherwise considered to fall within the realm of rhetoric.

Intellectual Background

The cultural persuadables framework rests within the intellectual tradition of the ethnography of speaking, proposed originally in Hymes 1972 by anthropological linguist Dell Hymes and later expanded in Philipsen 1997 and other works by several of Philipsen’s students. This tradition situates all human communication activity within distinctive speech communities, defining the process of constructing meaning as one of utilizing symbolic and practical means of speaking (understood broadly to include all means and media of communication) to formulate and interpret communicative intentions. These symbolic and practical means constitute speech codes: socially constructed, historically transmitted systems of rules for communication conduct, along with premises and symbols that make such rules sensible and applicable to particular situations. The relevance of this perspective on persuasion is a basic assumption that all social influence attempts are grounded within such speech codes. The concept (built on the work of C. Wright Mills) of vocabularies of motives in Burke 1950 was an early formulation of the connection between culturally situated meaning and language use. Vocabularies of motives consist of the linguistic means for persuading members of a cultural group that an unexpected action either makes some kind of sense, or is not a threat to the social order. Relatedly, Goffman 1959, on the presentation of self, extends the idea that language use is persuasive in a broad sense that extends well beyond specific attempts to influence thought or action. Goffman’s concept of impression management can be understood as a need to act persuasively in each role and context the person engages in. Goffman emphasizes the fact that presentation of self is a joint effort between people involved in a situation. Brown and Levinson 1987 builds on Goffman’s work in order to elaborate a theoretical framework of face and facework, which are relevant to cultural persuadables in two ways. First, facework is part of impression management. To be effective in any presentation of self, the performance must be a persuasive one. Second, facework theory offers a powerful explanation for why people ever resort to persuasion, instead of simply announcing what they want in the clearest possible way in hopes that they may get their wish. We engage in persuasive attempts whenever someone is in a position to refuse. Searle 1975, drawn from the philosophy of ordinary language, further contributes to this perspective and centers on the power of language to perform action. Searle’s explorations of what language can and cannot do in the social world are central to the pragmatic view of language that underlies the cultural persuadables perspective. The sequential inferential paradigm in Sanders 1995 takes this view further, explaining all construction of meaning as inherently a matter of constructing sequences of communicative acts. This pragmatic framework shows with what people persuade. This intellectual background posits that persuasion begins long before one person asks, tells, or hints for someone to do or think something. It proposes that much persuasion happens in the pervasive social forces of self-presentation, facework, communicative action, and expectations of interactional sequence.

  • Brown, P., and S. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language usage. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511813085

    This started out as an extended journal article, expanded further by an essay that addresses many of the criticisms directed at the original formulation from 1979. The fact that this perspective on facework was so vigorously taken up in numerous ways, from the quantitative to the philosophical, attests to its richness and usefulness. Decades later, it is still a foundational work for understanding language use. It is particularly rigorous in its specification of the nature and limits of cultural variation on universal principles based on the nature of language itself.

  • Burke, K. 1950. A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Kenneth Burke is often considered to be a literary theorist. The conceptual apparatus he develops, however, has been employed to enlighten many forces in human life, particularly in the area of rhetoric. Some approach Burke like the Bible: read it all the way through carefully, then you can find something within this work to explain just about anything.

  • Goffman, E. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday-Anchor.

    An accessible work from one of the most widely read and influential social scientists of the 20th century. Goffman’s take on social life was as iconoclastic in the field of sociology as the man himself was reputed to be in everyday life. The richness and complexity of ordinary moments interested him the most; this book offers insights and explanations for the delicate nature of the social order that can be applied to a variety of questions and research programs.

  • Hymes, D. 1972. Models of the interaction of language and social life. In Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. Edited by J. Gumperz and D. Hymes, 35–71. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

    Hymes’s SPEAKING mnemonic is a basic tenet of his contribution to the landmark joining of anthropology with linguistics known as the ethnography of speaking. This essay will never make much sense on first reading, but a second or third will shape every language-based view of culture that comes afterward.

  • Philipsen, G. 1997. A theory of speech codes. In Developing theories in communication. Edited by G. Philipsen and T. Albrecht, 119–156. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    A second-generation foray of Hymesian ethnography of speaking into the field of communication studies. This foundational essay (later versions have expanded on the theory, but this is the best place to start) puts forth five propositions and ethnographic evidence to support them.

  • Sanders, R. E. 1995. The sequential-inferential theories of Sanders and Gottman. In Watershed theories of communication. Edited by D. Cushman and B. Kovacic, 101–136. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    A chapter-length version of Sanders (Cognitive foundations of calculated speech: Controlling understandings in conversation and persuasion. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987) that explains how expectations for sequential order are so strong, and generally so hidden, that they influence people to say things they do not necessarily agree with. Sequential expectations for talk can be far more persuasive than even skillfully composed persuasive attempts on their own.

  • Searle, J. 1975. A taxonomy of speech acts. Language in Society 4:1–23.

    Offering a taxonomy of five things that any language can do in the world is a bold move. Searle’s formulation is one of the most commented on, argued with, widely applied fundamentals of pragmatics, and it is helpful for any consideration of language in use.

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