Cultural communication differences in female friendships and conflicts


People generally seek friendship as it offers enjoyment, affection, security, and intimacy. Furthermore, friends can improve one’s self-esteem and sense of belongingness. However, making friends is not always easy especially if it concerns interpersonal communication with an outgroup. At the same time, differences in races and social status may lead to outgroup anxiety and prevent the formation of intergroup friendships. Still, interracial and intercultural friendships may occur through sufficient contact and self-disclosure. The essay explores the communication context of interracial communication in cross-cultural friendships and conflicts for the film, The Help (Columbus, & Taylor, 2011). It aims to make sense of how interracial friendships are formed among women and how conflicts arise due to poor intergroup contact and racial prejudice. It intends to understand how communication concepts work in the film specifically small group communication in and between ingroups and outgroups, intergroup contact, friendship, self-disclosure, intimacy, verbal and nonverbal communication, social conflict, conflict management styles, intercultural communication apprehension, and political power through communication.

Small group communication can occur within different racial groups. Small group communication studies often focus on leadership and membership roles as well as group features and the agenda for achieving group goals (Wood, 2016, p.35). During the bridge lunch date of Skeeter and her friends, Hilly is the leader because Aibileen notes that whatever she does, all her friends in the table follow except for Skeeter. If Hilly gets married and has a child, the rest of her friends will copy her actions, aside from Skeeter who is the only one who has dreams other than settling down as she plans to become a writer. Regarding group membership, Hilly controls group norms through her domineering attitude. For instance, she keeps in her pee because she tells Elizabeth, the owner of the house, that she will not use the same bathroom which Negro help uses. Everyone nods and agrees apart from Skeeter who looks uncomfortable with how they treat their black helpers. Skeeter fails to verbally defend the blacks though and remains mum. At the same time, since Hilly treats Aibileen rudely, Elizabeth treats her in the same way. Clearly, their group features consist of an authoritarian leadership and passive members. Furthermore, Hilly controls the agenda of the group including lobbying for separate Negro restrooms in houses and treating Celia Foote as an outsider. She asserts that blacks have different diseases than whites and insists for Elizabeth to ask her husband to construct a separate comfort room for black helpers. Additionally, Hilly wants everyone to treat Celia as a pariah since she thinks she stole her former boyfriend who is now Celia’s husband. Hilly controls her group including how they should think and act against black outgroups and white outsiders.

The outgroup in the film generally refers to the black maids who also have their own small group communication apart from the white group. Inside the kitchen, Aibeleen and Minny talk about their bosses. Minny complains about Hilly who puts pencil marks on her tissue paper, while Aibileen reveals that Elizabeth puts so much hairspray on her head that it might burn up once someone lights a cigarette. In this group, there is no leader although Aibileen says she owes her sanity to her bestfriend, Minny, who helped her get through her son’s death. They have an egalitarian group relationship and do not necessarily aim to discriminate against their white bosses. Moreover, the ingroup and outgroup rarely interact with each other due to the existence of employer-employee relationships and racial prejudice. Small group communication is mostly exclusive within their circles as members distrust each other and Hilly promotes a prejudiced attitude against black helpers in her group.

Ingroups increase their anxiety for outgroups through poor contact which easily results in anxiety that enhances chances of conflicts. Stephan and Stephan (1985) asserted that intergroup anxiety is a probable outcome of “negative expectations of rejection or discrimination during cross-group interactions” (qtd. in Turner, Hewstone, & Voci, 2007, p.370). Likewise, the revised contact theory asserts that intergroup anxiety can be due to poor interaction which heightens the probability of conflict (Turner et al., 2007, p.369). Conflicts happen when people who rely on each other hold different interests, perspectives, values, responsibilities, or goals and perceive their differences as irreconcilable (Wood, 2016, p.144). Hilly increases intergroup anxiety as she insists on strong racial segregation in homes and society in general which creates physical distance between her ingroup and the black outgroup. Greater distance makes whites distrust blacks more and anxious of the latter. Elizabeth feels Aibileen is incapable of doing her job if she continues the Miss Myrna interviews with Skeeter. She is anxious of Aibileen’s work performance in light of her perception of the latter’s inferior outgroup status. As a result, she creates an overt conflict with Aibileen who enjoys the interviews. Reduced contact consequently heightens intergroup anxiety within the white women’s group and conflict between the outgroup and the ingroup.

To address conflict across groups, intergroup contact is necessary as it can lead to intimate friendship in the presence of decreased intergroup anxiety. Friendships pertain to “voluntary interpersonal relationships between two people who are usually equals and who mutually influence one another” (Communication in the Real World, 2016). Intimate friendships develop after people open up to each other and feel that they receive sufficient support (Shelton et al., 2010, p.72). Reis and Shaver (1988) stated that “intimacy is a transactional process whereby two key components –self disclosure and perceived responsiveness – facilitate or hinder a close connection between people” (Shelton et al., 2010, p.72). Skeeter has a close intimate friendship with their housemaid, Constantine, due to constant contact and interpersonal communication. For example, when she was younger, she was sitting alone outside when Constantine approached her. Skeeter disclosed that she did not get asked out for the dance because she was ugly, according to the boys, which saddened her for her mother was a known local beauty queen. Constantine reprimanded Skeeter for her self-pity and asserted that being ugly was something that came from within (Columbus, & Taylor, 2011). Ugly was “mean and hurtful like them boys” who told Skeeter she was ugly (Columbus, & Taylor, 2011). At the same time, Constantine underscored that life picked Skeeter’s mother, while Skeeter was different for she would do great things in her life. She had faith in Skeeter and her dreams. In short, Constantine provided emotional support and security to Skeeter in ways her mother failed to do.  Apart from support, Constantine influenced Skeeter as she tells the latter she should stop minding the bad things people tell her. Skeeter smiled and followed her advice because she completed college and found a job to pursue her dreams instead of being focused on the idea of marrying and having kids. As a result, Skeeter does not have intergroup anxiety and treats Constantine and other blacks as her equal. Skeeter has a close relationship with Constantine and immediately relates to Aibileen. She even assumes that Aibileen would be willing to be interviewed for the book about black help where they will disclose their experiences in serving white employers. Skeeter has low intergroup anxiety and proceeds to interact with Aibileen and other black maids as if she they were acquaintances and potential friends.

Besides lower anxiety, self-disclosure may enhance the effect of intergroup interactions on friendship as it can reduce negative racial stereotypes. Self-disclosure refers to the “revelation of personal information about ourselves that others are unlikely to learn on their own” (Wood, 2016, p.188). Likewise, self-disclosure can mediate the relationship between contact and interracial and intercultural friendships (Chen & Nakazawa, 2009, p.78). Furthermore, negative racial stereotypes can come from the media that portrays blacks as unlawful and inferior (Ramasubramanian, 2013, p.56). Additionally, intergroup interactions include verbal and nonverbal communication. Aibileen is able to use self-disclosure when she expresses how she feels about her employer and even tells Skeeter that Mrs. Leefolt should not have any more kids since she can barely properly care for Mae Mobley. Constant self-disclosure enables Aibileen to trust Skeeter and see her as a friend which is the first time she has a white female friend. On the contrary, in the absence of contact and self-disclosure, some white women develop and hold racial stereotypes. Hilly wants to use the media to promote her stereotyped beliefs that black helpers are dirty and diseased in order to gain the council’s support for her Home Health Sanitation Initiative, a disease-preventative bill that requires all houses to have a separate restroom for black helpers. If Hilly only interacted and opened up to her housemaid the way Skeeter does, she would realize that she is wrong to see blacks as lower than her race for they possess the same capacity for good moral conduct, hygiene, and intellectual conversations. Minny may be sassy but she is honest and loves cooking. Likewise, intergroup interactions have verbal elements, such as when Skeeter tells Aibileen she is sorry for the latter to hear Hilly’s talk about the Home Health Sanitation Initiative. Furthermore, even before verbally expressing how she feels about Hilly’s proposal, Skeeter already grimaces as Hilly insists to have segregated bathrooms. Skeeter has a disgusted expression on her face as she jokes about Hilly getting a comfort room outside her house since she is the one having problems with her household help using her private bathroom. Skeeter’s verbal and nonverbal expressions show her sincere concern for the plight of black helpers. Self-disclosure and contact with Aibileen mediate the formation of friendship between Skeeter and Aibileen.

Intergroup contact shapes implicit outgroup attitudes which “are unintentionally activated by the mere presence (actual or symbolic) of an attitude object” (Turner et al., 2007, p.371). For instance, merely seeing Minny stimulates Hilly’s disgust for black people. She hates the idea of a Negro using her bathroom due to her perceived inferiority of the black race. As a result, when Minny uses her bathroom, Hilly immediately fires her despite the bad rainy weather. The lack of contact has a definite negative impact on Hilly’s implicit outgroup attitudes. Skeeter, on the contrary, has positive implicit outgroup attitudes. She insists on interviewing Aibileen not only because she wants to get a book published but also because she sincerely believes the black helpers deserve to have their voice in the media. Talking to Aibileen and the other black maids encourage better implicit outgroup attitudes on the part of Skeeter which emboldens her to become vocal about racial equality in her book and community.

Apart from implicit outgroup attitudes, interactions between different groups can influence explicit outgroup attitudes including reducing conflict which is due to outgroup discrimination and conflict management approaches. Feldman and Ridley (2000) described the four main components of the conflict process which are conflicts of interest, conflict orientations, conflict responses, and conflict results (qtd. in Wood, 2016, p.145). In addition, the basic conflict management strategies are “integrating, compromising, obliging, dominating, and avoiding” (Rahim, 1983 qtd. in Oommen, 2014, p.217). The integrating strategy refers to “high levels of assertiveness and cooperation, which emerge from high degrees of concern for both the self and the other party” (Oommen, 2014, p.217). The compromising style has a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation due to moderate concern for the self and the other individual or group (Oommen, 2014, p.217).  The obliging style has a high level of cooperation and low assertiveness because of lower concern for self and higher concern for the other (Oommen, 2014, p.217).  The dominating style has high assertiveness and a low cooperation with respect to higher concern for the self than others (Rahim, 1983 qtd. inOommen, 2014, p.217). Going back to the components of conflict, conflict of interest occurs between Minny and Hilly who have incompatible beliefs about blacks. The conflict orientation of Hilly is her absolute perception of her superiority which is non-amenable to compromise, while Minny likewise intends to maintain that she is a human being who deserves to use the same comfort room as Hilly. The conflict response of Minny is to use the bathroom despite Hilly’s opposition and to leave the latter’s house after being fired. Conflict is managed through an aggressive confrontation and the termination of Hilly’s and Minny’s employer-employee relationship. From this example, Hilly uses a dominating conflict management style since she is more concerned of her welfare than Minny.  While Hilly has conflicts with the outgroup, Skeeter knows how to manage interracial conflict. As Aibileen shows strong resistance to the interview, Skeeter adapts an obliging style when she refuses to push her agenda further as she is greatly concerned of Aibileen’s welfare than her personal interest. Aibileen already says she is more afraid of Skeeter’s writing project than Jim Crow as partaking in writing the book would be similar to burning her house down (Columbus, & Taylor, 2011). Skeeter decides to give her calling card to Aibileen to give her time to think which means she respects the latter’s autonomy. She does not treat Aibileen as a slave as Elizabeth would but a person who has the right to make her own independent decisions. Her explicit outgroup attitudes consist of trusting the blacks as her equals and allowing them the chance to conduct independent decision-making.

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Cross-racial and cross-cultural friendships can effectively decrease social conflicts through diminishing intergroup prejudice (Turner et al., 2007, p.369). Intergroup prejudice comes from having unjust and undesirable perceptions of specific groups. Furthermore, different races can have diverse cultural norms that may impact communication practices (Che, & Nakazawa, 2009, p.136). In the film, both the ingroup and outgroup have a high amount of self-disclosure. For instance, Skeeter informs her group that she already has a job as a journalist, whereas Minny and Aibileen likewise tell each other secrets about their bosses. The main difference is that it appears that the black culture is more honest and direct, while the white Southern culture is discreet to the point of being secretive of their real feelings. Minny openly tells Aibileen what is wrong with her, while Hilly does not reveal how she truly feels about Skeeter’s work. She likewise wants her group to hide how they look down on Skeeter’s job aspirations when she kicks her friend’s foot who she says that having a job is the last stop for Skeeter’s journey towards marriage. In other words, the quality of self-disclosure can be considered as higher in the outgroup than the ingroup probably due to cultural differences between blacks and whites. Blacks tend to be open and direct but such communication is acceptable to them, whereas conservative whites prefer to keep their real feelings for fear of violating their social norms about discretion. In addition, after Johnny Foote learns about Minny’s friendship with his wife, he hires her and shows lower intergroup prejudice. He trusts her more than Hilly who spread rumors about Minny. Cross-racial friendships diminish social prejudice and allow greater multicultural interactions.

Besides friendships, social support can decrease intercultural communication apprehension (ICA). ICA refers to “the fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated interaction with people from different groups, especially different cultural or ethnic groups” (Neuliep & McCroskey, 1997, p. 147, qtd. in Oomen, 2014, p.220). Studies showed that high ICA can have negative impacts on “uncertainty reduction, communication satisfaction and the willingness to communicate in intercultural contexts” (Lin & Rancer, 2003; Lu & Hsu, 2008, qtd. in Oomen, 2014, p.220). Skeeter had a hard time getting more maids to participate in the book as they are afraid of the repercussions of such acts. However, after they witnessed how the police brutally handled Yule May, they all decided to become Skeeter’s interviewees. The desire to offer social support for one another decreased their ICA. They may still have uncertainty on the possible consequences of exposing their white employers, but they find communication satisfaction in telling their real stories. The stories included good and bad experiences with white people. Some maids had good owners who protected them, while others had mean employers who thought they were properties to be owned and transferred from one generation of family members to another. Social support enabled them to have lower apprehension and increased trust in Skeeter’s ability to keep their identities secret.

Apart from ICA, the film shows how intergroup communication provides political power particularly when stories are distributed through the mass media (Wood, 2016, p.231). Citizens create groups to attain political goals including fighting for civil rights (Wood, 2016, p.231). Black helpers who talked about their experiences know the political power of the media. After the sharp rise of crime against blacks and personally witnessing the violence against fellow black women helpers, they have decided to access their political power. If their stories are printed, people will know the abuse they take as workers from the below minimum-wage pay to psychological and physical abuse. At the same time, whites would become aware of their own flaws including their lack of ability to take care of their children since they marry very young. In other words, though the black maids are simply telling stories about their employers, they are indirectly discussing the absence of their civil rights and fighting for racial equality. Intergroup communication plus mass media production improves their political power.

Finally, political power can also be gained through having personal influence.  Personal influence can be attained through having power over other people, power which changes an unequal relationship (Chen & Nakazawa, 2009, p.136). An example is Minny who gave power to Celia after telling her why Hilly is mad about winning the chocolate pie during the benefit night. Minny asserts that if Celia returns to Sugar Ditch, it means that Hilly has beat both Minny and Celia. Celia thanks her for she understands now that she has political power, the power to crush Hilly who nearly decimated her self-esteem. Since then, she has accepted her pariah status and increasingly valued her friendship with Minnie.

Other examples refer to the power changes between Minny and Hilly and between Aibileen and Hilly. Minny creates an advantage over Hilly when she did an awful thing of mixing her excrement with the chocolate pie she gave the latter. On the one hand, this could have gotten her in real trouble but Hilly was too ashamed of what happened to let anyone know. On the other hand, Minny uses this story as insurance for Hilly to comfort her community that the book of the help is not about Jackson, Mississippi.  Indeed, after the book has been published and becomes a resounding success, Hilly does everything in her power to convince everyone that the book is far from Jackson. In essence, Minny derives personal power through her story and prevents the black helpers from being harmed by their employers. Furthermore, Aibileen regains power against Hilly who pressured Elizabeth into firing her. She tells Hilly she is a “godless woman” and asks her if she is not tired from lying and manipulating people to get what she wants (Columbus, & Taylor, 2011). In face of the harsh truth, Hilly cries and leaves. Aibileen obtains power from being able to tell Hilly the truth and using this to protect her reputation from being sullied by the latter’s lies.

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The Help illustrates the concepts of small group communication in and between ingroups and outgroups, intergroup contact, friendship, self-disclosure, intimacy, verbal and nonverbal communication, social conflict, conflict management styles, intercultural communication apprehension, and political power through communication. The film demonstrates the importance of intergroup communication to interracial friendship and the mediating role of contact of self-disclosure. Furthermore, intimacy can be gained through verbal and nonverbal communication of social support. At the same time, conflict management styles can resolve social conflict, while interaction reduces communication apprehension. Finally, political power can result in individual and collective influence. Hence, competent communication from the side of Aibileen and the other helpers as well as Skeeter enabled them to empower those who are marginalized through stories which emphasized the importance of blacks to raising both families and communities.

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