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date: 25 March 2023

Communication, Aging, and Culturefree

Communication, Aging, and Culturefree

  • Robert M. McCannRobert M. McCannSchool of Management, University of California, Los Angeles


Research into age and culture strongly suggests that people of different adult generations, regardless of culture, typically regard others and act in ways that display bias in favor of one’s own age group. While people across cultures share some basic patterns of aging perceptions, there is considerable variance in views on older people from one country to the next. Over the past two decades, the tenor of communication and aging research has shifted dramatically. Traditional research into aging across cultures painted a picture of Asia as a sort of communicative oasis for elders, who were revered and communicated to by the younger generations in a respectful and mutually pleasing manner. Compelling evidence now suggests the opposite, which is that (interregion variability in results notwithstanding) elder denigration may be more pronounced in Eastern than Western cultures. Accelerated population aging, rural-to-urban shifts in migration, new technologies, rapid industrialization, and the erosion of cultural traditions such as filial piety, may partially account for these results. Additionally, there are well-established links between communication and the mental health of older people. Specifically, communication accommodation in all of its forms (e.g., over accommodation, nonaccommodation, accommodation) holds great promise as a core predictor of a range of mental health outcomes for older people across cultures.


  • Health and Risk Communication
  • Communication and Culture
  • Intergroup Communication

Introduction to Communication, Aging, and Culture Research

Ageism: Definition and Pace of Research

Around the world, the older population is growing exponentially. From 2000 to 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years is projected to double to 22% of the worldwide population. Said differently, two billion people aged 60 years and older (from close to 700 million today) are expected to fill our planet by 2050, or one in five of the world’s population (World Health Organization, 2015). This trend has been dubbed the “silver tsunami” by the media, and it has garnered substantial personal, media, and political interest in the conditions, processes, and policies surrounding aging and ageism.

The late Dr. Robert Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the first director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term “ageism” in his seminal 1969 article titled “Age-ism: Another form of bigotry” (Butler, 1969). In this chapter, Butler describes ageism as “a form of bigotry we now tend to overlook” (p. 243), thus highlighting the negative connotations surrounding the term. Age-based attitudes infiltrate our cultural expectations of older individuals from our early years. Young children have distinct visual representations of “old people” at early stages of their development (Gilbert & Ricketts, 2008), and negative portrayals of aging and older adults are commonplace in children’s books and films (Henneberg, 2010). While these representations of aging become more nuanced by the preteen years (Lichtenstein et al., 2005), negative attitudes regarding older individuals persist and are widespread.

In the social psychology and communication fields, scholarly inquiry into ageism remains comparatively scarce when compared to research into race and gender, two other primary dimensions of interpersonal and intergroup categorization. For example, a PsychInfo search (conducted in January, 2017) with the keyword “ageism” reveals 1,382 results as compared to “racism” (11,316 results) and “sexism” (3,723 results). While the ageism search yielded double that of the 750 results found for ageism in an identical three-keyword search in February of 2012 by North and Fiske (2013), the field of ageism remains dramatically understudied. Todd D. Nelson, a well-known ageism scholar, attributes the glacial pace of ageism research to the fact that ageism is much more institutionalized than the other two types of prejudice (i.e., racism and sexism), and as such, individuals may not even notice that it is a form of discrimination or prejudice when it occurs (Nelson, 2016).

Despite the comparative shortage of ageism research, the pace of research has indeed accelerated recently. Increasing numbers of researchers across disciplines are adding to our understanding of ageism (Nelson, 2002; North & Fiske, 2013; Posthuma & Guerrero, 2013), and communication scholars are well-represented in this group (Harwood, 2007; Harwood & Giles, 2005; Williams & Nussbaum, 2001). Broadly speaking, scholars across disciplines have placed much of their attention on the negative components of ageism (e.g., focusing on cognitive declines and physical ailments), but there is a reasonable body of research on positive dimensions of aging such as “successful aging” (for a review of the successful aging literature, see Rowe & Kahn, 1997; and for a longitudinal analysis of this literature, see Menec, 2003). A developing body of literature focuses on the ways to combat ageism’s negative effects (e.g., the importance of older people holding positive self-perceptions of their own aging process; e.g., Levy, Slade, & Kasl, 2002; Levy, Slade, Kunkel, & Kasl, 2002). Finally, ageism research has mostly centered on older individuals, but ageist perceptions and communication can be directed at individuals of any age (Bytheway, 1995; McCann, Dailey, Giles, & Ota, 2005).

Communication and Aging Research: Historical Perspective and Overview

For the past few decades, the discipline of intergenerational communication as seen from an intergroup perspective (e.g., Harwood & Giles, 2005; Harwood, Giles, & Ryan, 1995) has rapidly evolved to encompass many different contexts. These contexts include, but are not limited to, research into physicians’ and pharmacists’ communication with older patients; verbal and nonverbal patronizing communication; third-party (e.g., family, caregivers) communication in health settings; elder abuse; intergenerational contact; gender and aging; sexual orientation and aging; the impact of adult children’s discourse with their elderly parents; cross-cultural intergenerational communication perceptions; imagined interactions (intrapersonal communication) and age; the role of filial piety and respect norms in young/old communication; the interplay of aging, communication and mental health; age stereotypes; age identity; age categories; age centrality; the legal, political, and organizational implications of communication with older individuals; grandparent–grandchild communication; consumer socialization, advertising, and brand preferences among older individuals; media effects; and media portrayals of elderly people within and across cultures (for review, see Harwood, 2007; Nussbaum & Coupland, 2004; Williams & Nussbaum, 2001).

Intergenerational communication research is now firmly embedded in the communication research landscape, while researchers from disciplines such as gerontology, linguistics, social psychology, health, business, and education are increasingly citing the work of communication scholars. One of communication’s premier academic associations (National Communication Association) has a dedicated Communication and Aging Division, while the other (International Communicating Association) has an Intergroup Communication Interest Group that often features works by gerontologically focused scholars. Several books, book series, and book chapters are in part (e.g., The Routledge Handbook of Family Communication, 2d ed., edited by Vangelisti, 2012) or in entirety (e.g., Intergenerational Communication Across the Life Span by Williams & Nussbaum, 2001) dedicated to the topic of communicating and aging, and premier journals such as Human Communication Research, Communication Monographs, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, and Communication Research regularly feature intra- and intergenerational scholarship.

Each of the research contexts noted above could stand alone firmly as an encyclopedia chapter herein, the cultural context was chosen largely due to author interest and expertise in the area (see Further Reading for influential books and articles pertaining to these domains; see also in this encyclopedia, see McCann’s chapter on aging and organizational communication; and Hummert’s article for theoretical considerations of communication and aging). In this chapter, the communication and aging literature are reviewed, including a brief overview of ageism and communication as an intergroup phenomenon. Communication, aging, and culture are examined from three perspectives: the positive view of aging in Eastern cultures perspective, the cultural similarity of aging view, and the “Western cultures are more positive in their views on aging than Eastern cultures” perspective. Reviews of the literature pertaining to interregional variability in communication and aging perceptions and the subjective health implications of aging and communication across cultures are also provided; the chapter concludes with ideas for future research.

Ageism and Communication as an Intergroup Phenomena: Theoretical Perspectives

Theoretical perspectives on ageism provide researchers with a strong foundation as they investigate ageism in a variety of contexts. These theories operate at multiple levels including individual-level and/or intergroup (terror management, e.g., Becker, 1973; social identity theory, Tajfel & Turner, 1979); interpersonal (e.g., physical appearance fosters ageism, e.g., Palmore, 2003; overgeneralization effects, e.g., Montepare & Zebrowitz, 2004); evolutionary (e.g., fit individuals are favored over ill people, Burnstein, Crandall, & Kitayama, 1994); and sociocultural (e.g., The Stereotype Content Model, e.g., Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007) (for a review of theoretical perspectives on ageism, see North & Fiske, 2013). The present chapter takes a largely intergroup view of aging and communication.

The social psychology of intergroup relations has been utilized as a framework for numerous studies of communication between members of different age groups (e.g., Harwood & Giles, 2005; Ota, McCann, & Honeycutt, 2012). In particular, social identity theory (SIT) has established that individuals favor their own ingroups over outgroups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). One core premise of SIT is that an ingroup positivity bias acts as the source of people’s psychological and communicative approaches to those in other groups, as well as the various strategies they may engage in to alter the relationship involving the groups in contact. In this sense, communication accommodation theory (CAT; Giles, 2016) expands SIT into the sphere of communication. Communication accommodation theory states that individuals adjust their communication behaviors (whether verbal or nonverbal) in a manner that reflects their desire to belong to, or differentiate themselves from, various groups (Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991) and enable interaction with the addressees (Coupland, Coupland, Giles, & Henwood, 1988). Inappropriate accommodation (e.g., underaccommodation, overaccommodation, reluctant accommodation) may result in negative consequences for the communicators such as lowered self-esteem and sense of coherence (Barker, Giles, & Harwood, 2004; for review, see Gasiorek, 2016).

Theoretical models of communication and aging (e.g., Hummert, 1994; Hummert, Garstka, Shaner, & Strahm, 1994) posit that physical cues activate social stereotypes in intergenerational interactions that, in turn, trigger certain types of communicative behavior (e.g., patronizing speech, accommodative speech) from the younger to the older person consistent with age stereotypes. Evidence has emerged of both positive and negative substereotypes associated with elderly people in research using trait sorting tasks and experimental manipulations (Hummert et al., 1994). Various responses by elderly individuals to such patronization include refusing requests and shouting back (Williams, Herman, Gajewski, & Wilson, 2009). Distancing is another common form of ageist behavior, and it includes both physical distancing (e.g., avoiding places where older people congregate) and psychological distancing (e.g., emphasizing trait differences between younger and older people; see Greenberg, Schimel, & Mertens, 2004). Age identity may act as a “pre-interactional” tendency whereby a strong sense of age identification with a particular group (e.g., young adults) influences communication with age outgroup members (e.g., older people). From an intergroup communication perspective, age identification provides a sense of self-esteem to younger adults and stereotypically cues communication toward older adults during age outgroup interaction (McCann, Kellermann, Giles, Gallois, & Viladot, 2004).

The subjective health implications of aging and communication represents another context of the literature into communication, aging, and culture. Research in this area is guided in part by the communication predicament model of aging (CPA; Ryan, Giles, Bartolucci, & Henwood, 1986; see also Barker et al., 2004; Giles, Khajavy, & Choi, 2012), which provides a convincing model for understanding the links between communication, subjective well-being, and physical health. Research has demonstrated that the kinds of messages older people receive from their younger counterparts (as well as from their peers) can have positive and negative implications for mental health (Keaton, McCann, & Giles, 2017; Ota, Giles, & Somera, 2007). For example, more accommodating talk from young people (both strangers and family members) can have positive benefits on an older individual’s psychological well-being, while nonaccommodation from same-age older adults can have negative consequences for an older adult’s sense of collective self-esteem (Noels, Giles, Cai, & Turay, 1999).

It is important to recognize that a substantial body of scholarship (not to mention accounts of aging in the lay press) speaks to the idea that age is decidedly subjective and relative. Several studies support this subjective (and fluid) view on age identification and categorization (e.g., Giles, Hajek, Stoitsova, & Choi, 2010), and in particular, the idea that older people do not necessarily think of themselves as old (e.g., Montepare & Lachman, 1989). For example, one 65-year-old woman may identify herself as middle-aged while another 65-year-old woman may self-identify as old or elderly. Media commentaries that “60 is the new 40” or “70 is new 50” are reflective of the changing and fluid nature and notions of the aging process. People, then, feel old at different ages, a dynamic that is fueled by an ever-changing interplay between what is happening during an individual’s own life path and what society defines as old. While most intergenerational communication research utilizes fixed age group categories, people in dissimilar cultures can define age group ranges quite differently (Giles et al., 2000; Ota et al., 2012). Asians have also been found to have greater sensitivity to age differences than North Americans and Europeans (Chow, 1999; Lim & Giles, 2007).

Ingroup Positivity Bias

Roughly 20 years of intra- and inter-generational communication research has found that people of different adult generations, regardless of culture, typically regard others and act in ways that are biased in favor of one’s own age group (e.g., for review, see Giles, McCann, Ota, & Noels, 2002; Ota et al., 2012). Lending strong support for the basic tenets of CAT and SIT, research finds that young, middle aged and older people view others and communicate in a manner that favors one’s own age group along multiple dimensions. This bias is most pronounced when communication takes place in nonintimate relationships. For instance, when comparing their communication with other younger (i.e., aged 17–29 years) and older (i.e., those aged 65 years and above) adults, younger adults in several cultures find their intragenerational (i.e., same age group) talk to be smoother and less effortful (Giles et al., 2003), more satisfying (Williams & Giles, 1996), and emotionally more positive (Cai, Giles, & Noels, 1998) than their intergenerational conversations (i.e., talk with older adults).

In this sense, an ingroup positivity bias serves as the basis for younger adults’ age-graded communication practice often referred to as a “staircase pattern.” This staircase pattern, which shows how communication linearly becomes more difficult as the target of communication “ages,” is robust. The staircase pattern has been found to hold in multiple studies and for many variables even when middle-aged adults are added as a third target group of evaluation (e.g., Giles, Dailey, Sarkar & Makoni, 2007; Giles et al., 2012). In general, young participants feel the least respect obligation and avoidance in their communication with other (same age) younger adults, followed by middle-aged and older adults, in that order.

Global Responses to Communication and Aging

The aging boom is felt—and is being responded to—differentially throughout the world. As countries around the globe deal with their own unique challenges created by shifts in age demographics, there have been some unique reactions to the growing-older populace. For example, in 2013, the Chinese government made worldwide headlines as it enacted a law whereby adult children would be mandated to regularly visit their elderly parents or risk being sued. If the children chose not to visit, parents had the right to sue them. While later news reports revealed that very few elders sued successfully under this legislation, China is certainly not alone in mandating filial responsibility. Canada, Singapore, and more than 29 states in the United States have legislation to ensure children provide financial support for their elderly parents in need (Bloomberg News, 2013).

On the other hand, examples that illustrate positive responses to the aging boom are also abundant. For example, intergenerational mixed-use housing models (e.g., in Portland, Oregon, and in the Netherlands), rent-free rooms for students offered by nursing homes (e.g., in Cleveland, Ohio, and in the Netherlands), dementia villages (e.g., in the Netherlands and Italy), and intergenerational daycare centers in Arizona all represent unique answers to the growing aging population across the globe.

As policy makers, educators, business leaders, and key influencers around the world discuss and implement policy and regulation in areas such as pensions, age discrimination, elder care, retirement age, and health care, pressing societal forces such as these will create new opportunities for the investigation of intergenerational interaction and communication across cultures. Equally provoking for researchers, however, are the unique cultural modes and social perspectives of communication and aging that will be highlighted by the global changes, flows, and exchanges of people, products, technology, ideas, ways of thought, and information. The remainder of this chapter provides a synthesis of intergenerational communication research from a cultural point of view, particularly from the perspective of intergroup communication.

Prior to the last 15 to 20 years, intergenerational communication scholarship was almost exclusively conducted with young adult research participants who hailed from Anglo-European backgrounds. Moreover, most of the research was done in so-called individualistic cultures (Triandis, 1995) such as the United States, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. With this milieu in mind, a group of scholars (whose research will be highlighted in the pages that follow) embarked on a path of inquiry which challenged many of the long-held assumptions about aging and communication in different parts of the world. These researchers sought to discover whether the conclusions about aging drawn in Western societies may hold true elsewhere (e.g., in Asia or Eastern Europe), and along the way, reduce some of the existing Western bias that characterized much of this line of research (for review, see McCann, Giles, & Ota, 2017). An additional goal (albeit only implicitly stated in much of the scholarship) was to explore whether cross-cultural contrasts may direct us to cultures where young–old interactions were more positive and, thus, provide fodder for solutions to problematic interaction among the generations.

The communication, aging, and culture literature discussed herein can be divided into three core segments: (a) the positive view of aging in Eastern cultures literature; (b) the cultural similarity of aging literature; and (c) the counterintuitive “Western cultures are more positive in their views on aging than Eastern cultures” literature. These three categories follow, with some variation, research by North and Fiske (2015), who (in their meta-analysis) organize the research literature on cultural attitudes toward aging in a similar fashion. While they focus more broadly on cross-cultural similarities and differences in attitudes of older people, the communication, aging, and culture literature places particular emphasis on areas such as (a) intra- and inter-generational communication perceptions; (b) the role of family, communication and culture; (c) communication, age, and respect norms such as filial piety across cultures; (d) age stereotypes, communication and culture; (e) age and communication in the workplace across cultures; and (f) the subjective health implications of aging and communication across cultures, to name some (for review, see McCann et al., 2017).

The Positive View of Aging in Eastern Cultures Literature

Attitudes about Aging

The positive view of aging in Eastern (as opposed to Western) cultures argument begins with the premise that cultures differ in the manner in which aging is viewed. In this sense, culture can be regarded as a core context of communication. Culture translates into an individual’s cognition and affect which, in turn, may influence his or her patterns of communication. The sociological, religious, and philosophical teachings, doctrines, and traditions of nations (e.g., Confucianism, individualism) may therefore form some basis for the emergence of cultural variance in communication among the generations.

Inspired by the idea that intergenerational interaction in Asian societies is influenced by the Confucian values of filial piety, proponents of this line of thought argue that Asia is, in some sense, an intergenerational Shangri-La where elders are revered and interaction (including communication) between the generations is positive and smooth (e.g., Ho, 1994; see Sung, 2001 for review). In contrast, the mainstream (traditional) aging literature in North American settings, as well as early empirical research into Western cultural attitudes toward elders, has traditionally portrayed elders as viewed negatively (e.g., Kite & Johnson, 1988). Old age in (individualistic) Western societies has been regarded—by both younger and older adults—as a period of loneliness, fading health, and sexual inadequacy (Pratt & Norris, 1994; Ryan, 1992).

Filial Piety and Respect

Filial piety—the norm to look after and respect older family members as well as elderly people in general—has long been associated with East Asian cultures (e.g., Chow, 2001; Sung, 2001). Although a cornerstone of Confucian heritage societies, filial piety as a concept is known by different labels, and has been linked to various religions and philosophies aside from Confucianism (e.g., Buddhism, Taoism). It is also shared as a moral norm in a number of cultures, primarily across the East Asian Pacific Rim (e.g., China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). The closely related concept of “familism” (familismo) can be found in Central and South America; it is paramount to our understanding of intergenerational interaction in many Latin cultures (e.g., Kao & Travis, 2005). Even though adherence to filial commitments among younger generations has been eroding in many communities (Ikels, 2004; Ingersoll-Dayton & Saengtienchai, 1999), it remains as a key component in intergenerational interaction, as well as the research literature that seeks to explain this interaction. According to the filial piety perspective, older adults are respected (e.g., due to their wisdom accumulated over the years, their age, the roles they play in their family, etc.) and offer various resources to people in the younger generations, while young people, in return, provide care and support to their elders. From the filial view of intergenerational interaction, then, one may predict that older people in Asian cultures would be viewed in a more positive light, and that the intergenerational communication climate would be one of young to old accommodation.

As we consider the positive view of aging in Eastern cultures’ literature as a whole, one can conclude that (a) findings lend, at best, a “modest” and indirect degree of support to the idea that elders are respected in Asia; (b) most, though certainly not all, of the research that paints this positive picture is relatively dated; and (c) more research is needed by investigators from within Asia who may be best suited to untangle some of the subtle nuances of positive aging in Eastern cultures (and on a culture-specific level). Beginning with evidence to support the overall “positive view of aging in the East” premise, Chinese students in one study report comparatively more positive attitudes about elderly people than do American students (Tan, Zhang, & Fan, 2004). Indirect evidence further supports the argument that elders may be valued in Eastern (and also in some South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin) settings. For example, in many South Asian cultures (e.g., India) elder reverence may be manifested via the concept of the joint family system (Singh, Adams, & Trost, 2005). Service to elders is also stressed throughout the Muslim world (e.g., Sung & Kim, 2009). Intergenerational living arrangements (i.e., coresidence) are higher in Japan than in the United States (Levy, Ashman, & Slade, 2009), and in China (as of 2009 data), the majority of older adults in China still live with their children; currently, an 80-year-old resident of mainland China will spend two thirds of his or her remaining lifespan in coresidence with adult children and their offspring (Gu, Vlosky, & Zeng, 2009).

In a multicountry study on filial norms in four Asian (Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and the Philippines) and four Western (Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada) cultures (Gallois et al., 1999), results demonstrated that East Asian students claimed they would respect and look after older people (especially their parents) in terms of tangible instrumental support (e.g., financial assistance, living arrangements). Remittance flows, as one tangible element of filial assistance, have increased considerably in the last few decades. According to estimates from the World Bank’s “Migration and Development Brief,” remittances reached 436 billion dollars in 2014 (World Bank, 2015). The sheer volume of global remittances has made it the subject of several studies on closely related issues such as poverty and economic growth (e.g., Di Marco, Marzovilla, & Nieddu, 2015). When we contemplate the vast numbers of migrant workers from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere who financially support older family members from abroad, there is no denying that filial piety is alive and well in the form of monetary support. From the above, we can see that financial support remains as a central component of filial norms in Asia and many other parts of the world. However, the question arises whether social forms of support (including communication) are equally strong in Eastern quarters. Research suggests that they may not be (however, for a review of the topic of successful aging in Asia, see Cheng, Chi, Fung, Li, & Woo, 2015).

In summary, a fair degree of indirect evidence demonstrates reverence for elders in Eastern cultures, as well as in many other cultures around the world. Still, future research is needed to prove whether this indirect evidence translates into quantifiably more positive views about elders. Furthermore, a body of research is beginning to strongly suggest an extremely divergent view of aging perceptions in the East (see North & Fiske, 2015).

The Cultural Similarity of Aging Literature

Attitudes and Stereotypes about Aging

A modernization and cultural convergence argument is typically invoked to support the premise that adults across cultures hold similar attitudes toward aging, with modernization explicitly cited as a core driver of similarity in attitudes toward aging in multiple studies (e.g., Butler, 2009; Cuddy & Fiske, 2002; McCann & Giles, 2006; North & Fiske, 2013). Rationales including automation, reliance on new technology, the advent of the printing press, and a devaluation of the role of generational storytelling are all used to support the premise that cultures are becoming increasingly similar in their devaluation of the role of elders (see North & Fiske, 2015).

The erosion of filial piety is often used as indirect evidence to support the similarity premise. Rising levels of elder abandonment, elder abuse, and even elder suicides in places such as Asia also lend indirect support to the idea that cultures worldwide are starting to look more similar in how they treat the older members of their society. Notably, many of these factors are also invoked to support the “filial erosion in the East” premise. For example, research reports that suicide rates among those aged 75 or older in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and China are four to eight times higher than among those aged 15 to 24 years (Ruzicka, 1998), while the suicide rate in Japan among elderly people is the second highest in the world. Family conflict is reported as a fundamental cause of these suicides. In a 2008 article on suicide in Japan, the author notes that “as the traditional family structure has changed, some elderly people are worried that there will be no family members to care for them in their old age” (BBC News, 2008).

In North and South America, elder abuse prevalence ranged from roughly 10% among cognitively intact older adults to 47% in older adults with dementia, while in Europe, the prevalence ranged from 2% in Ireland to 61% in Croatia. In Asia, the highest prevalence of elder abuse was found among older adults in China (36%), and in Africa, the prevalence was from 30% to 44% of elders (Dong, 2015) (for a cross-cultural overview of elder abuse, see Kosberg & Garcia, 2013).

Patterns of elder abuse across cultures are also underscored by worldwide epidemiological data, though there are problems in obtaining exact elder abuse prevalence rates. First, definitional issues vary with regard to what constitutes elder abuse: does the definition focus on acts of physical, verbal, psychological, sexual, and/or financial abuse? Also, the abuse type may be passive or active, and variation in elder abuse reporting patterns has been noted across cultures (Bennett & Kingston, 2013). Methodological issues such as sampling and recruiting participants are also complicated because elder abuse is a private and sensitive topic matter.

Further supporting the idea that at least some aspects of aging may be similarly perceived across cultures, additional results from the Harwood et al. (1996) study detailed earlier found that there were no differences in young adults’ stereotypes about young, middle-aged, and elderly people in Canada, South Korea, Philippines, the United States, and New Zealand. In a sample of more than 1,000 students, across most cultures ratings of traits such as activity and strength declined with increasing age, whereas ratings of wisdom and generosity increased comparably (see above for Hong Kong findings; Harwood et al., 1996). Moreover, and lending partial support to the similarity premise, results from a 26-country study comparing perceptions of aging on six continents found “widespread cross-cultural consensus regarding the direction of aging trajectories in different characteristics (e.g., consistent increases in wisdom versus consistent decreases in the ability to perform everyday tasks). This suggests that basic patterns of aging perceptions are shared across many cultures” (Löckenhoff et al., 2009, p. 12). The authors are careful to note, however, that there was considerable variance in aging perceptions across the 26 cultures investigated. Several other studies fail to find any significant cultural differences regarding views of aging across East/West lines (e.g., Chappell, 2003; Ryan, Jin, Anas, & Luh, 2004).

Similarity in Communication and Aging in Organizational Settings

Further lending support to the similarity premise, but in the organizational sphere, McCann and Giles (2006) tested hypotheses about intra- and intergenerational communication perceptions among non-managerial level bankers in Thailand and the United States. While cross-cultural findings emerged to the extent that Thai bankers perceived others, in general, as less accommodating (e.g., supportive, helpful) and more nonaccommodating than did their American counterparts, there was also a paucity of age by nation interactions. In explaining their findings, the authors note that the effects of cultural convergence may be particularly salient in industries such as banking where international transactions, foreign customers, foreign consultants, and direct capital investments may hasten the blurring of certain cultural boundaries (e.g., certain ages). There were also no age by nation interactions in a study by McCann and Giles (2007) which tested hypotheses regarding intra- and intergenerational communication perceptions among Thai and American university students. In this study, as was the case in the McCann and Giles (2006) research, participants were specifically rating their perceptions of older workers (versus older people in general), which may have influenced the results.

In summary, a body of indirect evidence suggests that modernization and cultural convergence may lead to some degree of convergence in attitudes towards older people. This similarity, at least in the domain of communication, may be especially felt in the workplace where the blurring of certain cultural boundaries may be hastened (see McCann, 2016; McCann & Giles, 2002; McCann & Keaton, 2013). More research is needed in the area to validate such assertions.

The Counterintuitive “Western Cultures Are More Positive in Their Views on Aging than Eastern Cultures” Literature

Attitudes and Stereotypes about Aging

The idea that Western cultures are more positive in their views on aging is a relatively new concept, and research supporting this premise is fairly robust. One promising explanation for the differentially positive attitudes about older people in Western nations is the “speed of aging” explanation posited (and supported in their 23-country meta-analysis) by North and Fiske (2015). Speed of aging refers to the rate of each country’s recent surge in the population aged over 65. According to the authors, as measured by two indices of aging speed (absolute growth in the number of seniors; growth in seniors relative to the total population), Eastern cultures hold the highest speed of aging rates over the past three decades (see Bloomberg Data, 2012; United Nations Population Division, 2012). Among the Asian cultures with pronounced speed of aging in absolute terms, Singapore was first, followed by South Korea, Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong as the second through fifth fastest aging cultures studied. In relative terms, the top five (in order) are South Korea, followed by Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. According to North and Fiske (2015), these Eastern cultures face the greatest strains and challenges of an aging population, which could potentially impact attitudes regarding older people. Indeed, the use of three distinct reference points (i.e., aging spike to the present from 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years prior to data collection, respectively) predicted relative negativity in attitudes toward older adults, thus supporting the aging strain argument (North & Fiske, 2015). While the body of literature reported below only occasionally invokes population aging explanations for positive attitudes in the West, the literature does point to marked East–West differences in attitudes towards older people.

On various dimensions of age stereotypes, several studies with largely consistent findings have emerged whereby Western respondents are found to espouse generally more favorable images of older people than their Eastern counterparts (with a few exceptions such as the Philippines). For instance, research examining Australian versus Japanese students’ older age stereotypes found that young adult Australians had more positive images about their elders than did young adult Japanese (Ota et al., 2002). Similar findings were reported for young adult American-Japanese and American-Thai comparisons, respectively (Arnhoff, Leon, & Lorge, 1964; Sharp, Price-Sharps, & Hanson, 1998). Examining the flip side of the intergenerational coin, Harwood et al. (2001) assessed the traits that older adults associated with younger, middle-aged, and same-aged older adults in five Pacific Rim nations from Western and Eastern cultural traditions (Australia, People’s Republic of China [PRC], Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand). Findings from this study revealed that older respondents from the PRC and Hong Kong were notably more negative about increasing age than other respondents; for them, wisdom and generosity declined with age.

Filial Piety

Similar East–West patterns have been reported in the filial-piety research literature. While traditional views on aging in Asia led to early hypotheses that the intergenerational communication climate in Asia would be one of young to old accommodation, research now strongly suggests that filial behaviors are different, and quite possibly more problematic, in many Asian countries (the Philippines acting as a notable exception). For example, young adult Asian participants in the Gallois et al. (1999) study described earlier were especially concerned that they would not be able to meet their elders’ expectations of socioemotional support (e.g., communication) and contact. The Eastern respondents felt a sense of intergenerational pressure, and responded largely negatively to the more social (e.g., communication) elements of filial support. In contrast, young adult participants from the four Western cultures in this study felt less social pressure from older people. There was a greater openness among the young Western respondents indicating more filial commitment to socially supporting, communicating with, and listening to their elders.

It is reasonable to conclude that classical filial norms in Asia may find themselves being replaced by other social values that differ from Confucian scholarly ideals. For example, young Hong Kong adults report that elders are still treasured for household contributions (e.g., assisting with household duties, taking care of grandchildren), and for the roles that they play in ceremonial decisions such as choosing wedding dates (Chow, 1999). However, these same elders are no longer regarded as the head of the household and are not entrusted to make financial decisions as they had once done. Japan is not an exception to this trend (Tsutsui, Muramatsu, & Higashino, 2013). Whether due to modernization or other factors, filial behaviors are changing in much of Asia. Japan is an especially interesting case in this regard. According to several researchers writing on Japan, the erosion of filial piety may even be traced back to the end of World War II, when primogeniture (the right of an eldest son to succeed to the estate of his ancestor to the exclusion of all others) was abolished and a new family system based on equal inheritance was established (e.g., Yamamoto & Wallhagen, 1997). Other scholars comment that elderly Japanese may not be welcomed either by society or by the family, and that the notion of sekentai is rising. Sekentai refers to social pressure, in this case when aging parents move into their children’s home and are seen as an “unwelcome burden by family members” (for review, see Asai & Kameoka, 2005).

Intra- and Intergenerational Communication Perceptions’ and Culture Research

In the genesis of intra- and intergenerational communication perceptions’ and culture research, most literature reviews begin with the work of Williams et al. (1997), who investigated young people’s perceptions of their communicative interactions with older people who were not family members in four Western countries (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and in five East Asian countries (The Philippines, Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China [PRC], South Korea, and Japan). Their overall, and unexpected, finding was that the intergenerational communication climate in Eastern settings was more problematic than in Western cultures.

More specifically, Williams et al. (1997) found that (a) interactions with older people were viewed as largely dissatisfying; (b) older adults were viewed as less accommodating; (c) age “mattered more” in Eastern cultures than it did in Western cultures; and (d) perceptions of intergenerational communication experiences were generally less favorable in the East than in the West. As noted earlier, there was some variability among the Eastern cultures, particularly in the predominantly Catholic, Southeast Asian nation of The Philippines, where young adult participants reported positive intergenerational communication perceptions similar to those found in Western nations (see Ota et al., 2007). The young Korean adults in the study were the most negative in their views of older adults, reporting a particularly high level of nonaccommodation from older adults (as well as respect obligation to older adults) compared with the other Asian respondents.

In three follow-up studies with young adult respondents, scholars contrasted the views of (a) Euro-Americans versus Taiwanese; (b) Anglo-Australians versus Hong Kongers; and (c) Euro-Americans versus Japanese (Giles et al., 2002, 2003; Noels, Giles, Gallois, & Ng, 2001). In these three cases, respondents were also asked to evaluate their conversations with their same-aged peers. In each of the studies, the same intercultural pattern emerged. That is, the young adult Eastern participants reported less favorable intergenerational experiences of communication despite the fact that they felt more obligation to be respectful to older than younger people. Although there was some degree of empirical variation across the three studies, young adults perceived their elderly counterparts to be more nonaccommodating than their same-aged peers. Younger adults also tended to avoid intergenerational interaction—a tendency that was accentuated by Eastern respondents. In the third of these three cross cultural studies (Giles et al., 2003), this pattern held true even when family elders were also included into the evaluative frame. Whereas the communication with these elderly family members was more positively construed than for nonfamily “targets” (but less so, again, by Eastern than Western respondents), they were still seen as more nonaccommodating compared to interactions with their same age peers. Young adult Westerners (i.e., Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders) reported more positive conversational experiences with family elders than did young adult Koreans, Filipinos, and Japanese.

Elderly Perceptions of Intra- and Intergenerational Communication

Although not as extensive as the body of intergenerational communication literature research which queries younger adults, there is also research into elderly people’s (e.g., aged 70–80 years) perceptions of their age ingroup and age outgroup intergenerational communication experiences (Cai et al., 1998; Keaton et al., 2017; Noels et al., 1999; Ota et al., 2007). Several absorbing findings came from these studies with elderly respondents. To begin, elderly people also report negative intergenerational experiences, regardless of their cultural origins. For these elderly adults, the communication gap is reciprocally felt to the extent that both age groups perceived their own age (elderly) peers as more accommodating to them than the younger age group. However, a number of the elderly respondents reported communication problems with people of their same age (elderly) group. Specifically, they viewed elders as more nonaccommodating (e.g., did not listen to what I had to say; talked as if they knew more than me) than young people. Once again, this tendency was especially acute among Hong Kong, PRC, and Japanese informants in the different studies, again suggesting rather negative views of aging and communication in Eastern settings. In the last of these studies that queried old-age respondents (Keaton et al., 2017), discriminant loadings showed that life satisfaction was the most important variable in distinguishing between the prototypical older Thai and American respondent. The overall profile portrayed the typical Thai older adult participants as perceiving members of their own age ingroup (fellow elders) as communicatively avoidant and overaccommodating, while also experiencing lower collective self-esteem and life satisfaction. In contrast, the typical older Americans tended to be associated with higher collective self-esteem and life satisfaction.

In summary, a wide body of evidence, both communication and otherwise, lends credence to the notion that Western cultures may be more positive in their views on aging than Eastern cultures. Although this is a relatively new research finding, it is supported by the comprehensive meta-analysis conducted by North and Fiske (2015) (see, however, some caveats noted throughout, and Williams & Coupland’s [1998] caution about oversubscribing to a negative view of aging). According to the North & Fiske, rapid demographic changes in population aging across regions represent one key reason for why attitudes are comparatively more negative in Asia.

Interregional Variability in Communication and Aging Perceptions

Substantial aging research has been conducted throughout Southeast Asia with the goal of avoiding the broad-brush East–West cultural level comparisons that characterized some of the early aging and communication scholarship. As Ota et al. (2012) state (in their Japan/Thailand comparison study), “We firmly reject the idea of examining Thailand and Japan as mere contrasts to Western cultures.” (p. 174) (see also Miike, 2003). Ota et al. (2012) then go on to argue that interregional research (in this case, within Asia) can ultimately better “deconstruct Asia” not only by showing the unique faces of Asia but also by highlighting between-country similarities. A similar argument could be made for regionally based research in all parts of the world.

Findings of inter-Asian variability in communication were reported in several studies, particularly in Southeast Asia where views on aging derive from different social and religio-philosophical traditions than in North Asia (e.g., Theravada Buddhism in Thailand). For instance, McCann, Ota, Giles, and Caraker (2003) examined intra- and intergenerational communication perceptions in Japan, Thailand, and the United States. When comparing views of their own communication behaviors with that of other same-age young adults, clear patterns of inter-Asian variability in responses emerged. For example, young Thai adults reported the highest levels of both respect and/or obligation and avoidance in their communication. The Thais were also especially respectful of same-aged peers, as well as more avoidant in their communication of both same-aged young and older Thai adults. This was not the case for the Japanese. Similar results were later reported in other studies with Thai participants (McCann & Giles, 2006, 2007). In explaining their findings, the authors point to the Thai cultural precept of kreng jai (deference and respect) that is often utilized not only to those of superior status (e.g., due to age, rank) but also to those of equal or inferior status.

Also within Southeast Asia, significant in-country (South Vietnam/North Vietnam) differences were found in work examining communication perceptions among young adults in Vietnam (McCann, Cargile, Giles, & Cuong, 2004). When reflecting on their own communication behaviors, young American and North Vietnamese adults felt comparatively less need to be respectful in their conversations to other people, in general, than did the South Vietnamese young adults. McCann et al. (2004) speculate that these findings may derive, in some part, from confusion that young people in the North may feel over traditional ideals (e.g., veneration of older people) clashing with the realities of the “new Vietnam” that they presently face.

In the North & Fiske’s (2015) meta-analysis of attitudes regarding older adults, intraregional subgroup analyses found geographical location to be a significant moderator of elder attitudes in myriad ways. For example, within the Western cultures studied, European and non-Anglophone countries tended to be more negative than non-European and Anglophone Western regions. Additionally, when investigating individual countries within Western regions, some European countries appeared even more negative than Eastern countries, which again suggests the need for care with broad brush East–West cultural level comparisons.

The Subjective Health Implications of Aging and Communication Across Cultures

The communication predicament model of aging (CPA) model (Ryan et al., 1986) argues that younger adults’ communication can seem overly accommodative to older adults and lead to communicative “predicaments” for them. These predicaments, which can also occur between same age older individuals, can constrain communicative choices of acting independently and lower older adult subjective well-being and even physical health. The loss of psychological and physical health may affect how people, especially older adults, communicate to, and are communicated by, other people. A negative, downward spiral of communication may continue unless effective intervention measures are used to terminate the process.

Intergenerational communication cannot, of course, be examined without due attention to the cultural constraints under which it occurs. For example, in a study examining elderly samples in Thailand and the United States, more accommodation by same-aged elders led to greater personal self-esteem, greater group esteem, and greater life satisfaction, while more nonaccommodation by age outgroup younger others led to less life satisfaction for the Thais and Americans (Keaton et al., 2017). Communication is indeed tied to a person’s well-being, how one perceives aging, and to some degree perhaps even ones’ life expectancy. For example, in work by Levy et al. (2002), older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.

The predictors (for young adults) of satisfaction when talking with older adults have been investigated originally in the United States (McCann et al., 2005), and subsequently across cultures in South Africa and Ghana (Giles, Makoni, & Dailey, 2005), India (Giles at al., 2007), Bulgaria (Giles et al., 2010), Japan and Thailand (Ota et al., 2012), Iran (Giles et al., 2012), and Mongolia (Choi, Khajavy, Giles, & Hajek, 2013). Whereas for young adults, communicative avoidance has been a strong predictor of intergenerational dissatisfaction and communicative respect, correspondingly, for satisfaction, across almost all cultural contexts studied to date, other predictors varied uniquely by country. Although the origins of this variation remain interpretively up for debate, these results suggest that culture is an enormously broad and contested concept, and can be a viewed as a critical component as to what constitutes intergenerational satisfaction.

Research guided by the CPA has led some researchers to suggest that the CPA model fares better in Western than Eastern countries. For example, when referring to findings from their own and prior studies, Noels et al. (1999) stated that “these findings suggest that the CPA model may be culturally specific to the North American context, and future research may well attempt to delineate the cultural contexts in which this model applies” (p. 132). Other research questions this argument (e.g., Filipino data provided the best fit for the CPA in work by Ota et al., 2007), a sentiment that is echoed by Keaton et al. (2017). Whatever the case, additional research is required in the area of health communication, aging, and culture from an intergroup perspective.

Conclusion and Future Directions for Research

One of the original objectives found in much of the early intergenerational scholarship was to explore whether cross-cultural contrasts may direct us to cultures (e.g., in Asia) where young–old interactions were more positive and, hence, provide ideas for solutions to some of the problematic interaction among the generations that we see today. Approximately two decades later, the tenor of aging and communication research has shifted radically, and now suggests that elder denigration may even be more pronounced in Eastern than Western cultures. Accelerated population aging and rapid industrialization, coupled with the erosion of cultural traditions such as filial piety, may partially account for these results.

Considerable cultural variation characterized the findings from many of the studies examined herein, which again underscores the need for culture specific research, as well as regionally based research. While the East–West distinction was an appropriate starting point for research into the cultural study of aging, there is no question that more focus needs to be placed on countries in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere. As researchers pursue new and understudied cultural quarters, they can further investigate how various dimensions of social change, including globalization, are reflected in age stereotypes, respect norms, and perceptions of age groups, and in turn, communication. For research conducted in Asia, Western Europe, and the United States, scholars may also wish to turn to other types of methodologies (e.g., contextual, interpersonal, and evolutionary models), as well as longitudinal studies, to enhance the credibility of past findings. For example, research conducted in various contexts (e.g., school, work setting, family) would help us gain an increased and more balanced understanding of intra- and intergenerational communication practices.

One counterintuitive finding from the North and Fiske (2015) meta-analysis was that cultural individualism, and not cultural collectivism, predicted positive evaluations of older people. This finding strongly contradicts lay assumptions that collectivism predicts respect for elders, and necessitates the need for future research into individual level and culture level individualism as predictors of contemporary attitudes toward older adults.

Lastly, research in recent years has moved to untangle the concept of respect. The literature on respect norms strongly suggests that respect plays a critical role in interpersonal (Browne, 1997) and intra- and intergroup (Janoff-Bulman & Werther, 2008; Laham, Tam, Lalljee, Hewstone, & Voci, 2010) interaction. As mentioned earlier, respect is also a salient factor in intergenerational communication in part due to its central place in the concept of filial piety (Barker et al., 2004; Mehta, 1997). Ota et al. (2012) place special emphasis on politeness and deference norms claiming that “the politeness norm refers to the social norms of being polite and holding respectful attitudes to others, while the deference norm represents social expectations for being modest and non-assertive in one’s communication.” (p. 174). Results from this study illustrate the complexity associated with the meaning of respect toward older adults in the modern world. Respect is a multifarious, multidimensional construct that still has ample room to explore. Future gerontologically focused research that examines the nuances and contexts of respect in different cultural quarters is greatly needed.

Further Reading

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