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4.1: Communication in Practice

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    Eden Jacobowitz is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. His studies were interrupted by a noisy crowd of students, many black and female. He yelled out his window, "Shut up, you water buffalo." He is now charged with racial harassment under the university's Code of Conduct. The school offered to dismiss the charge if he would apologize, attend a racial sensitivity seminar, agree to dormitory probation, and accept a temporary mark on his record which would brand him as guilty. He was told the term "water buffalo" could be interpreted as racist because a water buffalo is a dark primitive animal that lives in Africa. That is questionable semantics, dubious zoology, and incorrect geography. Water buffalo live in Asia, not in Africa. This from the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Jacobowitz is fighting back. The rest of us, however, are still in trouble. The language police are at work on the campuses of our better schools. The word cops are marching under the banner of political correctness. The culture of victimization is hunting for quarry. American English is in danger of losing its muscle and energy. That's what these bozos are doing to us. (Kors & Silverglate, 1999).

    This is a commentary by US news anchor John Chancellor on NBC news. A number of North American universities have explicit "speech codes" which seek to regulate what is perceived as harmful or hateful speech. These policies have been controversial, both in terms of the restrictions they place on individual freedom of speech and in how infractions are dealt with. Eden Jacobowitz defended his use of the term "water buffalo" as not intended to be a racial slur, but coming from Hebrew slang, behema (behemoth), used by Jews to refer to a loud, rowdy person. The charges against Jacobowitz were eventually dropped. The incident highlights the volatility of verbal exchanges and the opportunities for miscommunication and conflict, particularly between individuals from different ethnic or racial groups. In this unit we will be looking at language in the context of interpersonal and intergroup use. That will include gender-related communication patterns, as well as cultural and linguistic issues as they relate to friendships and romantic relationships. Conversational exchanges will be discussed from the larger linguistic context of speech communities and communication styles.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Free speech: Speaker in Hyde Park, London

    Language and Eelationships

    Human beings are social animals. We live in community with others and tend to see ourselves through the relationships we have. These relationships vary significantly in terms of importance, permanence, and roles. We have long-lasting relationships with family members and brief encounters with strangers; in between are friends, schoolmates, work colleagues, romantic partners, Facebook "friends", Twitter followers, and a host of other possible relationships. Cultures differ in how such relationships are established and how significant a role they play in an individual's life. Courtship practices and mate selection, for example, can be quite different. In the US, men and women "go on dates" and it's likely that many Americans assume this is a universal human concept. But in reality this practice – and the whole idea of "dating" as practiced in the US – may be foreign, even to close cultural neighbors, such as Western Europeans.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Courtship practices in Western Cultures

    Michael Agar reports on his experience in this regard. There is a set ritual around "dating" in the US, which is different from how Western European Europeans establish male-female relationships, where mixed gender group outings are preferred over one-on-one visits to a restaurant, movie, or club. In other cultures, dating might be seen as an even more foreign concept, in countries where arranged marriages are the norm, for example. The term is tied so closely to specific cultural patterns in the US context that finding a precise equivalent in languages other than American English is a challenge.

    But what is a date?

    Recently an Austrian friend of mine came to Washington to teach and study at Georgetown University. She could tack through English grammar with the best of them and had a better vocabulary than most of the native-born undergraduates in my lecture class. After a couple of months I met her for dinner and asked her how everything was going. "Fine," she said, and then, after a moment’s hesitation, "But what is a ‘date’?" She knew how to use the word in a sentence – "I'm going on a date"; "How about a date?" She wasn’t confused because the word also means a number on a calendar or a sweet piece of fruit. But none of that explained what a "date" was. I started to answer, and the more I talked the more lost I became in how Americans see men and women, how they see relationships, intimacy - a host of connected assumptions that I’d never put into words before. And I was only trying to handle straight dates. It was quite different from her Austrian understanding of men and women and what they are to each other. For a while she looked at me as if I’d just stepped out of a flying saucer, until she finally decided I was serious.

    Agar, 1994, p. 16

    The kind of language we use in communicating can vary as much as the nature of our relationship. We speak quite differently with family members, than we do with work colleagues. The informal language used in text messaging is far removed from the formal register (language level/tone) we might use in writing a letter applying for a job. Sociolinguists study how we use language to accomplish tasks and to negotiate relationships. The kind of language used in making requests or expressing gratitude – what linguists call speech acts – can reveal quite a lot about the nature of our relationships. Using conditional forms (i.e., "Could you please…") softens a request in a context where politeness is called for to express respect or to maintain social harmony. This tends to vary significantly across cultures. In some Asian cultures, for example, making extensive use of "please" and "thank you" within a family environment is seen as inappropriate, in that it creates distance and expresses a sense of obligation that is counter to an informal, caring human relationship (D'Souza, 1988). The role that language plays in social settings is complex. It not only conveys information, but it also serves to build and maintain relationships. It can also divide and antagonize, as in the example of the "water buffalo" incident.

    We tend to think of communication as sending and receiving messages (Rogers & Steinfatt, 1999). Spoken messages, however, may not have the same degree of efficiency in transmission as written communications. A letter usually will have clearly understood content. In speaking, the message may not be received in the way we intend. There may be specific language issues which influence the reception of the message. These may be both on the speaker's end — talking too fast or too quietly, for example,– or on the listener's side – knowledge gaps in vocabulary or inattention, for instance. In speaking, we need to pay attention not only to the content of what we are saying, but also to how we are transmitting that content. That involves consideration of our mode of speaking, but also of the likely communicative abilities of our interlocutor. From that perspective, communicating effectively depends on our ability to establish a relationship with the other person:

    Successful ‘communication’ is not judged solely in terms of the efficiency of information exchange. It is focused on establishing and maintaining relationships. In this sense, the efficacy of communication depends upon using language to demonstrate one’s willingness to relate, which often involves the indirectness of politeness rather than the direct and ‘efficient’ choice of language full of information (Byram, 1997, p.3).

    In other words, we need to take into account how our messages are likely to be received, based on the other person's communication style and on the conversation context.

    Communication styles

    Social scientists and linguists have been studying for some time how individuals and groups interact through language, both within the same language and between languages. They have sought to discover how and why language uses vary. One of the pioneers in this area was Basil Bernstein, who found through his research that "within the same society there can be different social groups or social classes whose communicative practices differ in important ways" (Philipsen & Albrecht, 1997, p. 122). In the US, for example, there are distinct differences in speech patterns between African-Americans and European-Americans. Bernstein (1964) described two essential patterns of speech, which he labeled elaborated and restricted codes. Elaborated code refers to contexts in which virtually all information is conveyed through the words spoken. Someone overhearing the conversation and not having any information about the interlocutor or the context would nevertheless be able to have a good understanding of the communication taking place. Restricted code, on the other hand, refers to conversations, if overheard, would not be understood because of a lack of background information and context.

    These different modes of communication are often placed in relation to the distinction originally made by Edward Hall (1976) between low-context and high-context communications. In low-context messages, little (or "low") context is needed for comprehension because the essence of the communication is conveyed by the words used. That might at first blush seem to cover all human conversations. But in fact, there are interactions in which much of the message is conveyed by gestures (like bowing), body language (moving away from the speaker), or through the tone of voice (yelling). High-context messages refer to situations in which factors other than the actual words used may be vital to understanding. There can be conversations involving groups where silence is valued and in itself sends a message (in Native American cultures, for example) or where hierarchies dictate social behavior and interactions. While specific cultures are often identified as high or low context, it's more useful to apply such labels to individual speech in specific contexts.

    High-context messages generally align with restricted speech codes in that a lot of verbiage is unnecessary and, in fact, what is not said may be as important as what is explicitly expressed. On the other hand, elaborated code is needed in low-context situations where little information is conveyed by nonverbal means. Restricted codes are most often associated with cultures labeled collectivistic, in which the status of the interactants dictates who says what to whom and how it is said. Restricted codes are also often found in "closed" communities such as the military or prison, but can also develop within any social group or individual who share social identifications, i.e. among spouses, coworkers, or fraternity brothers. People who spend a lot of time together in the same group inevitably develop shorthand ways of communicating. In some cases, such as in criminal gangs or religious cults, a specific verbal code may be developed to further group cohesion and exclude outsiders.

    Interactions between conversants using opposing speech modes can lead to misunderstandings or conflict. Long pauses in a conversation may be normal and expected in some cultural contexts, but can be uncomfortable in others. A study by Stivers et al. (2009) compared ten languages in how long it took native speaker to respond to a yes/no question and found differences in the average gap before answering. Jumping into a conversation in order to end awkward pauses may limit the other person's ability to speak or to initiate conversational topics. Different cultural traditions may have different expectations in terms of turn-taking or the acceptability of interrupting. In Mediterranean countries, for example, it's common to hear overlapping utterances; in Northern European countries, there's a greater likelihood that conversational turns end before someone else speaks. North American linguist Deborah Tannen (1984) points to regional differences in turn-taking between New Yorkers and Californians during a dinner conversation. The former speak fast with no pauses:

    The result is that the East Coast speakers continually take the floor, the West Coast participants waiting in vain for a pause they deem long enough for them to start talking. Whereas the ‘fast’ speakers think that the others have nothing to say, the ‘slow’ ones feel that they are not given a chance to talk (Günther, 2007, p. 132).

    The New Yorkers' turn-taking rules reflect their way of showing involvement in the conversation, while this is interpreted by the Californians as rudeness and a reluctance to let others speak.

    Speech communities can also vary in how direct speakers are in expressing views. In some cultures, speakers may hide their real intent or personal opinion, by, for example, giving an ambiguous or misleading response to a request or to a yes-no question. This may occur out of feelings of respect, politeness, or wariness. This indirect verbal behavior is often associated with Asian cultures. The Japanese version of "yes" (Hai はい) does not necessarily mean "yes" in the sense of agreeing or accepting. It is used often to equivocate, to indicate to the speaker that you are listening, but not necessary expressing an affirmation. Other cultures prefer an explicit and overt verbal style. Germans, for example, are often given as an example of a direct speaking style, with a reputation of being blunt and to the point. An awareness of different conversational styles can be helpful in avoiding conversational faux-pas and hurt feelings. Caution is needed, however, in applying universally to individuals generic speech patterns. Individual speakers may have developed their own habits and preferences which differ from those of others in that particular cultural group:

    We must be cautious and not assume that everyone in a particular part of the world behaves in certain ways. For example, not all Japanese favour indirect styles of communication, just as not all Germans have a very direct style of communication. Not all Chinese business executives prefer a formal style of communication in meetings, just as not all American executives adopt an informal style in their meetings. The degree of directness and formality may vary among individuals (Jackson, 2014, p. 95).

    It is also the case that in conversations with others individuals may well alter communication styles to adjust to conversation partners.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): In the US there have been conflicts between Korean store-keepers and African-American customers

    The conflicts in communication styles may derive from interactions among members of ethnic groups with different communication styles. In one study of an immigrant Korean shopkeeper and an African-American customer in Los Angeles, the clash of styles is evident (Bailey, 1997). In a conversation Bailey analyzes, the African-American customer uses a "high involvement style", featuring informal and emotional language, in an effort to establish a personal connection to the Korean shopkeeper. He uses swear words and volunteers personal information about himself. The shopkeeper, however, remains detached and impersonal, resulting in an unsatisfying conversation. This is not unusual in such encounters, as Bailey comments:

    The seeming avoidance of involvement on the part of immigrant Koreans is frequently seen by African Americans as the disdain and arrogance of racism. The relative stress on interpersonal involvement among African Americans in service encounters is typically perceived by immigrant Korean retailers as a sign of selfishness, interpersonal imposition, or poor breeding (Bailey, 1997, p. 353).

    Such clashes are not infrequent in service encounters and in business transactions in many parts of the world. Conflicts may be related to different communication styles and expected behaviors in given situations. The extent to which one engages in small talk in such contexts, for example, varies significantly. Customers, such as in the example above, may engage in small talk as a way to establish a personal connection, but that may not be reciprocated.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Small talk plays different roles across cultures

    In some contexts, such as at the workplace, small talk may involve a power negotiation. In conversations with subordinates, higher-ups in the company may decide to what extent engaging in small talk is acceptable or encouraged. Engaging in humor or telling jokes can be equally problematic across cultures. Humor depends on cultural context and knowledge, and relies considerably on the linguistic ability of a listener. As a result, jokes often do not work when transferred from one culture or language to another. Here again social or economic hierarchies may come into play, with those higher up the socio-economic ladder enjoying the privilege of making jokes, which may be inappropriate for subordinates (Dwyer, 1991).

    Communication Contexts

    Within the same society, there can be quite different speech patterns and verbal behaviors. In different situations and with different people, how we use language may vary considerably. How one speaks can also depend on one's gender. Gerry Philipsen's landmark study on speaking "like a man," in "Teamsterville" (his code name for a blue-collar, low income neighborhood in Chicago) illustrates that (1975). He discovered in his research that there were clearly defined patterns of communication in the community.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Talking like a man in Teamsterville

    In his study, Philipsen describes the contexts in which high volumes of speech among men are expected, namely when congregated on street corners or at local bars. On the other hand, a high quantity of speaking is considered inappropriate in situations in which there is a hierarchical or social distance between the speakers. These include relationships with a wife, child, boss, outsider, or men of different ethnicity. In some situations, Teamsterville men's verbal code calls for no speaking at all, but rather silence, nonverbal behavior, or even violent actions (in response to personal insults, for example). The study demonstrates the different verbal styles assigned to different contexts and contrasts the speech patterns in the Chicago blue-color neighborhood with others in the US:

    In Teamsterville, talk is negatively valued in many of the very situations for which other American communities most highly prize speaking strategies. Speaking is a culturally prized resource for male role enactment by black Americans in urban ghettos; the black man who speaks as a strategy for dealing with outsiders or females is enacting the male role appropriately according to the standards of his speech community. The white collar man who can “talk things through” with his wife, child, or boss is using speech in culturally sanctioned ways. (p. 21)

    This is a sampling of different speech communities just within the USA. Moving beyond the US borders, one can appreciate the immense diversity in speech behaviors worldwide, pointing to the rich opportunities for miscommunication.

    Talking like a man in Teamsterville

    Teamsterville’s cultural (i.e., shared, tacit) understandings about the value of speaking are sharply defined and susceptible of discovery, although they are not written down in native treatises on effective communication, nor can native informants necessarily verbalize them. One manifestation of cultural outlook is the local view of the appropriateness of speaking versus other actional strategies (such as silence, violence, or non-verbal threats) in male role enactment or self-presentation. Whether and how well a man performs in a manly way is a principal criterion in Teamsterville for judging whether his behavior is appropriate and proper to the social identity, “male.” Manliness is a theme of much neighborhood talk about self and others and a Teamsterville man is aware that his social performances will be judged frequently as to their manliness. To know how to perform, or present oneself, “like a man” in Teamsterville as elsewhere is to be privy to implicit understandings shared by members of the speech community, i.e., it is to have access to the culture.

    Philipsen (1975), pp. 13-14.

    Philipsen's study demonstrated how Teamsterville men adapted their communication style (amount of speech, emotional involvement, nonverbal behavior) to the context of the encounter (physical location, gender/age/ethnicity/social status of conversant). One is likely to be more aware of the necessity of making those kinds of adjustments if one is abroad. That may mean, of course, using a different language, but it could also mean, adjusting communicative habits. A Japanese woman who lived in Mexico for a number of years reported on changes she found to be necessary in her communication style (see sidebar). The changes described here can be challenging, both linguistically and emotionally. Part of the difficulty is that in such cases there are no written norms to go by. One learns through experience, making mistakes and reflecting on outcomes of conversations. One of the benefits of such an approach is that one comes to learn about one's own communication style, as the Japanese woman in this case became conscious of her "childish" speaking voice. That kind of awareness is crucial to the ability to make adjustments in intercultural encounters, which will make communication more effective and satisfying for both sides.

    Speaking like a woman in Mexico

    First thing I noticed in Mexico is the difference in the types of voice we use. In Japanese society, especially young women, use a relatively high pitch voice and tend to speak somehow ‘childish’. ‘Childish’ behaviour of a woman, not only the type of voice but also her behaviour itself, is considered as something ‘cute’ or ‘favourable’, and very widely accepted in our society. In Mexican society, however, they use a lower and deeper tone of voice than in Japan; it is required for both men and women to speak and act as ‘adult person’, in every setting of life and naturally in business setting. In Mexican society, to use a childish voice, as many Japanese women do, could be a disadvantage, not something ‘favourable’, and doing so it is possible that you will not be treated properly. After a couple of month[s] of y living in Mexico I noticed about this fact and started to try using a different kind of voice, deeper and softer one, so that I am treated as an adult person.

    Hua, 2014, p. 224

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    Communication Accommodation

    In accommodating our communication style to our conversation partner, we tend to make adjustments automatically and naturally, in an unconscious effort to make ourselves better understood. Our efforts are likely to be most successful if we have some awareness of both our own culturally-influenced approach to communication and of the nature of the speech community of the person with whom we are interacting. Indeed, social scientists have studied ways in which speech communities differ, and they also have investigated common strategies for overcoming those differences. One of the approaches that is widely known is the communication accommodation theory, developed by Howard Giles (1973; Street & Giles, 1982). It describes the ways in which people adjust their speech, vocal patterns, and gestures to accommodate others. Giles and his colleagues found that people use a variety of changes, including rate of speech in speaking, patterns of pausing, length of utterances, and the use of gestures, facial expressions and body language. It assumes that such accommodation varies in its degree of appropriateness.

    The theory postulates two main accommodation processes, convergence – adapting to the extent possible the other's communicative behaviors – and divergence – in which the differences are acknowledged and maintained. A third option, maintenance, involves not making any adjustments at all. In most instances of cross-cultural communication, convergence is recommended, i.e., listening actively for how the other person is communicating and adjusting our language use and nonverbal behavior accordingly. Speaking with a non-native speaker, for example, might involve reducing the use of slang, avoiding regionalisms or country-specific references, slowing the rate of speech, articulating clearly, and/or simplifying vocabulary. Helpful as well is the use of affirming nonverbal gestures such as nodding and smiling. Convergent behaviors are normally positively received by the interlocutor, which tends to make conversations run more smoothly and generate positive feelings on both sides. This can reduce social distance and contribute to a sense of solidarity (Jackson, 2014). The process of learning a second language aids development of the awareness and the importance of communication accommodation, as one experiences oneself the difficulty in communicating with more proficient speakers of the target language.

    There are situations in which divergence is appropriate, for example, when there is a significant gap in social status or power relationship. Speaking with one's physician, for example, might be a context in which convergence is unlikely. An interview situation might also be such a case. In intercultural situations, the degree of power distance in the culture represented by one's conversation partner may play a role as well. In cultures in which social hierarchies are acknowledged and accepted, it is normal practice to engage in divergence, for example, using respectful language and nonverbal behavior with elders or socially highly-placed individuals

    For the most part, people engage in convergence with good intentions, in order to facilitate communication across different communicative styles. However, it is possible to go too far in accommodating the other speaker, a process known as overaccommodation (Street & Giles, 1982). This might involve oversimplifying one's speech, exaggerating enunciation, or slowing excessively the rate of speech. One example is the kind of "baby talk" caregivers in nursing homes might use in talking with their elderly patients, sometimes labeled "elderspeak" (Kemper, 1994). Overaccommodation can be patronizing and demeaning and can detract from communicative effectiveness. There is also the phenomenon known as "intergroup overaccommodation", in which particular groups are treated based on general stereotypes, rather than members being treated as unique individuals (Gallois, Ogay & Giles, 2005). That might involve adjusting one's speech in environments based on assumptions that everyone living there – in a US inner-city or in a French banlieu, for instance – is socially and educationally inferior.

    Another perspective on communication accommodation is offered by New Zealand sociolinguist Alan Bell, who emphasizes the free agency of conversation partners:

    We do not always speak in consistently the same way. In fact we are shifting the way we speak constantly as we move from one situation to another. On different occasions we talk in different ways. These different ways of speaking carry different social meanings. They represent our ability to take up different social positions, and they affect how we are perceived by others (Bell, 2007, p. 95).

    Bell’s concept of speech style aligns with contemporary views on identity formation which emphasize the idea of "transportable identities," as we take on one of an array of social and linguistic subject positions according to the communication context (Van De Mieroop & Clifton, 2012). At the same time, power and hierarchical relationships may limit the extent to which individuals can enact particular identity positions.

    Accommodation will often be necessary for native speakers in conversation with non-native speakers. The extent of that accommodation depends on the context (type and purpose of conversation, location, respective social positions) as well as on the proficiency level of the speaker. In multilingual environments, or in a context in which non-native English speakers are conversing together in English, there may be different dynamics at work and subsequently different kinds of accommodations that occur. In such "lingua franca conversations", participants may will differ in their individual language proficiencies. Studies have shown that in these situations, there is typically a strong cooperative element (Meierkord, 2000), as participants use a variety of nonverbal means (smiling, gesturing) and paralinguistic devices (laughing, pausing frequently) to smooth over possible verbal miscues. The nature of such conversations stresses communicative efficiency over linguistic accuracy (Ehrenreich, 2010). These kinds of exchanges occur more frequently today, particularly among non-native speakers of English. They also occur increasingly in online environments.

    Uncertainty management

    When we encounter someone for the first time, we are likely to form opinions based on very little concrete information. In such situations, we tend to use what little knowledge we do have to place the person into a particular category, based on age, appearance, name, or other observable or known characteristics. Optimally, we approach the stranger with an open mind and an awareness that the stereotypes we have in our heads may not fit this particular individual. In any case, the paucity of information we have about the other person can lead to uncertainty on our part, possibly generating feelings of nervousness or anxiety, due to the unpredictability of the encounter. This is particularly the case when meeting someone from a different culture. Charles Bergen and Richard Calabrese (1975) developed an approach to communication called uncertainty reduction theory. Their fundamental assumption is that when strangers meet, our primary goal is to reduce uncertainty and increase predictability.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Anxiety is commonly associated with uncertain-ty

    According to this theory, uncertainty reduction can be both proactive and retroactive. Proactively, we can take measures such as deciding to adjust our speech based on the expectation that the person may not be a native speaker of our language. In that case, we may elect to use a language register accessible to non-native speakers. Retroactively, we can analyze an encounter to explain unexpected behavior, based on information gained through the conversation or from external sources. If, for example, the other person avoided eye contact, that might be a result of personal shyness, but it could also be cultural, an intended signal of respect or recognition of social standing. One might also consider the fact that those from high-context cultures tend to be more cautious in what they talk about with strangers. Those individuals accustomed to high-context communication might also feel uncomfortable in not having the kind of information important to that communicative style, namely the social, educational, or economic status of the other person, as well as the family background. In contrast, if one is more used to low-context communication, it is more likely that one would have the tendency to ask a lot of questions to gain information, rather than focusing on nonverbal behavior or social identity.

    Another researcher, William Gudykunst, developed this approach further through what he called anxiety/uncertainty management (1988). This theory incorporates the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to the extent to which we are conscious of our attitudes, behavior, and judgments. Rather than relying on automatic responses in terms of categorization and stereotyping, mindful behavior explicitly addresses the unique experience of an encounter and makes adjustments as appropriate. Gudykunst points out that to be mindful, people must recognize that strangers may have quite different perspectives and communicative approaches. We can't assume that our messages will necessarily be interpreted as we mean them to be. Instead, one needs to negotiate meaning with strangers, adjusting our perspective and language to what is needed for effective communication. If we maintain rigid and inflexible categorizations, our uncertainty and anxiety will increase and communication will break down.

    Sources of miscommunication

    Misunderstandings in conversations can derive from a wide variety of sources and situations. In cross-cultural encounters, having a fundamental knowledge of the language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective communication. Learning vocabulary and grammar, as well as gaining proficiency in oral and written communication provide the basic tools for communicating. But what needs to accompany these essential building blocks is knowledge and skills in the ways in which language is used in cultural contexts in real-life situations. This is true even of speakers of the same language who speak different language varieties. Language pragmatics highlights the social contexts in which members of a community use language for specific communicative purposes. How one appropriately makes requests, issues invitations, or extends personal complements can vary significantly. There are large number of approaches for exploring what speakers "do" with words, what actions ensue, and how listeners respond. One of the challenges in this area is that, in contrast to linguistic fields such as syntax, phonology, or semantics, there are no hard-and-fast rules in the cultural dimensions of language use. Learning pragmatics happens through observation and participation. Children are socialized into appropriate language use, which becomes in large part a matter of implicit or unconscious knowledge, an awareness of a set of unwritten rules for a given community.

    One of the issues that that can arise in intercultural communication is what is known as pragmatic transfer. Since pragmatic language use is deeply ingrained in individual behavior, speech acts and other manifestations of culture in language are regularly transferred by speakers from their native language into a second language. If we are used to seeing particular languages and/or behaviors in a given situation, our natural expectation is to see that repeated, even in different locales. That might involve something as routine as an offer of coffee after a meal, which, as in the example in the sidebar, might not have the expected significance. In this example of the offer of coffee, the difficulty does not lie in the linguistic meaning of the words, but rather with the cultural significance of the offer in the particular context of having a meal at a friend's home. The example points to the reasons for being aware of this kind of pragmatic transfer, as it can lead to awkwardness and miscommunication.

    An offer of coffee: what does it really mean?

    In some cultures an offer of coffee after a meal is generally recognized as a polite way to indicate to the guests that they ought to leave soon if they do not wish to outstay their welcome. In other cultures, an offer of coffee on a similar occasion is just an act of the host's kindness (or even an invitation to the guests to stay a little bit longer than they had intended). If interactants from different cultural backgrounds are unaware of the differences in their respective mental sets, misunderstandings are likely to occur. Misunderstandings of this sort involve the carryover of culture-specific knowledge from a situation of intra-cultural communication to a situation of intercultural communication.

    Žegarac & Pennington, 2000, p. 169

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    Pragmatic failure often derives from errors which can be traced to the input of one's native language on the use of a second language. We may not be aware of the pragmatic or emotional value that roughly equivalent expressions carry in another language. Native speakers of Russian, for example, may use the expression "of course" in English in pragmatically inappropriate ways as, as in the following exchange between a native English speaker (A) and a native Russian speaker (B):

    A: Is it a good restaurant?

    B: Of course [Gloss (for Russian speaker): Yes, (indeed) it is. For English listener: what a stupid question!]

    Thomas, 1983, p. 102

    The Russian word konesco (конечно) has the same dictionary definition as English "of course" and is used, as in English, to indicate agreement or acceptance. However, in particular contexts, the English phrase refers to something being obvious. The use of the phrase in the context above could be perceived as peremptory or possibly even insulting, which was certainly not the intent of the speaker.

    Swearing in English

    I very rarely swear in Finnish but ‘oh shit’ or ‘fuck’ can easily escape my mouth even in quite trivial occasions - they just do not feel that serious to my (or my hearers’) ears, even though I know they would sound quite horrible to a native speaker (milder English swear words like ‘damn’ for example do not even sound like swear words to me). If I would happen to hit myself with a hammer the words coming out of my mouth would definitely be in Finnish.

    Dewaele, 2004, p. 213

    An instance where caution is mandated is in the use of swearwords. These have a strong emotional value, which for non-native speakers may not transfer (see sidebar). Recent research on multilingualism (Paulenko, 2005; Dewaele, 2010) has shown that in many instances, multilingual speakers may make language choices and engage in code-switching based on the emotional import that expressions carry in a particular language.

    In this area, as in all matters pertaining to cultural values and behaviors, care is needed to avoid overgeneralization. While there may be identifiable patterns of social behavior related to language within a community, that does not necessarily mean that a given behavior will be replicated by each member of the community. It is helpful to think of situations in which pragmatic transfer and the other cultural-linguistic awkwardness occurs as rich points of intercultural encounters, namely situations in which we do not initially understand the source of confusion or conflict (Agar, 1994). Such rich points can be explored for learning about social expectations and typical behaviors, but also for understanding individual perspectives and deviations. Rather than automatically characterizing incidents as culturally stereotypical, cultural anthropologists encourage the use of thick description of incidents, that is, going beyond the surface manifestations to discover deeper meanings and values and fleshing out the full cultural and personal contexts of what occurred (Bennett, 1998). The example often given is the significance of a wink:

    The same physical act of someone "rapidly raising and lowering their right eyelid" could be a nervous twitch, a deliberate wink to attract attention or communicate with someone, or an imitation or mockery of someone else with a nervous twitch or winking. It all depends on the context, the aims of person the performing the action, and how these were understood by others (Knowles, 2011).

    A "thin description" would record only the physical act and thereby not be very informative. The idea is to look further than the stock, stereotypical interpretation and try to discover the true meaning of observed phenomena.


    4.1: Communication in Practice is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert Godwin-Jones.

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