Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

4.2: Language in society

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Culturally Embedded Language

    One of the tools for working out the cultural undercurrents present in verbal exchanges is conversation analysis. Scholars in this area look at real speech as recorded in audio and video, which is then transcribed. Examining transcribed conversations reveals how different actual speech is from the model dialogues supplied in language textbooks. Real-life language use is typically a complex set of stops and starts, not the orderly, logical back-and-forth exchange of information one might assume. Sets of transcribed conversations, such as represented in the British National Corpus and other language corpora (organized and analyzed collections of texts), have shown that real language use is "often messy and untidy and embedded deeply in cultural understanding of various kinds" (Carter, 1998, p. 48). Carter (1998) provides the example of a brief exchange in a fish and chips shop in Great Britain:

    [In a fish and chip shop]

    A: Can I have chips, beans, and a sausage?

    B: Chips, beans, and a sausage.

    A: Yeah.

    B: Wrapped up?

    A: Open, please (p. 48, taken from the British National Corpus)

    Carter points to the cultural significance here of the word "open" in the last line, used in opposition to "wrapped up"; it "carries a specific cultural meaning of food being served in paper so that it can be eaten immediately, even perhaps while walking home" (p. 48). The exchange is short and to the point; it is transactional in nature, i.e. related to getting something concrete accomplished through language, namely buying dinner. Full sentences are not used, but rather abbreviated forms, called ellipsis or elliptical constructions. The evidence provided in language corpora show this to be very common in everyday conversations. Carter points out that this kind of barebones exchange is appropriate in this particular context as "anything more interactive and interpersonal would be out of place because there are normally long queues of hungry customers in the shop" (p. 49). However, in other service encounters — and in many everyday conversations – it is likely that interpersonal elements will play a significant role, moving beyond transactional language through the addition of personal and affective language.

    Conversation analysis has also revealed that there tend to be repeating underlying patterns, namely certain combinations of turn taking or question and response. They have also identified adjacency pairs (also called "framing pairs") that generally occur together, such as compliment – response, invitation – acceptance, greeting – greeting. In English, the greeting "How are you" is normally followed by the formulaic "Fine, thanks", while a conversation ending is signaled by a pair of utterances, such as "I’ve got to go" and "OK, see you later". While there are likely to be many variations in terms of the specific language used, the pattern of supplying an answering response to the initiation of an adjacency pair is a social norm. Not doing so may cause awkwardness in the conversation or can even be considered rude. British philosopher of language Paul Grice (1975) identified such conversational practices as part of what he termed the "cooperative principle", that is, that in social practice individuals engage in speech which is cooperative and characterized by conventional usage.

    While the patterns are typical across many languages, the specifics of such speech can be quite different. The field of cross-cultural pragmatics studies how that works out in practice across cultures and languages. The culturally embedded nature of language points to the importance in learning a second language of developing skills and knowledge that go beyond purely linguistic competence, i.e. grammar and vocabulary. Pragmalinguistic competence is needed, the ability to use language in culturally appropriate ways in particular contexts, such as in speech acts like requests and apologies (Grice, 1975). Also needed is sociopragmatic competence, knowing what is appropriate in a particular speech community. That might include issues such as politeness and respect for social conventions such as taboo topics (Gilmore, 2011).

    Cultural schemas and scripts

    A speech act such as a compliment may be received in a very different manner, depending on the cultural tradition or cultural schema, i.e., the expected language and behavior based on experience (Nishida, 1999). The cultural schema or cultural model (Quinn & Holland, 1987) provide guides to behavior in particular contexts. The conversation below between an Iranian student and an Australian teacher illustrates a mismatch in cultural schemas.

    Lecturer: I heard you’ve won a prestigious award. Congratulations! This is fantastic.

    Student: Thanks so much. I haven’t done anything. It is the result of your effort and your knowledge. I owe it all to you.

    Lecturer: Oh, No!!! Don’t be ridiculous. It’s all your work.

    Sharifian, 2005, pp. 337-338

    The professor sees the situation as an example of individual merit but according to the researcher, the Iranian student draws on the Persian tradition of shekasteh-nafsi, which "motivates the speakers to downplay their talents, skills, achievements, etc .... and also encourages the speakers to reassign the compliment to the giver of the compliment, a family member, a friend, or another associate" (Sharifian, 2005, p. 337). Giving and receiving compliments is an interaction which can unfold differently across cultures. It's not uncommon in non-Western cultures, for compliments to be deflected, rather than accepted.

    Social situations which normally call forth normalized behavior using stock language practices are sometimes referred to as cultural scripts (Yule, 2008). One learns these "scripts" — ways of acting and speaking — through observation and experience. Jackson (2014) gives the example of the expected cultural script for visiting a public bath in Japan (see sidebar). One learns cultural scripts and norms associated with certain contexts through enculturation and socialization. This is a gradual process in ones own cultural upbringing is largely unconscious. While cultural scripts offer important insights into local practices, they should not be interpreted as prescriptive:

    A cultural script is not intended as a description of actual behaviour, but as a depiction of shared assumptions about how people think about social interaction. Individuals may or may not follow the cultural guidelines; they may follow them in some situations but not in others; they may defy, subvert or play with them in various ways; but even those who reject or defy culturally endorsed modes of thinking and modes of action are nonetheless aware of them (Goddard, 2004, pp. 7-8).

    Visiting a bath house in Japan

    In Tokyo, for example, a visit to a public bath house (sentō) might start with the payment of an entrance fee to the attendant, followed by disrobing in a change room that is reserved for members of one’s sex. Then, one may sit on a stool near faucets where one washes oneself. It is only after one is thoroughly clean that one steps into the communal bath (same sex), which is usually quite hot. One may chat with other bathers or simply relax in silence. After soaking, one gets out of the water, rinses, dries off, gets dressed and heads home. Embedded in this schema are notions of what is proper in this context. For individuals who are new to the sentō and not used to public nudity, this may be a shocking event! A trip to a public bath house in other parts of the world (e.g. Finland, Germany, Hungary, South Korea, Turkey) would not be the same experience due, in part, to different ‘event sequences’ or procedures that stem from variations in etiquette (norms of politeness) and attitudes towards such aspects as sex, nudity, cleanliness and communication

    Jackson (2014), p. 59

    One may be aware of expected behaviors, or language used, but for personal, philosophical, political or religious reasons not act according to norms and expectations. Whether that is associated with any social sanctions will depend on the particular context (Mosby, 2009).

    Gender and Communication

    If, as the Teamsterville study demonstrated, there are speech habits identifiable for men in particular social and economic milieux, there are also patterns of communication often identified with women. It's frequently claimed that women, at least in the US, use language in a more deferential and self-effacing manner than is typically the case for male speech. The use of rising intonation at the end of sentences (not just questions) and adding "tag questions" (using "...don't you think?" or similar phrases) point in this direction. One of the phenomena frequently examined in recent years is the use of "vocal fry" by young women in the US, sometimes associated with the Kardashian clan (a family famous in the US for being in a reality TV show). This refers to the habit of pronouncing particular words or phrases, especially at the end of a sentence, in a kind of deep, guttural voice that's often described as "creaky". Distinctive speaking habits of women are often seen as symptomatic of women's awareness of their subordinate status in a male-dominated culture. Speech habits such as vocal fry, an overly deferential tone, or "valley speak" (Californian social dialect featuring exaggerated rising intonation), all associated with women, are often seen as holding women back professionally, as they are regarded as inappropriate in a formal business environment, where the tone and language codes are set by men.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Do men and women talk differently?

    In fact, there are a variety of perspectives on the question of the distinctiveness of language use between men and women. According to Deborah Tannen (1990), "male-female conversation is cross-cultural communication" (p. 42) . In her view, there are clear differences between how men and women speak, namely that women tend to use language to build rapport and men to report information. Because men and women use language differently, Tannen suggests they are speaking different dialects, or what she calls "genderlects".

    For most women, the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport: a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships. Emphasis is placed on displaying similarities and matching experiences...For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order. This is done by exhibiting knowledge and skill, and by holding center stage through verbal performance such as story-telling, joking, or imparting information (1990, p. 16).

    This theory assumes that men and women subconsciously communicate in different ways, without being aware of how we differ. It suggests that both communication styles should be respected and that being mindful of the difference can make us more tolerant and understanding in conversations between genders.

    Other scholars in this area emphasize how women's speech tends to be undervalued, due to a power structure favoring men. Deborah Cameron, for example, addresses this issue of why it is popularly assumed that women talk more than men (see sidebar). Another perspective is offered by "standpoint theory" which takes into consideration the power position of men in conversational interactions. Advocates of this view maintain that the standpoint of marginalized communities provides the perspective that should be used in analyzing communication, rather than what is conventionally used, namely the perspective of privileged white males. In this view, marginalized people, including women, see the world differently. The difference between men and women is seen as largely the result of cultural expectations and the treatment each group receives from the other. This is in line with the muted group theory discussed in chapter two, with the idea being that women are a muted group, since language used in the public sphere does not reflect well their experience.

    'Many women, many words; many geese, many turds'

    If it does not reflect reality, why is the folk-belief that women talk more than men so persistent? The feminist Dale Spender once suggested an explanation: she said that people overestimate how much women talk because they think that, ideally, women would not talk at all. While that may be rather sweeping, it is true that belief in female loquacity is generally combined with disapproval of it. The statement 'women talk more than men' tends to imply the judgment 'women talk too much'. (As one old proverb charmingly puts it: 'Many women, many words; many geese, many turds.') The folk-belief that women talk more than men persists because it provides a justification for an ingrained social prejudice.

    Cameron, 2007, Do women really talk more than men section, para. 7

    These theories on gender-related communication deal for the most part with Western societies. The social position of women varies significantly across cultures. In many cultures, women's lower social position results in significantly fewer opportunities for expressing views or having opinions taken seriously. That is accompanied often by fewer educational or career opportunities, and in some cases, less choice in mate selection. Equally varied from culture to culture are attitudes towards homosexuality. In the US, gay marriage has become socially acceptable, but not in many parts of the world. An awareness of the existence of different views and expectations in male-female relationships and identities can be important in intercultural encounters.

    Communication in Personal Relationships

    We started this chapter stating that as social animals humans tend to build many different relationships. How we communicate in those relationships can vary a good deal, from intimate, familiar talk with friends and family to formal, arm's-length conversations with strangers. The language that we use depends as well on the context and purpose of the encounter. Since cultures vary in the nature of relationships, communication within those relationships differs as well.

    Some cultures have traditions of welcoming strangers, while others view outsiders with suspicion. Religious beliefs as well as personal attitudes may play important role. In some cases, outsiders become accepted members of communities only after long periods of time and scrutiny. US Americans tend to be open and receptive to strangers, often divulging personal information much more so than in other cultures. One international student in the US observed:

    One thing that was very different from what I was used to in Iceland was that people, even people that I didn't know at all, were telling me their whole life stories, or so it felt like. Even some women at the checkout line at the supermarket were talking about how many times they had been married or divorced or about the money they had, which, in my culture, we are not used to just telling anyone about (Martin & Nakayama, 2010, p. 394).

    That openness and candor may not extend to all strangers; depending on the country of origin, the reception in the US may well be much more circumspect. In most cultures appropriate topics for conversations with strangers do not include personal histories or family relationships. In traditional cultures in the Arab world, for example, asking about a man's wife is taboo. In many cultures, religion and politics are subjects to avoid.

    If relationships continue over time, some develop into friendships. Studies have shown, not surprisingly, that what draws people together is less demographic similarities of race, age, or class, but rather commonality of interests and values (Hammer, 1986). That seems to be accentuated in online relationships, in which we tend to construct "communities of practice" around those with similar interests, whether that be particular kinds of music, hobbies such as gardening, or political convictions. In those online communities, we care less — and are likely unaware of — factors such as race or ethnicity. Some lament the fact that online relationships, along with our growing obsession with connecting continuously with those communities, has weakened our face-to-face relationships (Turkle's Alone Together, 2011). In the US, this has been noted for some time, with the growth of social media, combining with other social and economic developments, to disengage many from their local communities. The book Bowling Alone (Putnam, 2000) provides a metaphor for that loss of community in the US. Whether we lament or celebrate the rise of online communities, they seem unlikely to lose their importance anytime soon.

    For many of us today, we are likely to have separate groups of online friends/communities and face-to-face relationships. As we do in all relationships, the respective degree of importance of each is likely to change over time. As individual personal relationships become closer, we are likely to engage in self-disclosure of private information, whether that be in person or online. The more we reveal about ourselves, the closer we are likely to grow to one another. The social penetration theory (Altman and Taylor, 1973) proposes that, as relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from shallow, superficial topics to more personal and intimate subjects. In the process of forming deeper relationships, issues of diversity become less important. To what extent self-disclosure occurs depends on the individual as much as it does on cultural backgrounds.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Switching over to friendship in Germany

    How friendship is understood varies as well. US Americans tend to have many "friends," but that relationship is not as intimate or strong as that term connotes in many other cultures. In Germany, for example, one tends to have few friends (Freunde) but many acquaintances (Bekannte). It would not be unusual in Germany for someone we have known for years to continue to be a Bekannter, not a Freund. Becoming a Freund might mean switching to the familiar you (du) and addressing each other by first names. Traditionally there is even a short ceremony (Brüderschafttrinken), involving having a drink together.

    In many cultures, such as Germany, friends are those with whom we have a special emotional relationship. Collier (1996) investigated what friendship means for different groups within the US. She found that for Hispanics and African-Americans, it took considerably longer to develop a real friendship than was the case for European-Americans. She also found differences in what the groups considered to be important in friendships: "Latinos emphasized relational support, Asian Americans emphasized a caring, positive exchange of ideas, African Americans emphasized respect and acceptance and Anglo [European] Americans emphasized recognizing the needs of individuals” (p. 315). In Asian countries, friendships tend to take longer to develop and to be more long-lasting than in the US (Carrier, 1999). They also tend to involve obligations on one another.

    In China, the concept of guanxi (关系) often plays in important role in friendships and in personal relationships (Yeung & Tung, 1996). Guanxi refers to the informal network of social connections built on shared identity such as kinship, place of origin, or profession. The system is particularly important in China for getting things done, such as access to the right school or neighborhood, or finding a good job. It's built on a non-reciprocal obligation system – someone always owes something to someone else (a favor, a connection). According to Jane Yum (1988), this kind of unequal balance helps maintain interpersonal connections in relationships. This is in contrast to the Western concept, common in the US, of short term and symmetrical reciprocity in relationships. From this perspective, if I owe something to someone (a favor, money), I am not comfortable until that debt is repaid, so that we are "even". In that way, each of us maintains the same independence in the relationship. This in inline with Collier's finding (1996) showing that white Americans' emphasis in friendships is on maintenance of individual needs.

    Romancing across Cultures

    Some intimate friendships develop into something more, namely romantic relationships. How that develops varies. Some scholars suggest that there is a natural human tendency to find mates who are similar to us in some way. The similarity-attraction hypothesis (Byrne, 1971) explains that we are likely to seek partners within our in-groups. If we share beliefs and values, that provides cognitive consistency, coalescing around common views and experiences (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Deeply-held religious, political, or philosophical beliefs may come into play. In intercultural relationships, there may be a different dynamic at work. It may be the case that what we find attractive may be the differences, not the similarities.

    They're so exotic

    I think they're so exotic. Really, what concerns me about the girl is the eyes, and Asian women have beautiful eyes, the form and the shape of them. It’s a plus for me. I had another Asian girl friend before. And I like their skin color, tannish, not just white, white, white. A girl with color. It's just different; it’s more sexual, its not just like plain Jane.

    “Talking About Race,” 2000, p. 59

    Standards of beauty tend to be largely cultural, defined often by images in media and advertising. In mainstream US culture, for example, the standard for female beauty tilts towards white women with blonde hair. One study showed that 90% of models in US magazines are white (Frith, Shaw & Cheung, 2005). At the same time, Asian and Asian-American women are often portrayed in the US as ideal mates. On the one hand, they are shown in Orientalist style as exotic and sexually available. On the other hand, they are seen as submissive and obedient (Uchida, 1998). This is how Asian women are characterized in the mail-order bride business which has experienced a boom in the Internet age. The following advertisement from such a site illustrates this imaging:

    Why choose a Filipina? Women from the Philippines are noted for their beauty, grace, charm and loyalty. With their sweet nature and shy smiles, Filipina ladies possess an inner beauty that most men find irresistible. Filipina women are by their nature family-orientated, resourceful and devoted (Piller, 2011, p. 123)

    In an ironic twist, Asian women often protect themselves from the sun, so as to have a paler complexion or, more radically, have eye surgery so as to look more Western (Frederick et al., 2016).

    To what extent romantic love plays a determining role in the choice of a mate can vary. In many parts of the world, love and passion may play a much diminished role compared to socio-economic status, kinship/group membership, or religious beliefs. In China, for example, it is normal for couples to wait until regular jobs have been secured, as well as until appropriate housing becomes available (Hamon & Ingoldsby, 2003). In India, although the caste system is officially no longer in place, many Indians, particularly in rural areas, marry only within their own caste (Uberoi, 1994). The bride wanted section from the Sunday Times of India (May 15, 2016) highlights the importance of caste in finding a mate. However, also listed as categories in the "Times Soulmate" section are professions, religion, and language. There's also a category of "caste no bar". is a popular web site for finding an Indian mate and provides interesting insights into the process.

    In many cultures, it is common to use a trusted intermediary to help find an appropriate mate (Ahuvia & Adelman, 1992). Parents or other relatives may play a role in arranging matches. Many in Western countries are likely to recoil at the idea of an arranged marriage. However, studies have shown that in fact love in arranged marriage tends to increase over time, but decreases in love matches (Gupta & Singh, 1982). Given the high percentage of divorces among free choice matches, one might question whether that form of mate selection is in fact optimal. On the other hand, arranged marriages may be problematic as well, particularly if one or other of the partners has no say in the match. The forced marriages of underage girls is unfortunately still a reality in some parts of the world (Ouattara, Sen & Thomson, 1998).

    Until 1967 in the United States, marrying someone from a different racial group was illegal. In that year, laws outlawing that practice were declared void through the landmark case of Loving vs. State of Virginia. Today in the US, according to the Pew Foundation (Passel, Wang & Taylor, 2010), about one in seven new marriages in the US is interracial or interethnic. That does not mean that such unions are universally accepted, nor does their frequency indicate that they are inevitably successful. In fact, interracial marriages may be stressful, in part due to differences in value orientations or in group habits/traditions. One of the frequent sources of conflict can be one's family or friends, who may disapprove of the match. Foeman & Nance (2002) have shown that in many successful interracial or interethnic marriages the partners create a kind of third culture, blending together in a new hybrid their respective cultures.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Mildred & Richard Loving

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

    • Was this article helpful?