Chapter 16
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Context Matters

Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts explore the pitfalls when we talk across cultural barriers

How do you greet someone? Apologize? Tell a joke? Verbal interactions depend on context and culture and can be easily lost in translation when the conversation takes place between people of different cultures. In Getting Through, Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts explore cross-cultural communications, pulling together research from across the social sciences and sprinkling in their own funny anecdotes. The delightful result offers fascinating insights into how we use language.

Roger Kreuz is a professor of psychology and an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Memphis. Richard Roberts is a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State. They previously collaborated to write Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language. Now they have collaborated to answer questions via email from Chapter 16:

Chapter 16: “I am putting my trust in Allah and depending on him,” proclaimed an EgyptAir pilot in 1999, just before his plane crashed. What can this tragedy teach us about the stakes of communicating across cultures?

Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts: This is a phrase that is uttered by devout Muslims several times throughout the course of a day. It is an acknowledgement of Tawakkul, which is Arabic for the concept of relying upon God. The meaning of the words themselves is straightforward, but their use and subsequent interpretation is culture-bound. And although there were many other factors at play, the utterance of this phrase was one reason the American and Egyptian authorities who investigated the crash came to very different conclusions about the responsibility of the pilot. Even today, for some people, the utterance of this phrase as the plane plummeted into the ocean serves as an admission of guilt. For others it is an expression of humility and piety. We included this story in Getting Through as an example of how one’s culture and background deeply affect how we interpret what people say.

Chapter 16: What is pragmatics, and what role does it play in understanding language?

Kreuz and Roberts: Pragmatics is the study of how context affects communication. Depending on the situation, even a simple statement like “John drinks” can mean different things. In this case, the interpretation that typically comes to mind is something like “John drinks alcohol to excess,” but it could also mean that John is simply in the act of drinking any sort of liquid. The sentence could also mean “John isn’t a teetotaler” in the context of planning a party and deciding how much beer to buy. And alien caretakers at an interplanetary zoo could use the phrase to mean that one of their specimens, a human named John, requires liquid to survive. The point is that the meaning of a sentence can’t be found in just the words themselves, and that pragmatic factors are crucial. Who is speaking, and why? Are they stating facts, or trying to be funny, or flirtatious? Context matters!

Chapter 16: In 1975, when the U.S. spacecraft Apollo docked with the Soviet Union’s Soyuz 19, the American astronauts spoke Russian, while the Soviet cosmonauts used English. Why? How did they sidestep some of the pitfalls of communicating across cultures?

Kreuz and Roberts: When you converse with a non-native speaker who is fluent in your language, it’s natural to assume that she is also familiar with your culture’s norms for formality, politeness, and directness. However, she may have mastered just the vocabulary and grammar, and may not know the pragmatic rules that govern how the language is actually used. She might craft overly-polite apologies, or use slang terms in situations where they aren’t really appropriate.

In contrast, when someone speaks with a pronounced accent or in a halting manner, you quickly realize that she isn’t a native speaker, and you alter your pragmatic expectations accordingly. During the Apollo-Soyuz mission, the astronauts and cosmonauts spoke one another’s language as a gesture of goodwill but also as a way of bypassing pragmatic issues. Neither group expected the other to be truly proficient, and so infelicities were interpreted with forbearance as beginners’ mistakes and not as rudeness or incivility.

Chapter 16: In 1982, a researcher cracked a joke via email. To reinforce his point, he typed a colon and then a right parenthesis, creating the first smiley face. By doing so he unleashed a world of emoticons and emojis that are shaped by our technological advances. Are even these symbols subject to cultural differences?

Kreuz and Roberts: One problem with e-mail is the lack of context when compared to face-to-face interaction. When speaking to another person, you can make it clear you’re not being serious when you grin at your own joke, or use heavy sarcastic stress on the phone. But these visual and auditory cues aren’t available in text-only messages. To help fill this void, people use emoticons to provide the emotional context necessary for communicating what they mean. Unfortunately, there are no agreed-upon standards concerning how these symbols are used: tears running down the face of an emoji symbol, for example, could be the result of joy or sorrow. This ambiguity becomes even more pronounced when we consider other factors. The conventions of anime and manga, in which the eyes carry greater emotional content than the mouth, influence how emoticons and emoji are used in countries such as Japan and Korea.

Chapter 16: If two Mongolians mistakenly bump into each other, they shake hands, as if hitting a “reset” button. What are the various mechanics of interpersonal interactions, and how should we consider them in our conversations?

Kreuz and Roberts: Conversation moves too quickly for us to stop and consider the who, what, where, when, how, and why of our interpersonal interactions. Instead, we rely on assumptions about how language works to keep things moving along. But such assumptions are culturally bound. And the better someone speaks (perhaps he has a good accent, uses the grammar more or less correctly, and has a nuanced vocabulary), the more likely it is that his conversational partner assumes he is following the same linguistic conventions––even though that may not be true.

Chapter 16: How are compliments, apologies, greetings, goodbyes, and other everyday customs subject to different understandings?

Kreuz and Roberts: When two people engage in conversation, neither of them wants to be misunderstood. To minimize the chance of a misunderstanding, cultures have evolved standard ways of performing speech acts that are repeated with some regularity. When everyone agrees on “how to do things with words,” then as long as these procedures are followed, conversations can proceed smoothly. On the other hand, failing to do so can lead to communicative breakdowns. For example, failing to follow the protocol for a well-formed apology can result in the apology not being perceived as sincere––or even as not an apology at all.

Chapter 16: I will probably never set foot in Mongolia. Why should I know this stuff? What do we gain from learning the pragmatics of communicating across cultures?

Kreuz and Roberts: It doesn’t really matter how much or how little one travels because the pragmatics of communicating across cultures has implications for how language is used within cultures. Learning about the ways that the social use of language differs cross-culturally makes us more sensitive to the fact that even within one’s own culture, not everyone uses language in exactly the same way. Without this awareness, miscommunication can occur––and that’s true whether you are in Ulaanbaatar or visiting your next-door neighbor.

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