Horses for discourses

Intercultural Communication
April 14, 1995

Spaces between cultures have turned into a "no-person's land" in desperate need of exploration. In that space are fought most of the wars of the late 20th century. In that space, nations debate how to handle their diverse populations. And, in that space, the world of commerce tinkers with its practices as national markets turn global. Guides to this intercultural terrain appear in growing numbers. Some paint the landscape with broad-brush strokes, with stories of differences found in history and politics. Others unearth tips to help the newcomer when he or she actually lands on the ground. Still others dive into the details - what does it mean to say "yes" and "no?" How far away should you stand when you talk with a stranger?

In their new book, Ron Scollon and Suzanne Wong Scollon stand out by showing the reader a way to think about these different intercultural levels, all at once. Most authors in the field pick one level and stay there. The Scollons, in contrast, show how cultural differences come to life in the details of the moment, but then they go on to show how these details mesh with social identity and historical tradition. Most intercultural writing offers a slice of the pie: the Scollons step back and admire the thing while it cools on the windowsill.

Consider the example with which they open their book. A Hong Kong Chinese and an American businessman sit down to talk. The Chinese hears something he considers blunt and abrupt. The American wonders why the Chinese does not get to the point. The American closes the conversation with a friendly "let's have lunch". The Chinese wonders why the invitation never arrives. The Chinese man speaks English well, so it is not a matter of verb conjugations or vocabulary. Something else is in play.

At the level of linguistic detail, the difference is one of "topic" and "comment." Americans tend to state the topic first and then follow it with a comment. Chinese tend to offer the comment first, and then state the topic. But the story does not stop there.

The differences are not just about topic and comment. Drawing on their own and others' work in language-based theories of politeness, the Scollons show how the only way the Chinese can hear the American is to assume that the situation is a hierarchical one and that he, the Chinese, has just landed in the subordinate position. The American, on the other hand, speaks out of a different tradition; for him, the way he talks expresses his attitude that the situation is informal and friendly.

Still the story does not stop. These details shimmer with significance because of their pedigree. The American participates in the "utilitarian" discourse system, a system that arises in Anglo-American culture with post-Enlightenment notions of happiness, progress, and the rational individual. The Chinese, on the other hand, operates in a discourse system that derives from Confucian traditions, traditions that feature hierarchy and the social rather than individual unit.

The good news here is that their concept of "discourse system" lets the Scollons navigate the various levels - from the details of the moment up to the sweep of history. The bad news is that Americans and Chinese do not always act that way. The book eventually muddies up whatever notion of "culture" the reader came in with. In fact, the last four chapters feature the discourse of the corporation, of the professions, and of generation and gender rather than ethnicity or nationality. And the "utilitarian" system, at first glance central to Anglo-American culture, is actually rooted throughout the western world, has influenced business worldwide, and appears in educational systems everywhere in the guise of science.

Intercultural Communication wins on perspective, but loses on some of the fine points. One wonders about the simultaneous relevance of multiple discourse systems, about the way those systems shift and move in our post-modern world. The old notion of "culture" as common heritage and language, or "culture" as a world established by the institutions of the modern state, needs more rethinking than the book provides. And now and again the discussion drops into a "list-like" mode - attributes of culture, attributes of context - that jolts the reader with an ironic counterpoint to the overall coherence that the book provides.

But gone is the easy attribution of details to "American" or "Chinese" culture, or any other culture. Instead, people face each other, competent in different discourse systems, some of which they share, some of which they do not. The Scollons, in the beginning of their new book, advise the reader to expect things to go wrong. Then, in their accessible prose, they show a way through the problems, a way that handles miscommunication and increases shared knowledge, a way that allows one to blend history, identity, and linguistic detail to help enter that difficult intercultural space.

Michael Agar is the author of Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation.

Intercultural Communication

Author - Ron Scollon and Suzanne Wong Scollon
ISBN - 0 631 19488 6 and 194894
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 1pp

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