Wander round any airport bookshop and you will find books offering advice on how to engage with other cultures. The thinking here is that, even if you can’t speak a word of another language, you can learn about cultural practices such as the importance (or not) of time-keeping, whether business meetings matter more than the dinner afterwards in terms of sealing a deal and whether interrupting is bad manners or standard behaviour.
Questions of intercultural communication are also fundamental to translation studies, the field that investigates the shifts and changes that take place when texts are transferred from one context to another, in terms not only of linguistic adaptation but also of the cultural implications and the multiple agencies involved. When I saw the title of this book, I expected it to be a work that I could recommend to translation students, but despite the 70 pages of notes and references, translation is not there. Instead, what we find are generalisations, snippets from a wide variety of linguistics sources and, every few pages or so, personal anecdotes which feed on stereotypical knowledge.
So in Chapter 4, grandly titled “The Elements of Pragmatic Style”, we are informed that one of Roberts’ colleagues working in Korea once referred to someone with a PhD as “doctor”, but that “this individual became upset because he expected the even more elevated term ‘professor’”. This story is used to tell us something about the Korean insistence on honorifics. On the same page, we are informed that “if you are a native English speaker, then you are probably only dimly aware of all this”, implying that honorifics in English are rarely used. Both these assumptions are wrong: native English-speaking academics (of the pompous kind, admittedly) get equally agitated if not addressed with the proper title, and honorifics in British English are still widely used.
The fact that there are variations between Englishes also seems to have passed the authors of this book by, and they never engage with the complexities of regional, class and gender language variation. They touch on such questions as turn-taking, rhetorical questions, politeness strategies, humour, blasphemy and insults, greetings – but all so superficially that nothing is dealt with in any meaningful way. There are cartoon-style illustrations and snappy headings for sub-sections, presumably to reinforce an attempt at light-heartedness.
Roger Kreuz teaches psycho-logy at the University of Memphis and Richard Roberts works in the US State Department. This is their second book from MIT Press, a highly reputable publisher, but who the target readership might be is a complete mystery. In mitigation, the authors come across as nice people. In their preface, they declare that they have tried “neither to overstate nor understate the influence of cultural differences”, and that they make no attempt to determine what constitutes cross-cultural work. “We respect and celebrate diversity,” they declare, dismissing any distinction between the inter- and intracultural as “a fool’s errand”. It is this very niceness, combined with the lack of original thinking in this basically palimpsestic book, that makes it such a pointless read.
Susan Bassnett is professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick.
Getting Through: The Pleasures and Perils of Cross-cultural Communication
By Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts
MIT Press, 304pp, £22.95
Published 29 September 2017