Listening and Culture


Listening in cross-cultural encounters

Think about how many times you have had problems understanding someone from a different culture or even a different sub-culture. Now think about how many times someone from a different cultural background may have had problems understanding you. For many of us, cross-cultural encounters are an increasingly important part of our everyday lives. Cross-cultural encounters are very interesting in terms of listening, since much of the misunderstanding between people can be traced to problems in listening. Moreover, as listeners we are in the position to show empathy and sensitivity to cultural differences.

Consider the following examples:

(1) at a market in Amsterdam

Moroccan: Ik moet een kilo uien (I must have one kilo of onions)

Dutch person: Zoiets vragen we hier beleefd (Such a thing we ask here politely)

(from Appel and Muysken, 1987)

(2) at a hotel lobby in Tokyo

American: I'd like a room for two nights.

Japanese speaker of English: For tonight?

American: No, not "tonight". Two nights.

(author's data)

(3) during an interview in Australia

Australian interviewer: Were you very young then?

Aboriginal woman: Eh?

Australian interviewer: You were very young?

Aboriginal woman: Yes, I was about 14.

(from Eades, 1987)

(4) in a telephone call

New Zealander : Hello, is Mr. Simatapung there please?

Malaysian: Yes.

New Zealander: Oh...may I speak to him please?

Malaysian: Yes.

New Zealander: (pause) Is this Mr. Simatapung?

Malaysian: Yes.

(from Richards and Schmidt, 1983)

(5) from a discussion among college students

American: Who is the best player in Columbia?

Colombian: Columbia.

American: Does uh... who is the Colombian player?

Colombian: Me?

American: No, in Columbia, who is the player?

Colombian: In Colombia plays. Yah.

(from Hatch, 1991)

(6) from an interview

Britisher: How much did you earn in Italy?

Italian: How much?

Britisher: In Italy how much did you earn?

Italian: Did you?

Britisher: How much did you earn?

Italian: "How much" is "e alto"?

(from Bremer et al., 1988)

In all of these examples, a native speaker (NS) and a non-native speaker (NNS) of a language experience a difficulty in understanding each other. We often attribute the problem to the non-native speaker, but actually the problem is a mutual one that must be resolved through adjustments by both parties.

If we approach inter-cultural communication in the same way that we approach intra-cultural (within the same culture) communication, we are likely to experience problems of understanding. Cross-cultural encounters often require us to adjust the ways we approach fundamental aspects of communication, aspects which we may consider normal. Compared with conversations among people of the same cultural background, the most frequent ways that communication is adjusted in cross-cultural conversations are:

1. Vocabulary selection

Colloquial language and figures of speech often confuse the NNS. Expressions can be restated in more universal terms (for example, "The plan was really screwed up" might be restated as "The plan failed completely."). Poetic language, such as the use of metaphors and literary examples, can be often omitted.

2. Grammar simplification

Long speaking turns typically contain complex grammar. Short speaking turns are often used instead.

3. Discourse pattern selection

Conversation patterns which are universal, particularly question-answer, may be used more frequently than topic-comment patterns.

4. Communication style controlled

Informal communication styles may confuse non-native speakers. Use of formality may be more frequent.

5. Rituals and expectations adjusted

Since a lack of knowledge of particular rituals (such as talking about past weekend activities on Monday morning with your colleagues) may lead to confusion, sensitivity to culture-specific rituals and expectations is developed.

6. Repair and clarification carried out

Since communication problems are likely in cross-cultural interactions, the participants must be ready and able to carry out repairs of misunderstandings.

Task 8-1 Cross cultural encounters.


Read each excerpt: the situation, the participants, the conversation segment.

Then read the interpretation that the listener had. Why do you think the listener had this interpretation?


Situation: an interview at a language school.

Participants: Saito Toshiyuki and director of the school

Conversation segment:

Well, Mr. Toshiyuki, please have a seat. Now let's begin by...

Listener's interpretation: Insulted by this greeting.

Reason for this interpretation: ______________________________


Situation: at a job interview

Participants: interviewee and interviewer

Conversation segment:

Interviewer: It would be very interesting for me to learn more about your background. Listener's interpretation: Confused about the purpose of the interview.

Reason for this interpretation: ______________________________________


Situation: Job interview

Participants: Non-native speaker interviewee and native speaker interviewer

Conversation excerpt:

Interviewer: What have you been doing since you were laid off work?

Interviewee: Nothing.

Listener's interpretation: Confused

Reason for this interpretation: ______________________________________

Situations based on Roberts et al., 1992 analysis of cross-cultural interactions.



Comments on the task

The impression you may have had when reading these extracts is that native speaker and non-native speaker interactions are always marked by misunderstanding, confusion, and hurt feelings! While this is certainly not the case, looking at a few clear examples can help to sensitize us to the fact that various degrees of misunderstanding, confusion, and hurt feeling do regularly interfere with cross-cultural communication. These misunderstandings are typically caused by lack of knowledge by one or more participants, not only of language, but of conventions that underlie the use of language in these situations.

In Situation #1, the listener feels insulted by the greeting "Mr. Toshiyuki." In Japan, family names are written first, so the appropriate English greeting would be "Mr. Saito." The interviewee must feel a bit awkward in realizing that his conversation partner understands so little about his cultural background and norms. The reason for the misunderstanding or insult is a lack of knowledge by the interviewer and a lack of effort on her part to seek clarification ("Do I have your name right?").

In Situation #2, the interviewer asks an open question which confuses the interviewee. She does not understand the function of the question. She may have been expecting more specific and direct questions about her background and experience (Where did you grow up? What did you study at university? etc.). As asked, the question sounds very informal and personal. The reason for the misunderstanding seems to be the interviewee's lack of knowledge of rituals in a job interview.

In Situation #3, the interviewee also misunderstands the function of the question, and also apparently at a deeper level misunderstands a basic function of the entire interview. He does not understand why the interviewer asks the question since apparently she already knows that he is unemployed. By answering the question literally, he endangers his chances of showing willingness to work, which is part of the expected underlying ritual in most job interviews. The reason for his interpretation is a misunderstanding of the motivation for the speaker's question.




How do communication styles differ?

The sociolinguist Deborah Tannen (1991) reports the following incident. A woman is out walking on a pleasant summer evening and sees her neighbor, a man, in his yard. She comments on the number of fireflies that were out that evening: "It looks like the Fourth of July." The man agrees and then launches into a lengthy commentary on how the insects' lighting is part of a complex mating ritual. The woman becomes irritated, abruptly finishes the conversation, and walks on.

As we can see in this case, people sometimes have different orientations to the purpose of a conversation. The woman made her comment about the fireflies as a way to show her feeling of appreciation for the pleasantness of the evening and to share that feeling with her neighbor. The neighbor apparently took this opening as a chance to reveal his knowledge of insects and to teach his neighbor some of the things he knows. While both neighbors had the good intention of engaging in a friendly conversation, they had differing expectations about the direction such a conversation should take. The man may have believed that a "good conversation" is one with interesting, factual content, while the woman may have believed a good conversation to be one with personal content which discloses our own feelings and beliefs.

What this implies for listening is that when we hear someone speak, we are not only hearing the words they say. We are also activating our own expectations and are evaluating the speaker in terms of our expectations. An important listening skill that we all need to develop is empathy: listening for the purpose of the conversation from the speaker's perspective. This is particularly important in cross-cultural communication.



TASK 8 -1 Conversational Style

Read the following accounts of difficulties with cross-cultural communication.

For each one, what caused the communication problem?

example 1: A British speaker

I go to a lot of social functions, for my job with an international company. I often find that Americans at these social functions, such as cocktail parties, seem to be rather forward. It often happens that an American , for example, will insist on knowing my full name. They'll even ask that I repeat it or spell it. But I'm sure they know that it's unlikely that we'll meet again, or if we do, they could simply ask for my name again. I think it's very rude, but of course I put up with it.

example 2: A Japanese speaker

I was visiting New York and was in a supermarket shopping. I was standing looking at a shelf, when I was bumped into by another shopper's cart. I turned to look and said "Oh, sorry," even though it wasn't my fault. T he man who bumped into me said, "Sorry, lady, I guess you were in the way." I was stunned at how rude this man was.

Comments on the task

In many situations, people will use their own cultural rules, even when speaking to someone from a different culture. For many Americans, asking full names and being sure they understand the name may be a way of showing friendship. Many Britons may find this behavior manipulative.

Apologizing is something that is done differently in different cultures. Japanese are well known for gracious apologies, even at the slightest mishaps, and even when the fault is not theirs. New Yorkers, probably more so than other Americans, are well-known for not apologizing and even for blaming.

In both situations, one party took offense at what another person said or did, even though the person did not intend to be rude.

What are stylistic rules for speaking and listening?

There are different kinds of stylistic rules that we use for speaking. Our knowledge of these rules affects the way we listen to others. Some stylistic rules relate to grammar and vocabulary choice, some relate to ideas we can or cannot express, and some relate to how we talk.

In the following interview situation, in which a white Australian is interviewing an Australian (South East Queensland) Aborigine, we see an example of stylistic differences in the use of question forms.

Interviewer: Were you very young then?

Woman: Eh?

Interviewer: You were very young?

Woman: I was about 14.

Interviewer: Your husband was a Batjala man?

Woman He was a Batjala.

Interviewer: And where was he from again?

Woman: Beg pardon?

Interviewer: He was from further south, was he?

Woman: He's, he's from here, not far from X station.

(from Eades, 1987)

In this conversation, we can see that the woman has difficulty understanding two questions: Were you very young then? and And where was he from again? She does not have difficulty understanding the questions when they are rephrased as yes-no questions with rising intonation: You were very young? and He was from further south, was he?

Task 8-2. Differences in ways of talking.

Think of a recent situation in which you have experienced difficulty talking to a person or difficulty understanding what the person was saying. Describe the situation in which the understanding difficulty arose. Was the difficulty due to vocabulary, grammar, ideas expressed, way of talking? If not, what may have caused the difficulty?




Comments on the task

Whenever I have asked people to do this task, I am surprised at the range of responses. Each one at first seems so different from the others, but then I tend to notice similarities within a complaint theme. I often hear anecdotes about difficulties due to gender differences (men complaining about women and vice-versa), age differences (young people complaining about old people and vice-versa), class differences (lower class people complaining about middle class people and vice-versa), race differences (blacks complaining about whites and vice-versa), and language differences (native speakers complaining about non-native speakers and vice-versa). An underlying theme in most anecdotes is the difference in expectations about how to talk, what topics to talk about and how long to talk about them, what words to use and not use.


How do we understand the rules of interaction?

As members of a culture, we have unconsciously acquired rules for all kinds of ritualistic encounters that we engage in. When someone violates our own rules in a ritualistic encounter (like how we answer the telephone, how we order a drink, how we ask someone for directions), we may feel offended.

Godard (1984), for example, points out some simple differences between telephone call beginnings in France and in the U.S. Godard says that callers are often heard as being rude when they skip certain steps that are considered obligatory by the person answering. In France all of the following steps are obligatory for the caller:

(1) check number

(2) excuse yourself for intruding

(3) name yourself

(4) ask for your friend

In the following example, the steps are executed in the expected order:

C: [dials number]

A: [picking up receiver] Allo?

C: Est-ce que c'est 546 7887?

A: Oui.

C: Excusez-moi de vous deranger. C'est Michel. Est-ce que Jean est la?

In the U.S., however, steps (1), (2), and even (3) may be considered optional for social telephone calls. In the following example, the caller goes directly to the key step.

C: [dials number]

A: Hello?

C: Can I speak to Joan please?

A: Yes, just a moment.

Godard points out that, in France, the listener (the person answering the telephone) may feel offended if the speaker does not provide immediate identification, and if the speaker does not offer some token apology for disturbing the household. Effective participation in a culture entails learning the expected steps for numerous rituals of this sort.

We can see in the following example how a lack of knowledge of rituals (here, ignorance of the adjacency pair: A: Is ________ there? B: Yes, speaking.) leads to misunderstanding.

A: Hello, is Mr. Simatapung there please?

B: Yes.

A: Oh...may I speak to him please?

B: Yes.

A: Oh...are you Mr. Simatapung?
B: Yes, this is Mr. Simatapung.

(from Richards and Schmidt 1983)

TASK 8-5 Rituals

What other rituals of interaction can you think of? Can you describe some of the basic rules for appropriate and inappropriate language behavior during the ritual?







CONCLUSION: Conversational frames in cross-cultural discourse

In this chapter, we have seen that cross-cultural conversation is often difficult for the participants. This difficulty is caused not only by unfamiliarity with the other speaker's language, but also by cultural differences. Culture helps us define our expectations in conversation. Based on our experience of the world in a given culture (or cultures), we organize our knowledge of conversation in a certain way and use it to predict how other people will talk. This knowledge guides our listening as we participate in conversation.

Cultural differences have very specific influences on our styles for participating. Gumperz has claimed that a person's social and ethnic background determines his or her pragmatic style – the way it seems most natural to express and interpret meanings in conversation. Invariably, these styles differ. If people do not have a common background, they will probably have acquired different pragmatic styles. This difference will in turn channel their communicative choices (selection of vocabulary, discourse patterns, and so forth) and their interpretations along different lines. "As a result, the ability to get things done in face to face settings is often a matter of shared background." (Gumperz, 1982: 210).

In spite of the difficulties that cross-cultural conversation presents, there are enormous benefits to be gained from learning to participate in an egalitarian way. By recognizing cultural preferences for conversation styles, we can compensate for differences and understand a range of new people, ideas, and experiences.

Project : Analyzing a cross-cultural encounter

In the following extract, the interviewee, an Indian male aged 40 (A) , approaches a teacher (B) at a language institute in England to request a language proficiency certificate that he needs for a job. His request for "an introduction" is apparently intended to allow the teacher at the center to recognize his problem and respond to his implied request. The teacher's understanding of his request for an introduction is apparently different. Read through the conversation and attempt to locate where in the conversation this misunderstanding arises. (Note that this transcription contains some of the features of conversation, such as pausing and overlapping, that Gumperz feels must be recorded in order to obtain a fuller view of what the interaction was like.)

{A is asking B how to complete the application form she has given him; B seems confused about why he is to fill this out }

A: you would me like to put on


B: oh no no

A: there will be some of the things you would like to


B: yes

A: write it down

B: that's right, that's right

A: but uh..anyway it's up to you

B: um... well...I..I Miss C.

A: first of all

B: hasn't said anything to me you see


A: I am very sorry if she hasn't spoken anything

B: (softly) doesn't matter

A: on the telephone at least

B: doesn't matter

A: but was very important...uh thing for me

B: ye::s tell, tell me what it is you want


A: Um, may I first of all request for the introduction please

B: Oh yes sorry

A: I am sorry


B: I am E.

A: Oh yes (breathy) I see....oh yes....very nice

B: and I am a teacher here at the Centre

A: very nice


B: and we run

A: pleased to meet you (laughs)


B: different courses

(A laughs)

yes, and you are Mr. ?

A: N.A.

B: N.A. yes, yes, I see (laughs) Okay, that's the introduction (laughs)

A: would it be enough introduction?

(from Gumperz 1983, p. 175)

If possible, record or obtain a recording of a similar cross-cultural encounter. Can you identify sources of difficulty for the people in the encounter? Can you identify particular skills that would help the people understand better?