Chapter 8: Pragmatics

8.2 Cross-cultural differences in discourse

Comic strip made up of four panels. Panel 1: A boy attempting to catch a baseball, but missing. Caption at top: ”By the time I was 9, I had generalized a rule of pragmatics in English.” Panel 2: Girl talking to boy: “HA HA nice catch!” Boy: “gee thanks haha”. Caption at top: “”Americans often said the opposite of what they meant, for humor.” Panel 3: Japanese girl sitting in front of TV. Speech bubble above her: “”Wow he’s suuuch a good singer!” White aunt replies: “Oh! Are you being sarcastic?” Caption at top: “I tried using this tactic with my aunt *who is American) when I was visitng her once.” Panel 4: Japanese girl with speech bubble: “Um… …..no…? (I think?)” Aunt: “oh??” Caption at top: “Except I didn’t know what this phenomenon was called. Lol”
Figure 8.1. A comic about a Japanese child learning about sarcasm in American English.

 

Imagine a time where you were in a conversation with someone with a cultural background different from yours. Have there been times where miscommunication happened? As someone who immigrated to the United States from Japan at the age of 6, I certainly had experiences where American conversational rules felt really different from Japanese conversational rules. One of things I remember learning “how to do” in English is sarcasm (see Figure 8.1). Something I noticed was that Americans (in my 9-year old perspective) said blatantly false things, often to be funny, sassy, or mean. I distinctly recall one summer — I must’ve been 9 or 10 — where we visited a friend in Japan, and in a conversation with this friend, I used this new discourse tactic that I was so proud to have acquired. waa, kore cho: okaidoku-da-ne ‘Wow, that is such a good deal!’ I said in Japanese, pointing at super expensive jewellery in a magazine. I will never forget the confused look on my Japanese friend’s face. Studies support my anecdotal experience: Ziv (1988) found that American students are more sarcastic than Japanese students (see also Adachi 1996).

Different cultures have different values, and since language, culture, and society are intimately related, we expect different conversational rules for different communities. What counts as ‘friendly’ interaction? What counts as ‘polite’? Linguists who have done anthropological work have found imperatives (commands like “cut down that branch!”) can vary in terms of their perceived politeness from culture to culture: they may be more commonly perceived as rude in Australia than in China, for example (Wierzbicka 2003). In Canadian English, Why don’t you close the window? may be a perfectly polite request, but according to Wierzbicka, the literal equivalent of this in Polish — Dlaczego nie zamkniesz okna — would imply stubbornness on the part of the addressee (e.g., ‘why haven’t you closed the window yet like you should?! it’s the right thing to do!’). In ordinary conversational contexts, being honest is usually assumed to be one of the most important principles of conversation (Grice 1975), but what counts as “being honest” may vary from culture to culture. In some cultures, any falsehood — including fiction — is considered a “lie” (Danziger 2010).

When we study pragmatics, we need to be aware that there are cultures and conversational norms beyond your own. Encountering unfamiliar discourse rules in a language that you may not have encountered before may give rise to feelings of surprise, and that’s OK — but we hope that you will use your linguist mind to prevent this surprise from turning into negative judgments about other cultures and languages. Remember, all forms of language are valid!

 


Check your understanding

This is a reflection question with no right answer. Have you ever had an experience like the one described in the comic in Figure 8.1, where you had to learn new conversational rules in another language? Informally describe what the unfamiliar rule was, and compare it to conversational rules in your first language.


References

Adachi, T. (1996). Sarcasm in Japanese. Studies in Language. International Journal sponsored by the Foundation “Foundations of Language”20(1), 1-36.

Carson, T. L. (2006). The Definition of Lying. Noûs40(2), 284–306. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3506133

Danziger, E. (2010). On trying and lying: Cultural configurations of Grice’s Maxim of Quality. , 7(2), 199-219. https://doi.org/10.1515/iprg.2010.010

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In Speech Acts (pp. 41-58). Brill.

Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication. The Journal of Experimental Education57(1), 4-15.

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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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