Intercultural trainers and academics are nervous of each other.
Academia either produces more and more complicated models or more and more vocal criticisms of the theoretical approaches of the trainers. Trainers, on the other hand, are accused of mis-applying models and theories or ignoring latest developments, and are branded culturist and reductionist. The best trainers, and the most resourceful academics, are more open minded and can take lessons from each other…

Which is why I dare to write a short article on pragmatics, or more specifically what pragmatics can bring to the debate about intercultural communication.

Intercultural communication studies are at some stage bound by their very nature eventually to concentrate on communication failure, examining the reasons for misunderstandings and miscommunications, verbal and non-verbal (Sierra, 2008) . Taking the view expressed by Scollon and Scollon (2001) that intercultural competence is the ability to communicate with

people in social interaction with each other  (Scollon, 2001)

we can state that all communication is intercultural. Taking the definition of pragmatics as explained by Atkinson, Kilby and Roca (1988:217; in Grundy 1995) that pragmatics focuses on the distinction between the literal meaning of a speaker’s words, and what the speaker may intend to mean by those words, we can see that pragmatics is one of the essential tools we have at our disposal to examine intercultural training.

When speaking to familiar people who share the same native language we can reasonably assume that the majority of our talk is understood, (for example in Molinksy, 2005) when, as in the case of intercultural communication we are talking across language or international borders we can presume that communication breakdown is more likely to occur.

A communication exchange can only be successful where it takes place within the realm of the participants’ shared knowledge and experience. As both speaker and hearer have to make presumptions about what this “common ground” entails, and within the cooperative principle the speaker must assume that the common knowledge is shared by all participants in the talk. However, crucially the speaker can never be sure that this is the case (Bosco, Bucciarelli, & Bara, 2006) . We can therefore deduce that one of the main causes of miscommunication is relying on false assumptions.

If you’re still reading, a more practical approach:

When you go into a client meeting, think about all the presumptions you make.

1. Language

Most meetings are conducted in English, but how many business people check in advance, or even better, apologise if they are unable to conduct the full meeting in their hosts’ language?

2. Intentions

We presume that we have similar intentions – in other words if we are there to present a proposal, we have a reasonable expectation that there is some chance of success.

3. Understanding

We have an instinctive ability to interpret verbal and non-verbal messages, and for clarifying meaning. However these are based on our own personal experience which may differ significantly from those of our partners in interaction. At a very simplistic level 99.9% percent (rough guess) equate BBC with the British Broadcasting Corporation, however my daughter knows the BBC as the Better Behaviour Centre at her school (fortunately she has no personal experience of it!).

Usually the context of a conversation gives us good clues as to what it means, but if she were to come home saying she had been to the BBC today and was then distracted by a phone call, she would get away with her crime completely without having uttered a single untruth – yet it is clear that I have been deceived.

In an international context, personal experiences are likely to be much more varied, and therefore conversations will have a much smaller area of common ground and higher levels of misunderstanding. With remote communications and slangy emails abundant, we need to double check our understanding instinct

4. Rules of engagement

Life is made up of rules, and communicative interactions even more so. The problem is no one has written the rules down. We nearly always manage to avoid swearing in front of our parents or at an important business meeting. We always manage to avoid addressing our closest friend as Mr Y or Ms Z (maybe occasionally with irony…). We understand at an instinctive level when a conversation is over, when it is our turn to talk, whom we can interrupt and who cannot be interrupted – these rules are part of our transition from babyhood to adulthood – we often term those who cannot adhere to these rules as “immature” – they have not learned the correct way.

However we assume that these underlying rules are universal, or at least that OUR rules are best and not to be questioned. I have no idea whether these pictures are genuine or not but they illustrate the point better than me

In summary these 4 points are scratching the surface of what we can gain as trainers from pragmatics without delving into overly complicated methodological debates and arguments. What better way to justify training content than referring to well researched academic texts that support our training activities. Austin in 1962 was one of the first to look at the intentions behind utterances, and by identifying the stages of locution, illocution and perlocution he implicitly recognises that what we actually say and the effect it has on our partner in discourse may be two (at least) very different things . Dascal makes the important point that participants in conversation must comply with two essential duties: to make oneself understood, and to understand (Dascal, 1999). As part of those duties, interlocutors make every effort to ignore superficial, insignificant “errors” in grammar, pronunciation in order to maintain a smooth flow of conversation – if we can promote the ways in which we can make ourselves understood and in return make it easier for us to understand others then we are achieving the goal of intercultural training

If we, as trainers want to provide training on avoiding intercultural misunderstandings then we should not ignore those who have gone before.

Atkinson, M. K. (1988). Foundations of General Linguistics (2nd Edition). London: Allen and Unwin.

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with Words. In Jaworski (1999).

Bosco F., M., Bucciarelli M. and Bara B., G. Recognition and repair of communicative failures: A developmental perspective [Journal] // Journal of Pragmatics. – 2006. – Vol. 38. – pp. 1398-1429.

Dascal M. Introduction to Special Issue: Some questions about misunderstanding Journal of Pragmatics. – 1999. – Vol. 31.

Jaworksi, A. C. (1999). The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge.

Scollon, R. S. (2001). Intercultural Communication. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sierra, J. J. (2008). Cross/intercultural training. A one-day seminar in preperation of travel abroad. Intercultural Education , 19 (3), 283-289.

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