waves back at you. Would you feel embarrassed? Probably. Now imagine you want to get the attention of a person across a
crowded, noisy room, and you wave your hand; you fully expect the person to respond to your wave. The only difference between
the two waves of the hand is that one wave had an intended meaning and the other did not. The essence of language and
communication is not so much the sounds and motions involved, as it is the meaning intended and the meaning understood.
Language is the human activity of conveying meaning with symbols which may be spoken, gestured or written. A symbol is
meaningful only because people give meaning to it. As we discussed in the first chapter, language forms part of the cultural
background people share. It is on the basis of this background that people can communicate.
Communication is the process of (1) making our meanings known to other people in symbolic ways, and (2) trying to ascertain
that others have understood our intended meaning by anticipating feedback. Speaking, gesturing and writing are acts of
sending messages, and feedback is the response we expect in return from our messages. Consider our example of waving
your hand to get the attention of someone across the room: The symbolic gesture is the waving hand; the meaning is that you
want the person's attention; the feedback is when the person's eyes meet yours. In a conversation, meanings flow back and
forth, and feedback is continually sent with facial expressions, posture, movements, and vocalizations like mm, ah, and so on.
The words, sounds, movements, etc., are all symbolic.
Written communication, on the other hand, moves mainly in one direction, from writer to reader, and the writer can only assume
that the reader understands his or her intended meanings. For this reason, written communication depends heavily on writers
and readers knowing accepted conventions such as (in English) punctuation, spelling, grammar and precise vocabulary.
Feedback is still a part of the process; it is assumed.
In most ordinary communication, we have reasons to believe our messages can be understood by our listeners or readers. We
rely on the assumption that other people share our intended meanings. In cross-cultural situations, we are often confronted
with entirely different, unexpected assumptions -- that is, unless we learn not only the language, but also the culture in which
language is rooted.
In this chapter, we will discuss language as oral, nonverbal and written communication from a cross-cultural point of view.
2.1. Oral communication
You can study language in two ways: With attention to grammar -- the way language is structured and the rules it follows -- or
with attention to what language does, how it achieves its purpose (which is communication), and how we use language to
communicate successfully. Our concern here is with successful communication.
You might believe that if you learn the vocabulary and rules of grammar in a foreign language, you can successfully
communicate with people in that language. I wish that were true, but I can say from experience it is not. The first time I sat down
to dinner with a Chinese family, I was told in Chinese, "慢慢吃," which I translated in my mind, "eat slowly." In my experience as a
native speaker of American English, the only people who tell you to eat slowly are your parents, and they usually express it as,
"Don't wolf your food." In other words, you are eating too fast, like a wolf, slow down. Also in this first visit, when it was time to
leave, my Chinese host said "慢走, 慢走," which I thought was a warning to be careful, as if I might trip on something in the
hallway, so I should "walk slowly." In fact, I completely misunderstood my host's polite wishes that I should enjoy my meal and
feel welcome to stay as long as I like. Successful communication, which is what you achieve when you have communicative
competence, requires more than grammatical competence.
2.1.2. Communicative competence
Language is social behavior, and in addition to knowing how to form a grammatically correct sentence, communicative
competence requires such knowledge as...
(1) the social roles and status of the interlocutors. Examples:
- Younger people often are expected to use different ways of speaking when addressing older people.
- An ordinary citizen would be expected to speak respectfully to a president.
- Men and women are expected to speak in gender-appropriate ways.
(2) the background knowledge interlocutors share:
- In my example above, I did not share the background knowledge that "慢慢吃" in that context means "enjoy your meal," or that "慢
走" is just a polite thing to say when a guest leaves.
- People often make verbal references to TV shows, music, previous conversations, etc., assuming the listener is familiar with
- People share a sense of what is controversial and how controversy should be discussed or avoided.
(3). what interlocutors are trying to accomplish in their interaction:
- An American host saying to a guest, "Well, look at the time!" means much more than the words spoken; the host is trying to tell
the guest it is time to leave.
- A friend to a friend: "I like your shirt." In one culture this might mean the friend is asking for the shirt. In another culture it might
be a compliment (meaning "That is a nice shirt").
- People expect interlocutors to know whether they "mean what they say" or if they are "just being polite."
In sum, successful communication requires knowledge and awareness of social context. The study of language as
communication in social context is called sociolinguistics, which considers the effects of all aspects of society on the way
language is used and meaning is conveyed. In simple terms, sociolinguistics is the study of who says what to whom and how,
in what situation.
Consider the interdependence of language and situation in this anecdote: Many years ago when I was in college, my
roommate, Freeman, was greeted on campus by Mu-ling, a Chinese friend of mine. Mu-ling wanted to know if I was in my
dormitory. She saw my roommate, walked up to him and said, "Hi, Freeman! This is Mu-ling. Is Ned there?" Freeman couldn't
control his laughter.
Mu-ling used the right language, but she used it at the wrong time. Apparently, Mu-ling learned set patterns of English speech
that are expected on the telephone. Unfortunately, she was speaking to Freeman face to face, and not on the telephone. She
should have said something like, "Hi Freeman! Remember me? I'm Mu-ling. Is Ned in his room?" There is only a small
difference in vocabulary between "this is Mu-ling" and "I'm Mu-ling," but in terms of communicative competence, the difference
2.1.3. Situation, grammar rules and native speaker habits
As a child, I learned a rhyme:
and your father will fall into a bucket of paint.
long been associated with low-class, uneducated people -- or so we are taught. The fact is, ain't is as legitimate a word as any
other, and educated people of all social classes will use the word when the situation calls for it. (As a learner of English, you
should probably avoid ain't until you know precisely how and when it is used.) Native speakers routinely and intentionally break
grammar rules. What teachers, parents and textbooks may call "bad grammar" is often preferred speech. It all depends on who
is speaking to whom in what situation -- sociolinguistic rules.
Popular music is full of examples where textbook grammar is ignored and indeed often unwelcome. Consider these phrases
from popular American songs (the grammatically correct version follows in parentheses):
You ain't seen nothin' yet (You haven't seen anything yet)
T'ain't whatcha do (It isn't what you do)
It don't mean a thing (It doesn't mean a thing)
grammatically, it would just sound wrong. The point to emphasize here is that, while grammar rules have their place, what is
considered right and wrong in native speech habits is largely a matter communicative competence.
Let's consider another example of flexible grammar rules. As a student of American English, you have no doubt learned that
you should continue to use the same verb tense that you start out with in a narrative, as in this example:
(1) "Last Tuesday I was at the zoo with my friends. All of a sudden, a monkey reached out of its cage and grabbed a lady's hat."
This event occurred in the past, and the verbs are therefore in their correct tense. However, when the actual speech habits of
native speakers are studied, will we find grammar rules correctly applied? Here is our example as it was actually spoken by a
(2) "Last Tuesday I was at the zoo with my friends. All of a sudden, this monkey reaches out of its cage and grabs a lady's hat."
Does the speaker know her grammar is incorrect? As with most native speakers of a language most of the time, this speaker
is not conscious of grammar at all. She is simply relating a story using acceptable conventions in American English. What
makes this more interesting is that native speakers are usually so unaware of these sociolinguistic conventions that they
would deny ever breaking grammar rules, and if asked to analyze (2) above, they would consider it "sloppy" or "low class"
speech. Sociolinguist Nessa Wolfson has studied this phenomenon by tape recording native speakers telling stories and
allowing the speakers to listen to the recording. Wolfson reports,
"Frequent mention was made of sloppy or 'low class' speech associated with this form [mixing past and present tense]. Yet
observation and analysis of tape-recorded narratives demonstrated that the use of this form depended not on speaker
background [social class or education] but on speech situation... When presented with the evidence, in the form of tape
recordings of their own stories, most subjects reacted with shocked displeasure." (1989 p. 42-43)
That speakers would be shocked and displeased when confronted with the way they actually use language illustrates the point
I emphasize throughout this book: Most of the interaction we have day-to-day is done automatically, and communicative
patterns are out of awareness.
2.1.4. Speech acts
Lately, my five-year-old son has a favorite phrase he uses almost every time he speaks: "By the way," as when he walks into the
room and says, "Uh, by th' way dad, what a' y' doin'?" He says this as a kind of conversation starter, and he has no idea of the
accepted usage of the phrase. He will learn the correct usage eventually, but the phrase is stored in his mind not as three
separate words, but as one utterance. A good deal of language is acquired in unanalyzed chunks, in phrases such as "lookit,"
("look at" something) "gotta go," "good grief" and "on second thought". Examples of this in Chinese are 真可惜， 太過分，幹嗎, and
so on. Native speakers often use set phrases without ever analyzing them.
Linguists use the term speech act to describe a minimal unit of verbal communication, that is, a chunk of common speech that
has a clearly-defined function. A speech act is what one intends to accomplish with language, such as greet someone ("what's
up"), give a compliment ("nice shoes"), apologize ("my bad"), answer the telephone ("city desk"), request information ("can you
help me out here"), offer a blessing ("go for it"), etc. Thus my son uses "by the way" to perform the speech act of starting a
Here is a short list of speech acts:
Greeting/parting, Apologizing, Requesting/refusing, Inviting, Offering, Suggesting, Disapproving, Excusing, Refusing, Thanking,
Complimenting, Blessing, Cursing, Complaining, Advising, Scolding
The speech act of complimenting someone's appearance, possessions, abilities or accomplishments is common in the
United States, more common probably than in Taiwan or many other cultures. Learners of American English would do well,
then, to understand this habit of complimenting. A study of compliments in American English will reveal much about the culture
-- much more than even native speakers of the language are generally aware.
Nessa Wolfson and others have done much research on compliments [1989, pp. 110 - 117]. Wolfson's compliment data
consists of more than 1,200 samples collected from a wide variety of day-to-day speech situations among middle class
speakers of American English. When examining a speech act, who the speakers are and the situations they are in must be
taken into account. Attention must be paid to who is complimenting whom, such as: woman to woman, family members, co-
workers, classmates, teacher to student, student to teacher, and so on. Wolfson's findings relate specifically to adult middle
class speakers of American English. The data may differ if collected, for example, from junior high school students, or from
upper class, "old money" families in Boston, or from working class speakers of British English.
The data are sorted by sentence pattern and the frequency in which a pattern appears, i.e.:
Looking at the frequency of these compliments, we see that only three sentence patterns make up 85% of the 1,200+
compliments collected. This indicates that complimenting is done in a formulaic way, in the same way as greetings ("Hi, how's
it going?") or apologies ("Oh, I'm sorry!") are set patterns. Complimenting is done basically as a ritual within rather narrow
boundaries. Consider also that the English language has many hundreds of positive adjectives to choose from, yet the
adjectives used most frequently in the compliment data consist of only five words: nice, good, beautiful, pretty, and great.
What do compliments tell us about American culture? First, why do Americans compliment each other so much? Perhaps it is
because we are taught to say "nice things," as the old motherly saying goes, "If you haven't got anything nice to say, don't say
anything at all." Not everyone compliments everyone all the time, however. Wolfson found that compliments on ability and/or
achievements are often given by higher status to lower status persons, as from boss to employee or teacher to student. But the
greatest number of compliments by far are given among people of equal status, and especially acquaintances, co-workers,
and casual (not close) friends. This suggests that Americans use compliments as "lubrication" in work situations, in social
networking, or as signals indicating, "I am friendly." Compliments are also often used between friends who haven't seen each
other for a while as greetings: "Hey, long time no see. You're looking good!"
Examining the kinds of things receiving compliments gives a clue to what is valued in middle class American culture. A
common compliment in Wolfson's data refers to something that is new or different, expressed in these samples:
Nice sneakers! (Addressee is wearing obviously new sneakers.)
I like what you've done with the place. (Addressee has made home improvements.)
You've lost weight! (Addressee looks thinner.)
commented on is weight loss, which is acceptable as a compliment in middle class America because thinness and fitness
are valued. Be forewarned, however, that commenting on weight gain is not acceptable! You will gain no friends nor open any
social doors by noticing that someone has gotten fatter.
Who may compliment whom? In a general sense, women receive the majority of compliments on appearance from other
women, such as on clothes, jewelry, etc. Men may also compliment women, but there is sometimes (not always!) the
possibility it will be construed as having romantic connotations. Men tend to compliment each other more on possessions or
achievements. Men may compliment each other on appearance (albeit rarely), but "beautiful" and "pretty" are almost never used
in reference to men. In sum, the rules of complimenting are complex, and are best learned in context.
The speech act of parting (also called leavetaking) requires not only saying "goodbye," but also some kind of indication or
announcement that one party intends to leave. This may be in person or on the phone, or in many other situations. I have a dear
English-speaking Chinese friend who is very faithful in calling me on the phone about once a month. I'm always happy to hear
from her, but I often need to cut the call short, and my natural (that is, my cultural) speech act is to say, "Well..." with a rising
intonation followed by a long pause. To me, this speech act clearly indicates I am ready to end the phone call, but my friend just
keeps on talking. Does Chinese culture have different rules for signaling the end of a telephone conversation, or is it just my
friend that doesn't recognize my signal?
When acquaintances meet in passing, as for instance, coworkers in a hallway at work, they must quickly decide what kind of
exchange is appropriate: Should they say "hello" and keep walking? Should they stop and chat? If they do stop, they will have to
perform a complete ritual including some sort of greeting and parting speech acts. For example:
A: Hey, did you catch "Idol"?
B: Ma-a-a-n, Simon!
A: (Imitating Simon) "That... was... awful"!
A&B: (Laughter, both start walking away)
method of parting. The parting could also be effected in complete silence, as long as both interlocutors understand the
There is so much implicit background in the above dialogue, it is nearly impossible to interpret it just by reading the words
spoken. A summary of the meaning transmitted is: A & B establish that they both watched the popular TV show "American Idol"
last night. They comment on Simon Cowell, the show's very critical judge, and humorously imitate his British accent and
manner of speaking. Using only a few words, but relying heavily on context and implicit knowledge of appropriate greetings and
partings in that context, the interlocutors have a satisfying conversation.
As I have illustrated so far with examples of flexible grammar rules, unanalyzed set phrases and speech acts, communication
is a process of conveying meaning in context, and the spoken word is only a servant to the process.