Even when using the same language, people might misunderstand each other.
The meaning of a message is conveyed by two means: the actual words used and the way those words are used. What we mean is not always a literal translation of what we say. The true meaning of any utterance lies in how it is said. The literal translation of ‘Could you pass the salt?’ is a question about ability, but the intention is a request. The literal translation of ‘Must you be so insensitive?’ is a question, but the intention is to rebuke.
For mutual understanding, both parties in an exchange must adhere to a common system of language use. Within a cultural setting, members share a common understanding of the hidden rules of language. Speakers and listeners from the same culture draw on a shared set of cultural norms for communication to attribute meaning to a message. Shared rules for language use helps each party to understand the other, even when the meaning of the message is not literal.
Across cultures, there are differences in how people use language to convey and interpret the meaning of messages. Often these differences reflect variations in cultural values. People use language differently because they think differently. Language reflects preferences for certain ways of being or thinking.
Thank you, not?
For example, when responding to compliments or praise, Chinese speakers may disparage themselves to convey respect. Modesty is an important element of politeness. But English speakers tend to respond to compliments with a simple ‘thank you’; acceptance of a compliment conveys respect to the giver. English speakers might interpret a Chinese speaker’s debasement as insulting. It diminishes the validity of their compliment.
The Queen’s English
Communicative rules are culture-bound, not language bound. Differences in language use occur even among cultures that share the same language. There are disparities between American and British English speakers. Singapore English does not endorse personal autonomy, but Anglo English does. Within societies, there are individual differences in language use, and also those related to subcultures such as class, gender, and generation.
When people from different cultures adhere to their own language rules, the result can be communication breakdown. Even if they are speaking the same language, different communicative rules can cause a failure to create shared meaning. This causes misunderstanding, frustration, and conflict.
Sticking to one’s own system of language use during an intercultural exchange has social ramifications too. Language simultaneously conveys messages and promotes important social goals. When there is a mismatch in language rules, speakers might accidentally breach social codes. They can be judged as disrespectful, rude, deceitful, or arrogant. Or insincere, insensitive, uncaring, or abrupt.
Mismatches in language rules contribute to negative national stereotypes, such as the ‘brash American’ or ‘unfriendly Chinese’.
It’s all Greek to me!
Fluent speakers are penalised more harshly than less competent speakers. Grammatical errors are obvious signs of language incompetence, but mismatches in language rules are much more subtle. Because individuals are not consciously aware of their culture’s communicative rules, they are unlikely to recognise unintentional breaches by others.
Easier said than done
It is difficult to learn a foreign language. It’s even harder to learn how to use it appropriately. Our own cultural codes for communication are deeply ingrained and largely unconscious. Studies show that second language learners, even at high levels of fluency, frequently apply the rules of their first language when communicating in the foreign language.
Become a cautious and optimistic hearer
With the widespread adoption of English as a global language, native English speakers should not ignore their roles as listeners. Listeners need to become ‘cautious and optimistic hearers’. With this mindset, hearers recognise the possibly of mismatch in language rules. They are better able to reject initial negative impressions of the speaker, and they consciously seek more likely interpretations of the speaker’s intent.
A cautious and optimistic mindset starts with the belief that the other party is benevolent. It holds the belief that others do not want to deceive, to be impolite or rude, or to impose. It entertains the possibility of a communicative mismatch before making assumptions of disrespect, deviance, or incompetence. Listeners who employ this mindset during intercultural interactions are more likely to interpret a message accurately. A cautious and optimistic mindset promotes harmonious and effective communication.