SLLT, Vol. 4, 2004

Gabriela Pohl

"Perhaps the fascination that the study of cross-cultural pragmatics holds for language teachers, researchers, and students of linguistics stems from the serious trouble to which pragmatic failure can lead. No "error" of grammar can make a speaker seem so incompetent, so inappropriate, so foreign, as the kind of trouble a learner gets into when he or she doesn't understand or otherwise disregards a language's rules of use" (Rintell-Mitchell, 1989, cited in Trosborg 1994, p. 3).


As a migrant to Australia I have long been interested in looking at the sources of misunderstandings which can arise between anglo-saxon Australians and German-background speakers. What is it, which makes some German people, even if fluent speakers of English, come across as serious, blunt, overbearing, even arrogant? How can we better assist second and foreign language students to not only develop linguistic but also inter-cultural competencies? What knowledge, attitudes and skills should a "globally competent" (Lambert, 1999) person possess? Through my readings, I am increasingly convinced that the answer lies in the study of cross-cultural pragmatics. As Thomas (1983) has pointed out: "Every instance of national or ethnic stereotyping should be seen as a reason for calling in the pragmaticist and discourse analyst!" (p. 107).

At the beginning of my research I referred to a number of cross-cultural comparative studies which examine specific aspects of pragmatics across various language and ethnic groups, for example: praising and complimenting in the Polish and English language (Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk, 1989); issues of face in a problematic Chinese business visit to Britain (Spencer-Oatey & Xing, 2000); Japanese and English responses to unfounded accusations (Tanaka, Spencer-Oatey & Cray, 2000); argumentation and resulting problems in the negotiation of rapport in a German-Chinese conversation (Günthner, 2000); etc. While these studies are very interesting, they were initially too specific to assist me in gaining an overview of the issues involved in cross-cultural pragmatics. I therefore decided to start with a search for pragmatic universals, and to move from there towards culture-specific pragmatics, inter-cultural interactions and pragmatic failure, and finally towards implications for language teaching. This article summarizes my findings along each of these steps.


Yule (1996, p. 4) describes pragmatics as "the study of the relationships between linguistic forms and the users of those forms". While syntax is the study of how linguistic forms are arranged in sequence, and semantics examines the relationship between linguistic forms and entities of the world, pragmatics is concerned with the notion of implicature, i.e. implied meaning as opposed to the mere lexical meaning expressed (Grice, 1967, cited in Thomas 1995, p. 56). There are times when we say (or write) exactly what we mean, but much more frequently we are not totally explicit, as in the following exchange with is adapted from Wierzbicka (1991, p. 391):

Example 1: Two women discussing their children:

A: How is Tom going at school?
B: Ah, well ... you know what they say: boys will be boys.
A: Yeah, but girls are no easier ... you know what Jess did the other day? ...

Speaker B does not explicitly state how Tom is progressing at school. Still, her remark "boys will be boys", which is a tautology and literally quite meaningless, provides sufficient information to her interlocutor for the conversation to continue smoothly. In this case, Speaker B conveyed more than the literal meaning of her words would suggest. At other times the implicature of what is said may be quite different from the meaning of the words used, as in the following example:

Example 2: On being disturbed by the next-door neighbour's lawnmower early on Sunday morning:

A: Great way to wake up!
B: (grumpily) Sure is.

The above exchange is an example of what Grice has termed conversational implicature, while the use of the word 'but' in the following example provided by Thomas (1995, p. 57) is one of conventional implicature:

Example 3: "My friends were poor, but honest."

Regardless of the context in which it occurs, the word 'but' carries the implicature that what follows will run counter to expectations. The 'expectation' in example 3 being, that "poor people are dishonest".

Obviously, language users must share certain rules and conventions which enable them to understand one another in the many instances where the meaning and the intent, i.e. the illocutionary force (Yule, 1996, p. 48), of utterances are not explicitly stated. In his text "Logic and conversation" Grice (1975, cited in Thomas 1995, pp. 61-63) suggests four conversational maxims and the Cooperative Principle (CP) to explain the mechanisms through which people interpret implicature. Grice's Cooperative Principle states:

Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

Grice's formulated the conversational maxims of Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner as follows:

Quantity: make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purpose of the exchange). Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
Quality: Do not say what you believe to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Relation: Be relevant.
Manner: Avoid obscurity of expression. Avoid ambiguity. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). Be orderly.

Grice (1975, cited in Thomas 1995, p. 65) proposed that speakers frequently and blatantly fail to observe any of above conversational maxims to prompt the hearer to look for a meaning which is different from, or in addition to, the expressed meaning. Looking back at example 2 above, a pragmatically competent listener is most likely to interpret the speaker's utterance of "Great way to wake up!" as a sarcastic remark and to understand that the speaker is expressing annoyance at being woken up by the neighbour's lawnmower. However, a second language learner, even if s/he is quite fluent in English, may not necessarily arrive at the same conclusion.

Like Grice, other writers have attempted to formulate universals in language use. Brown and Levinson (1987, cited in Spencer-Oatey 2000, pp. 12-13) propose the concept of face as a universal human need and the key motivating force for politeness and rapport management. They maintain that face consists of two related aspects: negative face representing the desire for autonomy, and positive face representing the desire for approval. However, Brown and Levinson as well as Grice's have their critics. Linguists such as Matsumoto (1988), Ide (1989) and Mao (1994, all cited in Spencer Oatey 2000, p. 13) refer to the importance of "social identity" as a concept in Japanese and Chinese society, which has been omitted in Brown and Levinson's notion of face. Similarly, Wierzbicka (1991, pp. 67-68) describes aspects of Grice's and Brown and Levinson's work as "ethnocentric" with a strong "anglo-centric bias" and cautions against attempts to formulate language universals at the expense of culture-specifics.

Another attempt at finding language universals was made by Leech (1983, cited in Spencer-Oatey 2000, p. 39), who formulated six politeness maxims as follows:

    a. minimize cost to other
    b. maximize benefit to other

    a. minimize benefit to self
    b. maximize cost to self

    a. minimize dispraise of other
    b. maximize praise of other

    a. minimize praise of self
    b. maximize dispraise of self

    a. minimize disagreement between self and other
    b. maximize agreement between self and other

    a. minimize antipathy between self and other
    b. maximize sympathy between self and other.

Leech (1983, cited in Bond, Zegarac & Spencer Oatey 2000, p. 56) proposes that the maxims of politeness work in conjunction with Grice's four conversational maxims, above, but concedes that they may vary in importance from culture to culture. For example, in the context of responding to compliments, the Modesty Maxim clearly outweighs the Agreement Maxim in Japanese society, while in English-speaking societies it is customarily more polite to accept a compliment "graciously", i.e. to find a compromise between violating the Modesty Maxim and violating the Agreement Maxim (Leech, 1983, p. 137).

Clearly, it is difficult if not impossible to come up with universally applicable rules for language use as each culture has more or less culture-specific pragmatic features.


Many culture-specific pragmatic features are implicit, but they are nonetheless central in communicative encounters. The following are just some examples:

mental sets: a frame of mind involving an existing disposition to think of a problem or a situation in a particular way (Sternberg, 1995, cited in Zegarac & Pennington 2000, p. 166); e.g. what is the meaning of an offer of coffee after a meal; is it an invitation by the host to stay a little longer or a polite hint to guests that it is time to leave?

schemata: a pre-existing knowledge structure in memory involving a certain pattern of things (Yule, 1996, p. 88); e.g. what constitutes an apartment, a holiday, a school, a restaurant etc.

scripts: a pre-existing knowledge structure for interpreting event sequences (Yule, 1996, p. 87); e.g. a visit to the doctor, shopping at a supermarket, phoning to make an appointment at a hairdressing salon, etc.

speech events: a set of circumstances in which people interact in some conventional way to arrive at some outcome (Yule, 1996, p. 57); eg. how does one make a request, a compliment, express disagreement or a complaint etc.?

sociocultural norms determine culturally appropriate paralinguistics, phatic utterances, opening/closings, turn-taking, the use of silence etc. (Barraja-Rohan, 2000, p. 65)

linguistic etiquette (Kasper, 1997, p. 381): determined by factors such as relative social distance between interlocutors, social power or authority, the degree of imposition associated with a given request or other face-threatening act, etc.

pragmatic accent (Yule, 1996, p. 88): aspects of a person's talk which indicate what s/he assumes is communicated without being said.

Given the extent of cross-cultural variations, it is not difficult to imagine that inter-cultural encounters can be a challenge for interlocutors with the potential risk of inter-cultural pragmatic failure. It should be noted that inter-cultural is not restricted to mean native-non-native interactions, but any communication between persons who, in any particular domain, do not share a common linguistic or cultural background; e.g., workers and management; members of ethnic minorities and police; in the context of academic writing, university lecturers and new undergraduate students; young people and the elderly etc. (Thomas, 1983, p. 91). For the purpose of this assignment, however, discussion will focus on native-non-native speaker interactions. At this point it is also interesting to note a word of caution by Gudykunst's (2000, p. 314) which states that cross-cultural (i.e., comparative) studies do not necessarily tell us how people will behave or react when they take part in inter-cultural interactions.


Riley (1989) suggests the following definition for pragmatic errors: "Pragmatic errors are the result of an interactant imposing the social rules of one culture on his communicative behaviour in a situation where the social rules of another culture would be more appropriate" (p. 234). According to Liebe-Harkort (1989) difficulties in intra-cultural communication are potentially compounded further, if one of the speakers is monolingual and cannot imagine that the intentions of their speaking partner may be different than his or her own would be if s/he were to use a form or expression the other uses. Clearly, communicative competence must include pragmalinguistic competence (i.e., choosing appropriate form) and sociopragmatic competence (i.e., choosing appropriate meaning) if inter-cultural pragmatic problems are to be avoided (Trosborg, 1994, p. 10).

Various examples of inter-cultural pragmatic problems were already mentioned in the introductory part of this assignment. Interested readers may wish to look up the references provided or refer to other documented studies available. Given the nature of this assignment and my particular interest in pragmatic "misunderstandings" involving German background speakers, I will briefly highlight some of the culture-specific pragmatic features identified in two of the studies I have read so far:

Pavlidou (2000) examined telephone conversations in Greek and German and found marked differences in the way Greeks and Germans manage each of the three sections of a telephone conversation, i.e., opening, main topic, closing:

Juliane House (2000) reports on two examples of mismanaged rapport in meetings between German and American students and concludes with the following observations: "German speakers tend to interact in many different situations in ways that can be described as more direct, more explicit, more self-referenced and more content-oriented. German speakers are also found to be less prone to resort to using verbal routines than Anglophone speakers" (p. 162).

Similar findings are reported by Günthner (2000), whose German subjects even in an exchange with Chinese students seem to "cherish the idea of having a good argumentative exchange" and who used "dissent-ties" and other strategies in order to maximize contrast and to build an antagonistic counter-position and antithesis to that of their Chinese interlocutors.

In all of the above examples, at least temporary cultural dissonance resulted. Participants were unable to retain emotional equilibrium (House, 2000) and were overcome by a sense of misunderstanding and disappointment. House points out that an emotional reaction is often "the major factor responsible for a deterioration of rapport and for the mutual attribution of negative personal traits which, in turn, prevent any recognition of real differences in cultural values and norms". Clearly a disappointing result for any intercultural encounter! So, what implications can be drawn from these findings for educational goals in general and for the practice of second and foreign language teaching in particular? Is it possible to offer inter-cultural instruction and training without inadvertently creating a new version of stereotypes, i.e. "analytical stereotypes" (Tzanne, 2000, p. 8)? Or in the words of Riley (1989): "Is it possible to make value-free statements about the differences between two cultures"? and "Where does acculturation stop?" (p. 234).


It is often claimed that knowledge without justification is not real knowledge, and pragmatic knowledge is no exception (Zegarac & Pennington, 2000, p. 180). It is not enough for people to be aware that cross-cultural pragmatic differences exist, e.g. that it is quite appropriate to adopt an argumentative style in informal conversation with German speakers. Learners also need to understand why such conventions are accepted, i.e. that to many Germans, it makes conversation more interesting and lively, it indicates that interlocutors take each other's views seriously, and so on.

Striving for intercultural competence does not mean assimilation into the target culture. Rather, intercultural language learning involves the development of a "third place" between the learner's native culture and the target culture, i.e. between self and other (Liddicoat, Crozet & Lo Bianco, 1999, p. 181). Language learners need to understand what native speakers mean when they use the language, even if they do not choose to replicate native speakers' behaviour (Liddicoat, 2000, p. 51).

Schmidt (1993, cited in Cook 1999, p. 1) highlights the importance of conscious noticing of linguistic forms, functional meanings, speech styles and relevant contexts. Trosborg (1994, p. 481) and Kasper (2001, p. 515) also advocate the sharpening of learners' awareness of appropriate pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic behaviour through explicit teaching and metapragmatic treatment of pragmatic features by way of description, explanation, and discussion. More specifically it is suggested that pragmatic and grammatical awareness are largely independent, and that "high levels of grammatical competence do not guarantee concomitant high levels of pragmatic competence" (Bardovi-Harlig, 1999, cited in Kasper 2001, p. 506). Thomas (1983, p. 110) concurs in suggesting that pragmatic competence cannot be simply 'grafted' on to grammatical competence and that there may even be cases of pragmatic fossilization.

Barraja-Rohan (2000) proposes conversation analysis as a tool in the teaching of conversation and sociocultural norms. Her model of teaching methodology is illustrated in Figure 1 below. It represents a conscious attempt at drawing together and expanding students' knowledge and understanding of L2 pragmatic features in conjunction with positive/negative pragmatic transfer from their first language (L1). Incidentally, Kasper (2001, p. 511) notes that studies of interlanguage pragmatic use and development consistently demonstrate that adult learners rely heavily on universal or L1 based pragmatic knowledge.

Figure 1: An exploratory approach to the teaching of sociocultural norms (Barraja-Rohan, 2000, p. 71)

Finally, Kasper's (2001, p. 522) observation on what is required of teachers themselves is worth noting: Teachers must be sufficiently socialized to L2 pragmatic practices, so that they can comfortably draw on those practices as part of their communicative and cultural repertoire, and so that their metapragmatic awareness enables them to support students' learning of L2 pragmatics effectively. This is a challenging requirement to fulfill, given that much of our pragmatic knowledge is implicit and only becomes available to us through careful observation and conscious practice at distinguishing between expressed and implied meanings.


This project has provided me with a useful overview of some important issues in the study of cross-cultural pragmatics. Clearly, more research is needed to allow me to effectively integrate above findings into my own teaching practice. However, it has encouraged me to examine the textbooks and materials I use from a pragmatic perspective, and will assist me in helping learners to become more aware of features in their own native language. I am now in a better position to place the findings from very specific cross-cultural studies into perspective and look forward to examining culture-specific pragmatics of German and Australian English further. Texts such as Wagner (2001), Stevenson (1997), and Lo Bianco and Crozet's (2003) most recent publications will provide a very useful starting point.

I would like to close with a remark adapted from (Wierzbicka, 1991) which illustrates the significance of inter-cultural pragmatic competence for all citizens in multi-ethnic societies:

In multi-ethnic countries like Australia, the United States [or Germany], the problem of speech acts and their cultural significance is not a purely academic one. It is a problem of immense practical significance. As long as it is widely assumed that English [or German] conversational routines reflect what is 'ordinary', 'normal' and 'logical', the prospects for cultural understanding between immigrants and Anglo-Saxons [or Germans] are remote, and institutions such as schools, courts or government departments, as well as the streets and 'market places' are, inevitably, an area of cultural clashes and cultural misunderstandings. (p. 64)

It is my view that educators the world over have the potential and a responsibility to contribute towards inter-cultural understanding and to assist their students in the development of global competencies.


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Zegarac, V., & Pennington, M.C. (2000). Pragmatic transfer in intercultural communication. In H. Spencer-Oatey (Ed.), Culturally speaking - Managing rapport through talk across cultures (pp. 165-190). London: Continuum.

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