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Five Minutes with Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts

Navigating cross-cultural communication can be difficult and confusing. In their new book, Getting Through, authors Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts reflect on some of the challenges they've encountered, whether communicating face-to-face or via digital devices. 

What are some of the biggest mistakes one can make when communicating cross-culturally?

We wrote Getting Through to illustrate some of the reasons why cross-cultural miscommunication still occurs even though most people try very hard not to miscommunicate.  It may seem obvious that one of the biggest mistakes people can make is to assume that what is expected and appropriate in one’s own culture must therefore be expected and appropriate in all cultures. No surprises there. For example, most people know that in the United States, Canada, and most of South America and Europe, people drive on the right-hand side of the road. In the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand they drive on the left.

And yet, in spite of being fully aware of this rule, accidents still happen. When driving in an unfamiliar country, it’s very easy to turn the wrong way out of a parking lot and into oncoming traffic. This may be one reason why, in the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, rental cars in some parts of Japan are being outfitted with a sticker on the back that reads “A Foreigner is Driving.”

Of course, people don’t come with stickers that read “A Foreigner is Talking.” So in Getting Through, we wanted to focus on how language – especially pragmatics – can play a role in communication failures. For example, it’s important in all cultures to greet another person in a friendly way, but most Americans take for granted that words of greeting should be accompanied by a firm handshake and direct eye contact. However, that wouldn’t be appropriate in a country like China, where a light grip is typical. In Russia, a bone crushing handshake is expected. Brazilians expect a longer handshake than Americans might typically engage in, while in France, a quick shake is the norm. Although this is just one example of a particular gesture, it serves to illustrate the idea that few social rules are truly universal.

How do you define the term ‘pragmatics’?

Pragmatics refers to the way that social factors and situational contexts govern how we use language. It’s important for communication in general, but it’s absolutely crucial when talking with someone from a different culture. The level of formality involved in addressing someone matters in English, of course, but factors like relative age make forms of address even more important in a language like Korean. Without a knowledge of the pragmatics of another language, you can get all the words right – and yet say exactly the wrong thing!

How would you describe a person with pragmatic competence? How can one work on developing their own pragmatic competence?

The communicative goal of most people is to find a place for themselves in a linguistic community. To do this, it is important to develop skills that reflect appropriate language use based on one’s membership in a particular community. For example, teachers talk to other teachers differently than they talk to students. And students talk to other students differently than they talk to teachers. Pragmatic competence involves the flexibility to navigate changes in communicative style based on situational factors like these.

In order to develop this flexibility, it’s important to pay attention to the potential for communicative misfires and always to be open to correction from others.  Therefore, we wrote Getting Through to show the wide range of situations and thematic areas where communication can break down unexpectedly. Of course, our list was not exhaustive. But we hope that as a result of Getting Through, the reader will be better able to diagnose that, how, and why a particular miscommunication arose and will know what to do about it.

So much of communication is digital these days–what advice would you give to people who aren’t communicating face-to-face?

In Getting Through, we discuss how new forms of communication have led to new ways to signal humor or emotional states. Emoticons and emojis are just two examples of this evolution. However, the meaning of such symbols and characters isn’t always clear, and they may not have the same impact as actual words. An emoji of a crying face may not have the same communicative effect as texting the words “I’m sorry,” for example. When in doubt, spell it out!

What was something that surprised you while writing this book?

One surprise was that virtually all communication can be thought of as being cross-cultural to some degree. For example, the same issues that create problems for apologies between nations are also relevant when you apologize to your roommate or to an acquaintance.

When someone sees or thinks about cross-cultural communication, they often think about language translation. How does your book differ from this?

Getting Through focuses mostly on people engaging in face-to-face conversations that occur in real time (although we also included some research on online communication). Our goal was to explore some of the psychological factors that might cause communicative failures in these situations. Of course, the field of translation studies also looks at differences between languages and cultures, but the focus here tends to be on the role of the translator or interpreter as intermediary. Since we wrote Getting Through for a general audience that would not be using a translator or interpreter, we didn’t delve into the research on that topic.

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.