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Conversation & Culture

double dutch

Conversation is like Double Dutch (jump rope with 2 ropes). Timing when to jump in can be difficult if you don't know the local rhythms and rules.

Conversation is fundamentally interactive. It requires response. This in turn requires a mutual understanding of conversational patterns/conventions.

Conversational patterns are highly structured and very difficult to shift. Even when you speak another language well, you probably still use your native language conversation strategies.

tennisAmerican conversation resembles a tennis or volleyball match. You can either serve a new idea, or aim for the ball another player just hit.You have to move quickly; someone else may get there first.

bowlingIn contrast, Japanese conversation is like bowling. Everybody watches respectfully and quietly and takes turns. You are not expected to respond to the previous statement, but to aim at the conversation goals.

      -- Sakamoto develops this apt metaphor in Polite Fictions

Here's one example of the subtle cultural knowledge one needs to play the conversation game skillfully.

Every culture has rituals for entering or closing a conversation. You can't just launch into your subject without preamble or suddenly hang up. Here are some of the cues we use to get out of a conversation in mainstream US culture:

  • Give less frequent feedback and eye contact
  • Sigh, cough, shift gaze away, glance at your watch, behind you...
  • Shift intonation
  • Indicate urgency (invoke the polite fiction " We're both busy people" )
  • Reprise of the main points of what people promise to do next
  • Say "Gotta go" or "bye-bye" but add reassurance that you intend to continue a pleasant connection, such as "See you soon." "Call me sometime."

An exceedingly polite conversation ending can draw out for many minutes.

Negotiating a conversation is quite a challenge, when you consider all the elements involved:
  • setting --where you talk
  • enter / exit
  • purpose
  • topics
  • formality
  • who talks to whom
  • turn-taking vs overlap
  • cues
  • appreciation
  • use of humor
  • how/if get to the point
  • direct/indirect
  • sequencing, order
  • pace
  • eye contact
  • attitude, tone of voice
  • silence
  • length of each utterance, of conversation as a whole

Differences between speakers in any of these elements can lead to irritation, moral judgments, or misreading of intent. When there are tensions between the participants already, these conversational differences can cause serious ruptures.

We have all listened to and participated in conversation nearly every day of our lives. Changing our communication styles and expectations is like asking the leopard to give up its spots. If you are involved in a cross-cultural or high conflict situation, try to be aware of how your conversational habits may be affecting your negotiations It may help to raise your observations about communication patterns with the other party (and this is the hard part) without a good/bad evaluation attached.

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