Culture in language: hotspots

Ideally, international businesspeople should have an encyclopaedic knowledge of cultures to which they are exposed and particularly of those they wish to do business with. They should also know their history, politics and economics, not to mention their geography. This ideal is achievable only for a maximum of one to two countries and cultures. That, however, is not enough in the globalised world. There, “global” or “cultural nomads”, or “globals” (cf. Elliott and Urry 2011), i.e. people who are distinguished by high mobility, who - as managers - travel frequently because of their job or actually move abroad, are more the norm than the exception, and each international contact involves several countries with which the individual participant must interact. The aim must therefore be to develop strategies which increase the chances for successful interactions with members of as many cultures as possible. An awareness of how one is moulded by one’s own culture helps in doing this, as does an intensive engagement with even just one other culture. Both of these create and foster a sensitivity to possible sources of friction and conflict triggers.

From a linguistic point of view it makes sense to study awkward moments typical of each interaction type. This area is dealt with in linguistic intercultural (business) communication research under various headings, e.g., as “hotspots”, a term used by German-studies specialist Hans Jurgen Heringer for situations regulated, whether verbally or non-verbally, in all cultures in a specific way, and which are also difficult to manage intraculturally in some circumstances. These include choosing between formal and informal forms of address (for example, du and Sie in German), making contact, criticising, agreeing, disagreeing and greeting (Heringer 2010:162-173).

Heringer refers to a whole palette of verbal and non-verbal options for expressing agreement and disagreement (Heringer 2010: 169-170). However, the decisive question is, as he rightly observes, whether disapproval is expressed directly or indirectly. In Japan smiling, nodding or even a spoken affirmation can be a “no” veiled in politeness (Heringer 2010:170). Additionally, and for good reason, there are many more options for the face-threatening refusal, from which successful speakers select carefully. Agreement is well known to be gladly accepted (cf. Pomerantz 1984) - which is exactly why questions in advertising or even propaganda are formulated in such a way that the chance of a positive answer is as high as possible. This is universally valid, though with significant culture-specific and also individual deviations. The individual preferences of conversational partners are only learnt with time, but culture-specific tendencies should already be known. Pragmatic research on direct or indirect forms of expression yields information on individual cultures which also covers how to formulate disapproval delicately. An important, actually non-linguistic approach to intercultural (business) communication research is devoted to this difference between direct and indirect expression: the study of high and low-context cultures (cf. Section 4.7)

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