Will and Power: Towards Radical Intercultural Communication Research and Pedagogy1
Shi-xu and John Wilson
University of Ulster at Jordanstown, School of Psychology and Communication, Newtownabbey, County Antrim BT37 0QB, Northern Ireland, UK
Much of interculturalcommunication researchand training has rested on the presumption that the key to intercultural communication and understanding is knowledge and skills in the relevant language and culture. In this paper, we argue that what is missing from this perspective is, crucially, power relations and the willpower to overcome them. Proceeding from this ethical and political stance, we suggest that research,education and training take on the role of institutional moral agents and turn their attention to critiquing power practices on the one hand and cultivating the ethical motivation to construct common goals on the other. As empirical illustrations of research, we examine, firstly, how intercultural ‘(mis)understandings’ are utilised to suit political and economic interests and, secondly, what members themselves feel to be the cause of failures in intercultural communication. In conclusion, we discuss some implications for pedagogy.
It may be asserted that mainstream intercultural communication theory has by and large centred round two sets of interrelated assumptions. On the one hand, success or failure of intercultural communication depends on individuals’ knowledge and skills – ‘competence’ – in the relevant linguistic and cultural systems. On the other hand, the medium of communication, language, contains and conveys objective meanings. Consequently, commonality and understanding can be achieved if group members possess the same sort of information and are able to exchange it through the same language. Or, similarly, differences and difficulties will arise when members process linguistically or culturally differential inputs and outputs. These starting points explain the tremendous energy and efforts that have been exerted on the ‘linguistic’ and ‘cultural’ causes of misunderstanding and communication breakdown. Indeed, the study of linguistic and cultural difference, or its variant forms, has become the dominant genre in our field. Witness books on differences in linguistic structure (e.g. Wierzbicka, 1991), discourse structure (e.g. Scollon & Scollon, 1995), speech acts (e.g. Blum-Kulka et al., 1989), cognition (e.g. Gudykunst, 1988; Kim, 1991; Ting-Toomey, 1999) and social systems (e.g. Hofstede, 1980; Trompenaars, 1993) between people of different cultural backgrounds. Under the same rationale are the thriving intercultural education and training programmes (e.g. Cushner & Brislin, 1996) that offer to minimise chances of breakdown and increase chances of success by imparting expertise about target languages and cultures. We do not want to deny the interest of these research projects and training
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exercises. Competence in the relevant language and culture can undoubtedly be valuable potentials for effective and successful intercultural communication and understanding. But what we do want to question, as we shall do below, is their underlying theoretical underpinnings and their political consequences, as well as their institutional foundations. For the moment, suffice it to say that the misunderstanding-oriented approach fails to recognise, or perhaps more correctly, is reluctant to acknowledge, that communication is not simply a matter of exchanging objective meanings and hence of understanding; rather, it is a socially and jointly constructed (inter)action of which power is an indissoluble part. Accordingly, we shall propose a Social-Constructionist Discourse Studies approach to intercultural communication. It proceeds from our basic observation that intercultural communication on a global level is steeped in relations of power and domination. Research and education in this field should strive to change this dismal reality as its central, and certainly feasible, goal. For power, whether or not in the form of self-interest, the social condition of domination or the interactional effect of excluding others, also exists within the competing moral order of human societies, where countering moral actions are possible. In this case, research, education and training programmes and institutions can play a pivotal role. Moreover, there are possible methodological strategies that may be devised and practised to this end. And here, such programmes and institutions occupy a privileged place. Thus, for example, we can draw on existing critical traditions, such as Critical Theory and Feminism, and shift attention to undermining power practices and creating new and helpful ways of communication. In the following, we first re-examine the foundations of mainstream intercultural communication theory and research. Then, we outline our own approach to intercultural communication from the perspective of Social Constructionist Discourse Studies. Finally, to illustrate the current approach, we offer some empirical studies of how (will)power can be related to the outcomes of intercultural communication. In conclusion, we discuss methodological implications for education and training.
‘ Cross-cultural Competence’ and ‘ (Mis)Understanding’ ?
In the mainstream intercultural (communication) research and training, there are two interrelated foundational concepts, namely, ‘cross-cultural competence’ and ‘misunderstanding’. They have guided research and shaped education in the field of intercultural communication. ‘Cross-cultural competence’ normally refers to knowledge about and skills in the cultural Other’s language and culture as well as the working language and associated culture. They are the key to success; otherwise, so goes the theory, ‘miscommunication’, ‘misunderstanding’, and hence, ‘communication breakdown’ will result. ‘Misunderstanding’ usually means the imprecise or wrong mental representation of the intended meaning of the previous speaker (or for that matter the writer), often based on one’s own cultural and linguistic perspective. In intercultural communication, ‘misunderstanding’ is regarded as the main problem, because it (or the person who ‘misunderstands’) is thought to be the cause of all other problems of
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intercultural communication and relation. When members of two cultures come to interact with each other, their only difference is their respective cultural and linguistic knowledge, and it is that that gives rise to problems. On the other hand, the more ‘cross-cultural competence’ one has, the less ‘misunderstanding’ one will have in intercultural communication, hence the more smooth and successful contact and relation one will have (Cushner & Brislin, 1996; Hofstede, 1980; Trompenaars, 1993). For example, Scollon and Scollon (1995: 11–12) assume that ‘communication works better the more the participants share assumptions and knowledge about the world. Where two people have very similar histories, backgrounds, and experiences, their communication works fairly easily because the inferences each makes about what the other means will be based on common experience and knowledge […] Successful communication is based on sharing as much [sic] as possible the assumptions we make about what others mean’. Therefore, they propose two principles for solving the intercultural problem (p. 13): ‘The first approach is based on knowing as much as possible about the people with whom one is communicating. […] The second approach is based on making the assumption that misunderstandings are the only thing certain about interdiscourse [intercultural] professional communication’. In a way, the two sociocultural communities in Northern Ireland can be said to have a near-ideal situation that such a model is usually based upon can be said to share the same language and cultural history and know each other perfectly well. But their communication has been as troubled as any human communication can be (Wilson, 1990, 1994; Wilson & Ross, 1997). This is of course just a caricature of the situation in Northern Ireland; but our point is that mere linguistic and cultural knowledge is not a necessary, not even a sufficient, condition for the success of intercultural communication. Intercultural communication theory in general and notions of ‘cross-cultural competence’ and ‘misunderstanding’ in particular have largely been a derivative of the positivist, semiotic-informational, and individualistic model of communication (but see e.g. Keesing, 1991; Kramsch, 1998). Here we are reminded of those ‘Communication Theory’ and social psychology approaches to intercultural communication (e.g. Carbaugh, 1990; Gudykunst, 1988): ‘Communication’ is thought to be describing or reporting reality, hence giving information, and expressing ‘meaning’; and its goal, accordingly, is the (mental) understanding of the relevant expression by the listener/reader. (If communication were not descriptive, then the issue of ‘(mis)understanding’ would simply not arise.) Let us call this ‘representionalist’ view of communication. What is wrong with that? In such a view, ‘linguistic/cultural difference’ is merely a difference in describing things (e.g. reference, evaluation) between members of two cultures. But the performative or social-action nature of communication (Austin, 1962; Wittgeinstein, 1968) is ignored, and so are the consequences of the action thereby. Moreover, a vacuum of power and interest within communication is presumed. In addition, the social (e.g. conversational) organisation underlying the communicative process is removed from the picture. Part of the reason for these oversights may be that the exclusion of the socially organised, moral order from intercultural communication theory is consistent with the positivist approach to sociocultural research. For cultures, languages and social interaction must be isolated neatly from social interpretation and
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power struggle: in order to produce a science of (intercultural) communication; communication breakdown must be reduced to external causes, in order to provide a powerful explanation. Moreover, reducing (the meaning of) communication to the individual speaker/interpreter(‘s description) also serves the purposes of the knowledge and information-based cross-cultural communication training programmes and other related enterprises. It should be reflected furthermore that the oversights in intercultural communication research and training may have to do with the natural fact that theory, research and training are normally organised and conducted by the more ‘powerful’ and more ‘successful’ elite groups. Indeed, intercultural research and training projects and programmes are often funded and supported by multi-national and other corporate organisations. In consequence, we can often hold the ‘incompetent’ individuals to blame, or more charitably, the languages and cultures that they carry with them. More importantly, the power interests and power practices involved become smoothed over, and dominance and control perpetuated. Let us illustrate the problems of this approach by a rather classic analysis of the intercultural communication breakdown. In showing the problem besetting intercultural communication, Johnstone (1989) describes the troubles that Americans had with Arabs. The story goes that some American women counsellors from a Washington organisation that facilitates educational exchange programmes between the United States and various Middle Eastern countries try to help place Arab students at appropriate American universities and arrange for their transportation, orientation and housing. These counsellors felt however that they were ‘put upon’ by these Arabs. For, although they had told them that some services were impossible, these students still phoned or wrote repeatedly to demand them. Finally, they announced to the counsellors that they felt hurt and ignored and that the counsellors weren’t doing their jobs and didn’t care about their clients. Johnstone found that ‘this was painful for the counsellors, who certainly did care about their clients and were doing their best to carry out the organisation’s policies fairly and to communicate clearly. In the end, the counsellors decided that the problem was that they were women and their student clients for the most part were men, thus confirming the common but inaccurate North American belief that Arab men don’t like women. Gradually they came to dislike the people they were trying to help’ (pp. 140–1). The cause of the problem? ‘Cross-cultural differences in styles of persuasion, or in how language is used rhetorically.’ What is missing from this account seems to be that the institutional power position of these staff renders their actions, not an obligation of an exchange programme, but a charitable service to the students. Moreover, there is a significant correlation of the ‘common but inaccurate North American belief’ manifested in the current case with the long-standing American antagonism and repression against the Arab world. Thus, stereotypes are not merely inaccurate mental perceptions but inextricably bound with a desire for control and domination of others. There is a serious sense, then, in which inter-group/cultural conflicts, or synergetic efforts, are enabled not simply by ‘the knowing or understanding of the language and culture of the Other’, but, far more importantly, by power and politics (Keesing, 1991: 50). More seriously, reducing (mis)understandings or (mis-)communication to
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particular linguistic and/or cultural structures (and for that matter cognitive stereotypes), or even to individuals’ incompetence, is not only to collude with the existing unequal power relations – including the dominating (socioeconomic) power, (cultural) interest, (business) motive – in which all ‘intercultural’ communication takes place, but also, thereby, at least potentially, to obscure and legitimate the power-motivated practices of domination or prejudice associated with the so-called misunderstandings, miscommunications and frustrations.
A Social Constructionist Approach to Intercultural Communication
In the following, we shall outline a Social Constructionist Discourse Studies (SCDS) approach to intercultural communication and we shall do this by sketching some basic relevant concepts and their implications for research and education. The SCDS framework, quite briefly, is characterised by three interrelated components. First, it takes up language use – ‘discourse’ – as research object and regards it as not just description, but essentially meaning-making and so world-making social interaction. Secondly, it views all knowledge, including scientific knowledge (of language), as embedded in cultural and historical practice. Third, it sets for itself politically motivated objectives for research and pedagogy (Shi-xu, 1997, 1999, 2000a, 2000b).2 To begin with, we view intercultural communication as a phenomenon to be accounted for in a general theory of discourse. ‘Discourse’ is understood as first and foremost a joint meaning-making and so world-making activity in the historical and cultural context through the use of primarily linguistic symbols. Intercultural communication can be considered as intercultural discourse, i.e. discourse with an intercultural-meaning dimension. (But for the sake of common terminology, we shall continue to employ this coinage.) There is an increasing amount of discourse-oriented work on intercultural communication (e.g. Blommaert & Verschueren, 1991, 1998; Koole & Ten Thije, 1994; Meeuwis, 1994; Sarangi, 1994; Shi-xu, 1994b) and the present notion draws on this new perspective. In analysing intercultural communication (discourse), we need to make explicit notions of ‘culture’ and ‘intercultural’ as well. ‘Culture’ is seen here as a set of interrelated meaningful entities embedded in discourse, which can be, typically, the origin, ethnicity, religion, language, nationality and patterns of thinking and acting of a particular group of people associated with a particular geo-political place and historical time. Other meaning components, e.g. gender and age, can also be cultural, but usually they concur with other elements such as those mentioned above. Such meanings are not stable across situations but flexible. A pervasive meaning of culture is identity, which may be manifested in at least two forms: cultural-Self (‘we’/’us’) and cultural-Other (‘they’/’them’). It is important to stress here that such cultural entities are meanings constructed in and through social interaction, especially discursive interaction, rather than objects that can be dispassionately described (see also Cole, 1996; Geertz, 1973; Johnson, 1996; Williams, 1976). ‘Intercultural’, in turn, is used to refer to the fact that the meaning of difference between two groups of people of the kind just described is at stake in a piece of
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discourse in question. Furthermore, the difference is rendered through some form of dialogue between members of the two groups mentioned, either in a background context (e.g. ‘social conditions’), or foreground expression. It is important to emphasise here that the intercultural dimension, formulated in this way, is not an external mechanism but, as alluded to above, an integral part of social, communicative practice. In other words, it is a special meaningful element embedded in the discourse under study (‘figure’) and in the context through (‘background’) which we make sense of the discourse. It is created, reproduced, sustained, utilised and changed in and through linguistic interaction. If we see ‘the intercultural’ as but one possible meaningful dimension of communication, then it becomes obvious that it needs to be seen as inter-connected with other dimensions at the same time. ‘Intercultural’ communication may occur between two individuals (hence also ‘interpersonal’ communication), as members of two groups (hence also inter-group communication), in a business setting (hence also organisationalcommunication), etc. The point here is that current theory and research on ‘intercultural communication’ seem to have systematically excluded such simultaneous, inter-connected processes of meaning making. This leads to our central contentions, as follows. First, intercultural communication, as discourse, is a form of social interaction, not in the sense of sentence-speech-acts, but in terms of people responding to each other, thereby acting upon their worlds. This implies that intercultural communication has an irreducible social dimension and that therefore intercultural communication is a joint activity. Consequently, ‘understandings’ or ‘misunderstandings’ for example cannot be reduced to the individual level, nor to the abstract cultural level on top of the individual. Our responsive and proactive perspective also implies that, in intercultural, or indeed any human, communication, people (re-)interpret and (re-)apply their ‘understandings’ in the one and same hermeneutic act of communication (see Gadamer, 1975/1989) and they do so in order to achieve a variety of purposes. This is not to say that the ‘understanding’ of words and sentences is irrelevant to communication, but our point is that both the action and social-Other dimensions of intercultural communication deserve more critical attention. This leads to our next point. Second, if intercultural communication/discourse is a form of social interaction, then it necessarily involves power; power is an integral part of human action (Giddens, 1984: 283). Power is conceived of as the effect of human action whereby things get done or people are put under control (cf. Giddens, 1984). It may be manifested in various aspects of social events or practice, such as perceptions, identities and social relations and can be related to instruments or resources for action (e.g. languages, knowledge and social positions). As an integral part of social action and hence social event, it is always morally defined, i.e. depending on norms and values of the specific cultural and historical context, such that power can be in the state of domination, exclusion, resistance or equilibrium. These power relations may be defined in terms of individuals, groups or institutions. When power is exercised in or through semiotic (e.g. discursive) means, we call it ‘symbolic power’, to use Bourdieu’s terms. This is, in the words of Bourdieu (1991: 170), ‘a power of constituting the given through utterances, of making people see and believe, of confirming or transforming the vision of the world and, thereby action on the world and thus the world itself, an almost magi-
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cal power which enables one to obtain the equivalent of what is obtained through force (whether physical or economic)’. In the analysis of power, there are two particular forms of power imbalance that deserve special, critical attention. One is ideology and the other hegemony. Ideology refers to symbolic power (consequence) whereby one group becomes dominated, excluded, prejudiced against by another – ‘symbolic violence’ – and which is smoothed over or turned ‘natural’ or ‘universal’ through ‘commonsensical’ ways of thinking and speaking (Billig, 1987; Bourdieu, 1991; Fairclough, 1989, 1995: 86–91; Shi-xu, 1994a, 1995). From the current SCDS perspective, what is far worthier of attention than the ‘cultural/linguistic’ differences formulated in the conventional wisdom is such ideologies in the process of intercultural communication. Thus, in our empirical study below, we shall be looking at some ideological uses of ‘understandings’ and ‘misunderstandings’. Another form of unequal power relation worthy of attention, hegemony, resides in the existing context of global discourse in which we produce, distribute, consume – and analyse – intercultural communication. Such contextual power imbalance is usually defined institutionally (e.g. government, education, health service, family, religion, ethnic groups, communities). In using the notion of hegemony, we draw upon Gramsci (1971) and Fairclough (1995), but we understand it as part of discourse context, which means that it is part, and kind, of discursive, contextual interpretation, rather than merely a structural and material phenomenon. In fact, one of the motivating factors of the SCDS approach has been our observation and experience that current intercultural communication takes place in the broader but specific context of historically evolved hegemony (in the sense of Gramsci, 1971). Such hegemony refers especially to the existing relations of domination, exploitation, exclusion, prejudice between the East and the West, the North and the South, the centre and the peripheral, the Empire and the colony, as well as classes and genders – despite the now fashionable discourse of ‘globalisation’. Thus, the social conditions under which we live can be analysed in terms of differential power relations, where one group is dominated by another, through differential power resources which are available to some groups or individuals but not to others. For educationalists, trainers, theorists and researchers to pretend this context is not there, to reduce it to domains outside of intercultural communication is to render their occupation ineffectual and perhaps worst still to collude to legitimate, consolidate and perpetuate the existing hegemonic global order and aura. In this respect, intercultural theory, research and training can benefit, we would urge, from certain quarters of feminist studies (e.g. Farganis, 1986; Harding, 1987; Richards, 1982; Stanley & Wise, 1983;Tong, 1995), far more than from traditionalsocial and psychological theory. Thirdly, ideological and hegemonic power is however not absolute. On the contrary, it is embedded in a broader societal order of moral struggle. In conceptualising this societal moral order, we draw upon Habermas’ (1976, 1984, 1987) normative notion of communicative action, i.e. communicative action is based on reasons of understandability, truth, rightness and sincerity. Similarly, we assume that human cultural action, or rather interaction, is not only creative in the sense that it learns from and acts upon history, but also at the same time rational in the sense that it seeks a ‘better’ life (see also Freire, 1972). In these senses, human
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cultural interaction, or ‘society’, is evolutionary or morally organised. These creative and rational qualities constitute the inherent, profoundly human, moral forces or orders of society, what Freire (1972) calls ‘critical consciousness’. And yet the human societal moral orders are realised differently across different cultures and times, such that norms and values become ambiguous and ambivalent. This accounts for the constant moral struggle against immoral – ideological and hegemonic – ‘dark’ forces in society, the ups and downs of human societal development more generally, and certainly the current global orders of domination, repression and exploitation. This leads to our central proposal regarding the research and pedagogy in intercultural communication. Because the existing ideological and hegemonic power saturation of the intercultural communication process is also embedded in the essentially moral order of society, there is a rational basis for researchers to evaluate intercultural communication practice by reconstructing and resorting to a common moral principle. For the same reason, there is a possibility for cultural members to resist, challenge or transform the dark force of ideology and hegemony by consciously constructing and drawing upon such a common moral principle. More importantly, there is an opportunity for pedagogues to help with intercultural communication (education) by awakening and mobilising this principle of common good as their central concern – by conscientização in the word of Freire (1972). In this context, we would like to speak of the moral principle as a moral will in the sense that it is a kind of creative consciousness in and for social discursive practice. Since we are interested in resorting to this moral will in order to combat existing ideological and hegemonic – dehumanising – power, it can be seen as a political(ly motivated moral) will. As alluded to above, this moral principle of common good is not realised universally but has historical and cultural forms. Because of this, it is also subject to continuous social reconstruction and dialogue in specific historical and cultural contexts. For current purposes of reflecting upon intercultural communication, let us suggest that this willpower, also as the essential condition for future intercultural communication to succeed and prosper, may be formulated as a creative consciousness to continuously try to construct a mutually maximum beneficial goal or cause of action with the cultural Other. This willpower is of course not mere reflection, but intended as integral part of action, hence praxis. Furthermore, it may be noted that because it involves social positioning in interaction, it is also part of what Foucault (1985: 25–32) calls ‘modes of subjectivation’ or ‘self-formation’. In the case of intercultural communication, it is not just one’s attitude regarding the cultural Other, it is also part of the way that one conducts oneself. The proposed power and moral-motivation oriented perspective has major implications for research and education. First and foremost, it demands re-direction of research objectives and re-orientation of teaching topics away from those in familiar paradigms. For one, combating power domination and repression will become a central aim for research; for another, moral cultural-self-formation will become a primary subject matter in education. In this case, the SCDS approach to intercultural communication unabashedly proclaims to be based on an explicit political standpoint, namely, to contribute to reducing inequality, dominance, oppression, violence, on the one hand, and to promoting
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equality, harmony, peace or more generally ‘good life’ on the other. Specifically, we shall then be asking, for example, how traditionally understood ‘understandings’ and ‘misunderstandings’ are used for power purposes and with power consequences. Moreover, we shall be investigating into what the less powerful, or power-less, members themselves feel about the causes of intercultural communication breakdown, and perhaps no communication at all. As an important part of our SCDS approach to intercultural communication, we also set for ourselves special methodological strategies – ‘special’ because they are connected to the nature of the critical, political objectives we have in mind. As these are not the major concerns of this paper, we shall describe them only briefly. We envisage two broad and inter-related kinds of methodological strategy or method: deconstruction and reconstruction. Deconstruction begins with a particular social problem in the (re)production of which text and talk have a role to play. The social problem that SCDS is interested in is a problem of unequal power relation that negatively affects the wellbeing of a group of people who are usually already suppressed or otherwise under-privileged. The problem is constituted in discourse in that it may be created, reproduced, mitigated, concealed, legitimated or perpetuated through text and talk. Deconstruction then is a move to undermine existing versions of reality – with the focus on the existing – that are repressive, demeaning or else detrimental to the wellbeing of those individuals, groups and institutions that we researchers deem as already underprivileged or otherwise disadvantaged. This method can take various, specific forms: e.g. uncover hidden meanings, disclose ideologies (e.g. domination, exclusion and prejudice), question commonsensical thought and talk (e.g. stereotypes), make transparent verbal and contextual strategies, highlight contradictions, reveal suppressed discourse, identify patterns of texts and talk – kinds of discourse. To render intercultural discourse research and pedagogy critical is ultimately to contribute to the creation of new and helpful orders of (intercultural) discourse. Thus, the second broad methodological strategy is reconstruction: to offer new and more helpful versions of reality and ways of talking about it. Such creative attempts will of course require the power of imagination on the part of researchers and educators. But this method usually draws on prior studies, either of a deconstructive kind, as sketched above, or of an investigative, reflexive one in which members’ own experiences are collected, if its results are to be useful to the people whose cause we choose to support and potentially practicable in society, hence the prefix ‘re‘ in reconstruction. The standard or goal for these versions or ways of speaking is that they are helpful to the group of people who the researchers feel has been disadvantaged and at the same are potentially acceptable to the groups of people involved. There may be various specific forms of this method: e.g. to investigate members’ own experience, to offer new versions and ways of speaking (e.g. by exploring the fluidity of cultural boundaries, promoting diversity and variation of cultural categories), to facilitate and enhance intercultural contact and communication or, in the words of Geertz (1973: 14), ‘the enlargement of the universe of human discourse’, and to cultivate the willpower for a common discourse.
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Illustrative Empircal Analyses
In the remainder of the paper, we shall attempt to illustrate the kinds of empirical research topics that we advocate in the study of intercultural communication. Here we approach two kinds of data as indicated earlier and in this research process we have sought to identify ideological practices on the one hand and on the other to get at first-person or insider’s views on intercultural communication (experiences). Ideological uses of ‘ (mis)understandings’ Our aim has been to show that communicative clashes between cultural groups may be not a matter of merely linguistic and cultural competence, but, crucially, such events may have ideological bearings, i.e. advancing the interest of one group at the expense of the Other. It will be useful then to look at how ‘understanding’ and ‘misunderstanding’ are used – especially how they are related to power. In the following data fragments bold type has been used to highlight the projection or construction of understanding or misunderstanding; such (mis)understanding can be of various types: ‘by us’, ‘by others’ or ‘for others’. Let us pay special attention to the understanding that ‘British beef is safe’ in Example  below.
Example  German Ambassador Gerhardt von Moltke and Robert Sturdy (Conservative MEP, spokesman on agriculture in the European Parliament) on Today Programme, Radio 4 (7/8/99):
(1) Ambassador: […] we all know that it’s a decision we have to comply with. And I am sure the ban will be lifted. We will fully comply. Therefore it’s like France – it’s a procedure that will take a certain time. We do our best to go through it as speedily as possible. […] I think we should look and say if the ban is not lifted and the länder do not agree then we should begin infringement proceedings against the German länder. […] I think what we must make clear, and what our Government must make clear is that if it is not lifted […] if that is not the case – if the ban is not lifted then I do believe that the Government should start infringement proceedings. I think the most important thing is that we should make absolutely clear now […] that if they do not follow the Commission’s proposals and lifted the ban, then we will implement procedure. Will that influence things, do you think, Mr Ambassador? …em, everybody is aware of the discussion taking place here in this country, we fully understand the emotions and the interests involved. But do also keep in mind that
[…] (3) Sturdy:
(4) Presenter: (5) Ambassador:
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(6) (7) (8) (9)
Presenter: Ambassador: Presenter: Ambassador:
(12) Presenter: (13) Sturdy:
Germany has never been a big market for the British beef. It’s not the point, is it? … eheh? … er sorry? That isn’t the point, is it? No it’s not the point, but but em, er eh I think all the producers here are looking forward toward a big market […] Mr Sturdy, something goes wrong with that, if it does not happen, should we retaliate in another way, should we boycott… I mean the most important we must do now is first of all to make sure that they do understand British beef is safe; we comply totally with all the Commission’s proposals; British beef is safe. Suppose they don’t go along with that […] should we… Well, there are other matters, I mean the US the United States has put a tariff on goods from the European Union about a hundred percent. We could also make sure we get compensation from the German Government. Can I come back at one important point. It is not the fact that the German import, as quite rightly said, is a lot of beef. It is the fact, the knock-on effect as you were saying, on other markets by this what I called the intransigent position. We must make sure the Government piles pressure on Germany to do something on the 24th of September.
As we have explained at the outset, our analytical concerns revolve around the relation between uses of (mis)understanding and power. Which understanding is important to a power interest, and for whom? How is this desired understanding achieved? For this reason, let us focus on one of the central understandings that the British MEP, as well as the BBC presenter, tries to convey to the German Ambassador, and, via him, to the German Government, is that ‘British beef is safe’ (N.B. Sturdy: I mean the most important we must do now is first of all to make sure that they do understand British beef is safe; we comply totally with all the Commission’s proposals; British beef is safe.) First, it may be asserted that, from the wider international discourse context of the time, the understanding in question is obviously crucial to the British political-economic interests. Failing to understand, on the part of the German Government, that British beef is safe, will prevent British beef export to Germany and, more importantly, will damage its position in the European and American markets. Second, it may be noted that threats are mounted repeatedly on the German side to achieve the understanding concerned (see below). The threats may be observed from several turns in the conversation exchanges. For one thing, the British MEP makes an explicit threat to the German side, namely, if the German Government fails to understand that British beef is safe and to react accordingly (i.e. to lift the ban on British beef) then the British Government should/will begin infringement procedures against Germany. And he threatens to this effect three
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times (N.B. turns 2, 3, 13). What he is saying to Germany in other words is, ‘British beef is safe and eat it or else Britain will take action against you’. For another, we can see that the German Ambassador resists to such activities. Observe that the desired understanding of the safety of British beef is ‘diverted’ to understanding ‘the emotions and the interests involved’ (turn 5), and, when the diversion is blocked (turns 6 and 8), the blocking is diverted by the German diplomat again (turn 9). The use of misunderstanding in the dialogue is noteworthy, too. For example, on hearing the German Ambassador’s response (turn 5), the BBC presenter brands it as a kind of misunderstanding by retorting, ‘It’s not the point, is it?’ Calling the Ambassador’s reaction a kind of misunderstanding, it may be realised, is consistent with the British wish to impose the afore-mentioned desired understanding and get the ban lifted. It is remarkable, too, that, although the German Ambassador apparently admits his previous statement to be beside the point (i.e. Germany is not a big market for the British beef, turn 5), he then repeats this original point (N.B. turn 9). This diplomatic resistance effectively undermines the practical usefulness of the desired understanding that the British beef is safe. So, ‘understanding’ and ‘misunderstanding’ can be useful devices in discourse. We have seen that categorising someone’s response as (based on) misunderstanding and rejecting or resisting the categorisation of a misunderstanding – hence, from the former perspective, insistence on a misunderstanding, are bound up with one’s particular desires and profits. There is a further possible power dimension in understandings and misunderstandings. For one thing, acts of power (e.g. threats) may be employed to ensure desired understanding and to forestall undesirable (mis)understanding. For another, acts of resistance to particular kinds of understanding may also be performed, reinforcing alternative understandings thereby. Thus, understanding and misunderstanding in discourse can be both a battleground and weapon for interests and power. In the above, we saw a piece of data in which there is ‘visible’ intercultural communication in the sense that there is in the discourse under study the presence of more than one first-person interlocutor. Below, we shall look at some pieces of communication where there is only one first-person interlocutor in the discourse and for that reason the ‘intercultural’ becomes less apparent. In some way, the interest of such ‘indirect’ cases is not less but perhaps more, however, for a critical and constructive approach to intercultural communication – a point we shall return to in Conclusions. For the moment, let us just say that we want to focus again on some uses of verbal understanding, in order to illuminate the power goals and power consequences involved. To highlight the political-economic interests embodied in intercultural communication, we shall again use British media data revolving around the beef ban; they range from newspaper editorials to letters to the editor.
Example  Tony Blair was resigned to a long legal battle over beef last night as France accused Britain of ‘xenophobic hatred’. The Prime Minister’s admission that diplomacy has failed emerged as French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany branded the British ‘people who detest the French’. Mr Glavany’s words, on live television, were a clear attempt to wreck negotiations on a face-saving
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compromise. […] He accused Britain of ‘unleashing a torrent of xenophobic hatred’ against France over the embargo. ‘We have nothing but a stream of anti-French sentiment’, he stormed. ‘Why do they direct their hatred at us and not at the Germans, or the other 16 countries around the world who still won’t lift the beef embargo? He told a French TV station. […] ‘Grovelling and conceding and giving in achieves nothing in Europe. Being aggressive is what works’, Mr Hague will say [during the following Wednesday’s debate on the Queen’s Speech’]. France’s attack on British ‘Xenophobia’, Daily Mail, 13/11/99.
Example  Tories demanded immediate action. Agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo said Britain should show the French no mercy, given their attitude and the part they played in the destruction of the British beef industry. ‘Labour should impose an immediate ban’, Daily Mail, 23/10/99. Example  This incident has shown us what hypocrites the French and Germans are. Whenever we questioned a European Union decision they demanded that we accepted it. They should now follow their own example and do the same.[one letter writer] The nerve and hypocrisy of France is unbelievable considering that they and other Euro states receive £700 million a year in subsidies for their tobacco growers to export this known killer all over the world. If only we had a Government which would stand up for this country. [another letter writer] We always play fair and observe rules set by Brussels but the other major powers do not. [another letter writer] The French constantly throw tantrums when things do not go in their favour. [another letter writer] We have beaten the warring Germans twice and liberated the ungrateful French. Now it seems we are at their mercy as they ban British beef. We managed quite well when we stood alone outside the European Union. Why do politicians think we need them now? ‘Fight the French beef ban’, The Sun, 20/10/99. Example  The French and the British have not fought each other since the Battle of Waterloo finished off that upstart Euro-federalist, Napoleon. Of course every British schoolboy knows – or should know – the reason for this surprisingly long period of peace following regular bouts of warfare. After 1815 the French dared not fight us again. We were too strong. They didn’t want another bloody nose. All the same, off the battlefield a state of war has continued. We rosbifs and frogs fight so much because we’re so alike. Daily Mail, 28/10/99. It may be noted that there are understandings of the cultural Other or their communication to ‘us’ and there are opinions or interdictions as to what ‘we’ should say or do with regard to the cultural Other. At this level they may be said to be intra-cultural given the assumption that are about a cultural/national Other. But it will be realised that these British newspaper texts need be read within a cross-national, intercultural frame, for they are also at the same time directed at the French (government) as the cultural Other. From our discursive perspective on intercultural communication, the ‘understandings’ of French or German actions or attitudes, or indeed ‘misunderstandings’, as appear in the above fragments of public mediated discourse amidst the
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row over the British beef ban, cannot be read as natural or innocent. In Example , there is a series of ‘our’ understanding (N.B. ‘were a clear attempt to wreck negotiations’) of what the French Agriculture Minister said about ‘us’ the British (e.g. ‘unleashing a torrent of xenophobic hatred’ against France over the embargo. ‘We have nothing but a stream of anti-French sentiment’) and how he said it (N.B. ‘accused’, ‘stormed’), and implicitly the sentiments and reaction of the French towards ‘us’ (N.B. ‘Mr Glavany’s words, on live television’, ‘He told a French TV station’). Here, when the French, or the cultural Other, is understood, or represented, in the British paper as aggressive, antagonistic, and irrational, the intention is clear: it serves to inflame the anger and frustration of the British (readership/public) and mobilise them into confrontation with the French. The wording of ‘our’ understanding of the Other in the next few examples may serve similar purposes: ‘our’ ‘understanding’ of the French attitude and action is used to justify ‘our’ aggressive reaction (Example ) or to arouse ‘our’ indignation (Example 4]); ‘our’ understanding of the ‘our’ war experience with the French is displayed to show contempt for the French (Example ). Understanding members’ own experiences From Western scholarship we have already heard enough about the linguistic and cultural differences which cause misunderstandings and breakdowns in intercultural communication. An important research orientation from our perspective would be to investigate into members’ own experiences and voices about intercultural communication – especially those members who we researchers suspect may be placed in a historically and culturally repressed position. In the following, we present some fragments of interviews made in Northern Ireland with Asian university students and graduates. What we find disturbing from this set of interviews is that some of the interviewees attribute their difficulties, and lack of experience in, intercultural communication to the characteristics of the Northern Irish/European people, such as: Lack of willingness to communicate; Unfriendly or suspicious attitudes; Unfriendly or unhelpful behaviour. Our presentation here is not meant to be representative, but to give some qualitative indications of kinds of experiences and opinions that some Asian students residing in Northern Ireland/Europe can have. Such a project can and should take a broader ethnographic scope, but the present collection of incidental interviews is intended merely to show what a lay speaker’s own perspective can tell us about the sources of communication problems, as well as the nature of intercultural communication more generally. The interviews, informal in style, were organised and done by students taking Shi-xu’s module on intercultural communication; they were all done in English. In the selected fragments below, bold type is used to indicate our analysis of the participants’ understandings of the causes of intercultural communication problems. It may be noted that some of the speakers’ attributions are formulated explicitly but some implicitly or indirectly.
Example  (A Singaporean/German, university graduate, working in a marketing company) The first time I got here I felt prejudice, I wouldn’t say intolerance but a lack of
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willingness to tolerate. […] I do not get the impression overall that the people I’ve dealt with within the course [at the university] are interested in knowing me, because I’m ‘different’ and when I’ve tried to communicate with them they find it difficult. […] There is a wall, a barrier, between everyone else and me, and [the problem] is not a language barrier.
Example  (A second year student in accountancy from Hong Kong) Nobody in my class talks to me at all, and it has been already one month. I study alone, sit a lone, bad feelings. […] I’ve tried to talk to them but nobody seems interested in talking to me, they look at me in a rude way. Two years ago two Malaysian students had the same experience. […] The problem here is not the language, [it] is the ‘concept’ towards Asian people. […] I went to see my counsellor and also my faculty assistant they just told me you must wait, you need more time. Example  (A PhD candidate from Taiwan) [after reporting that his supervisor is unwilling to help] I have an example of a Taiwanese student from last year. […] Her supervisor used to make fun of her English composition […]. Example  (student from Malaysia) One case that I heard – this one student went to the bank and he talked to the bank manager and the bank manager couldn’t understand him and then this bank manager told this student, ‘I think you better go back and learn English’. I think that was very rude. Example  (student from Jordan) Some troubles of adapting to the new way or style of life here of course showed up […] I have to say that I have the best impression from the Chinese. If you ask for something they will help you without having any second thoughts and I think that I have more common things with them than the Europeans. From these remarks, it becomes obvious that there are people from ‘other’ cultures whose experience regarding intercultural communication is qualitatively different from the basic assumptions underlying current, predominantly Western, theory, research and pedagogical programmes (Shi-xu 1994b). This experience focuses on, not linguistic knowledge, not even cultural competence, but lack of a positive interest, attitude or motivation for communication with the non-Western/Asian Other. The experience of ‘lack of motivation’ for intercultural communication cannot however be interpreted merely as psychological, individual or personal. Rather, it should be understood at the level of social and cultural action and thereby power relations. Further, such a personal, rather than situational, type of attribution may be seen as the speakers’ voices of complaints and frustrations, which need to be taken seriously.
Conclusions: What Should Training Offer?
In the above different strands of empirical, qualitative data analysis, we saw how intercultural communication can be a power struggle and resistance, and how for members, the presence, or lack of a positive moral motivation, for intercultural communication, can be decisive for its outcome. In conclusion, let us tentatively suggest the possible strategies of a serious training and education
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programme in intercultural communication. (The proposed programme here is intended for various tasks and settings like intercultural and inter-group management, negotiation, conflict resolution, conciliation, consulting, counselling and training.) To begin with, we would like to emphasise that our power and moral motivation oriented perspective takes it that language should assume, not a less, but a more, important role in the training, education and practice of intercultural communication than has traditionally been the case. Here, ‘language’ is used to figure specifically in the critique of cultural and intercultural language and the use of language for intercultural communication. The pedagogical programme that we envisage here is based on such uses of language organised in two states. First, instead of letting our students and trainees study the relevant language and culture of the Other, we encourage and help them critically examine the relevant language and culture of our own, through which we have historically represented the Other. This also means that we help them to understand the essentially power relationship between cultures in which communication plays a pivotal role (see also Tomic 2000). On that basis, secondly, we try to cultivate a moral willpower to construct continuously intercultural common goals and course of action with the cultural Other. Here it may be noted that this willpower will call for, not so much of abstract linguistic and cultural knowledge, but genuine human endeavour, on the part of members, to create the need to communicate, to continue to communicate, and to communicate for the sake of common humanity (see also Moore 1994). On the other side of the same ethical coin, then, we should develop in members a critical awareness of and sensitivity to the cultural-Other demeaning stereotypes and prejudice – ‘the will to power’ so to speak – and the practices of such sentiments on the one hand, and on the other, the moral strength to refrain from such power practices. The goals of such a programme, we consider, should be the core of intercultural communication competence. This competence may appear to have a universal character, but, obviously, it needs to be grounded in culture-specific contexts. Correspondence Any correspondence should be directed to Dr Shi-xu, University of Ulster at Jordanstown, School of Psychology and Communication, Newtownabbey, County Antrim BT37 0QB, Northern Ireland, UK (email@example.com). Notes
1. The authors wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments on the paper, and Heather Campbell for making stylistic improvements to the current version. 2. Although SCDS shares with CDA the general emancipatory goal of discourse research, it differs from the latter in being a holistic approach to language rather than a synthetic one (connecting linguistic theory from one side and social, or cognitive, theory from another.
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