LINGUIST List 13.1422

Tue May 21 2002

Review: Sociolinguistics: Pan et al (2002)

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  1. David Deterding, Pan, Scollon & Scollon (2002) Professional Communication

Message 1: Pan, Scollon & Scollon (2002) Professional Communication

Date: Tue, 21 May 2002 14:15:40 +0000
From: David Deterding <>
Subject: Pan, Scollon & Scollon (2002) Professional Communication

Pan, Yuling, Suzanne Wong Scollon and Ron Scollon (2002)
Professional Communication in International Settings.
Blackwell Publishers, 240pp, hardback ISBN 0-631-22508-0,
paperback ISBN 0-631-22509-9.
Book Announcement on Linguist:

David Deterding, National Institute of Education, Singapore


This is a practical book, giving advice on how professionals can
become aware of and overcome problems in cross-cultural communication
and thereby improve their skills and effectiveness when dealing with
people in other societies. Particular attention is given to the
origins of many practices in professional communication, the ways they
need to be adapted to deal with the fast pace of change of modern
technology, how these patterns of communication differ between
cultures, and how people can become aware of problems via a reflective
process, especially by collecting a dossier of professional language
usage, a Communication Display Portfolio (CDP), and exchanging it with
people in other countries.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part analyses a variety
of domains where cross-cultural problems can occur, with one chapter
each on telephone conversations, resumes, presentations, and meetings.
In most of the chapters, a historical survey summarises the origins of
current practices, so that for example telephone behaviour has been
quite substantially influenced by the poor quality of the original
instruments, and all aspects of business communication continue to be
heavily influenced by the suggestions of Dale Carnegie that originated
in the United States in the 1930's and may not be quite so appropriate
in other societies today. Then, in each chapter, there is a
discussion of problems that arise in communication between people in
different societies. Much of the background for this discussion of
current issues in cross-cultural communication comes from the authors'
research project involving participants in Beijing, Hong Kong, and
Finland, and how these people reacted to the communication
practices of those in the other sites.

In the second part of the book, advice is given on how business
trainers might organise a reflective process in an organisation,
preferably by collecting a CDP, which includes data on language usage
in such domains as telephone conversations, resumes, presentations and
meetings, and exchanging these materials for an in-depth critique by
people from different cultures. There is also an outline of a one-day
workshop that trainers might use for those who are unable to implement
the exchange of a full CDP.


The analysis of cross-cultural conflicts in business communication
presented in this book is interesting and makes a lot of common sense,
particularly with regard to criticism of the widely-held assumption
that recommendations originally developed by Dale Carnegie for
American society are appropriate throughout the world. However, at
times there is a frustrating lack of detail. For example, we are told
that the Finnish participants of the research project evaluated the
style of a presentation from Beijing, but as that presentation was in
Mandarin, how could the Finns have understood what was going on, and
how could they have known that the presenter began with an outline of
"why", "when", "who" and "where" (p.97)? Presumably, there was some
kind of translation into Finnish, but we are not told about this or
how it worked. Furthermore, for the brief transcripts of telephone
conversations, we are only given one side of the conversation, and
also there is no attempt to show details such as the intonation patterns 
that occurred.

It is certainly true that the best way to solve problems in
cross-cultural communication is to engage in a substantial process of
reflection crucially involving the reactions of non-local personnel,
and to obtain a truly broad critique, this should preferably involve
people from more than one other society. However, one wonders how
many business people actually have the time or the energy to proceed
with such a project. On page 37, with regard to the layout of the
traditional QWERTY keyboard and the adoption of an ergonomically more
efficient alternative, we are told that "Most users of keyboards
resist the days or weeks of retraining it would take to make the
change, and the loss of productivity during the changeover time." But
exactly the same might be said of the time-consuming demands of
undergoing a thorough program of reflection and review of
intercultural communication practices, even though one might also
argue that anyone involved in doing business with people from other
societies cannot afford not to engage in this kind of substantial
reflective process.

Quite apart from the time factor, there would be some quite
substantial problems in implementing a comprehensive review of
cross-cultural patterns of communication. One of the four main topics
considered is the resume, but the main purpose of a resume is for
applying for jobs, and it is not clear how someone trying to apply for
a job in a different country might first organise an elaborate
exchange of information with people in that country. It is further not
clear how many organisations would be enthusiastic in organising
workshops to allow their personnel to improve their skills in applying
for other jobs.

One advantage of using resumes is that they are quite easily available
(though apparently not necessarily in Finland). The same cannot be
said for detailed videotapes and records of meetings, partly because
such data are usually confidential and partly because the filming of
such an event is not straightforward. Even in their own project, the
authors resorted to using a video of a simulated meeting in China, as
it appears that none of the three sites were able or willing to
provide authentic meeting material. This problem is quite severe, as
we are told that the way meetings are held differs greatly between
different societies, with Americans tending to engage in a full
exchange of information and substantial debate following a
pre-determined agenda, Japanese preferring to use the opportunity to
build personal relationships and eschewing anything so restrictive as
a fixed agenda, Chinese using meetings to reinforce the hierarchical
structure of the organisation, with speaking order, seating
positions, and even order of entering the room of absolutely crucial
importance, and Brazilians tending all to talk together in what, to
others, might seem like a massive, chaotic argument but which the
participants consider to be a highly constructive debate.

In contrast with the difficulties in obtaining authentic data on
meetings, it would be fairly straightforward to collect data on a
presentation, but the research on which this book is based suggests
that the problems that occur in presentations can be quite similar in
different societies, with everyone grappling with the same issues of
how to use modern computer-based display technology while at the same
time maintain a proper rapport with the audience. The book suggests
that in the data from all three sites the presenter was somewhat
wooden and failed to achieve any kind of true rapport with the
audience, partly because the attention of the audience was focused on
the material projected onto the screen at the front and not on the
presenter, but surely this feedback could be obtained internally, with
no need for an elaborate inter-cultural exchange of materials.

In this book, the authors do not consider issues involving e-mail,
because in their research such problems "were not regarded as
significant by any of our participants" (p.7). This is a little
surprising, as one would expect that e-mail, as a newly developing and
rapidly expanding medium of communication in the modern world, does
create many problems. For example, in Singapore, many official e-mail
messages begin with "Kindly be informed that ..." and there are
regular "gentle reminders" about forthcoming events, and although this
is the local norm, it is sometimes found to be overly formal and even
rather threatening by expatriates not familiar with local patterns of
language usage. But perhaps it is true that most of the problems with
e-mail are universal, including the degree of formality expected, the
style of salutations at the start and signatures at the end, the use
or avoidance of abbreviations such as "4U" instead of "for you", and
whether spelling should be carefully checked or not, so there may
be no need for elaborate exchanges of e-mail material with people in
other countries, even though collecting and printing out such data
would be quite straightforward.

In fact, this brief consideration of e-mail does seem to illustrate a
slightly unfortunate pattern: The most easily collected data are
generally not the most important for the kind of comprehensive review
of cross-cultural communication recommended in this book, while the
data that are most crucial are not easily collected.

In conclusion, this book offers many fascinating insights about
problems with cross-cultural communication and much valuable advice on
how to overcome these problems, even though it seems that some of this
advice might prove somewhat impractical for many organisations to
implement. In any case, whether they choose to implement a full
review or not, many people will find this book very interesting and
extremely useful.

David Deterding is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of
Education, Singapore, where he teaches phonetics, syntax, and
Chinese-English translation.
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