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Review of  Intercultural Conversation

Reviewer: Li Song
Book Title: Intercultural Conversation
Book Author: Winnie Cheng
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 15.2056

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Date: Mon, 12 Jul 2004 00:46:30 +0800 (CST)
From: Song Li
Subject: Intercultural Conversation

AUTHOR: Cheng, Winnie
TITLE: Intercultural Conversation
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 118
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

SONG Li, Associate Professor at Harbin Institute of Technology, PRC

Intercultural Conversation by Winnie Cheng is one of the Pragmatics &
Beyond New Series by John Benjamins Publishing Company. In this nine-
chapter monograph, the author studies naturally occurring conversation
between Hong Kong Chinese (HKC) and native English speakers (NES) with an aim to '' investigate the ways in which the culturally divergent
participants manage the organizational and interpersonal aspects of the
unfolding conversation''(p1). Cheng focuses her study on what she terms
as five ''culturally laden conversational features'': preference
organization, compliments and compliment responses, simultaneous talk,
discourse topic management and discourse information structure. With
both qualitative and quantitative analysis of the focused features, the
research offers valuable data and revelation for understanding how the
local or immediate situational context and the wider socio-cultural
context influence the actualization of verbal negotiation of meaning in
the dynamic process of dyadic conversation and how conversational
features in turn reflect and enhance speakers' cultural identities and
their preferred patterns of discourse.

Chapter 1 ''Communication across Cultures'' lays the ground for the study
of intercultural conversation. Winnie Cheng first gives a brief description of her study, stating the research question and goals to be accomplished. Then the author clears the ground by clarification of such basic concepts as intercultural conversation, conversation and discourse and by description of the common assumptions about Chinese and Western cultures as well as the cultural characteristics in the context of Hong Kong. The author concludes this chapter by reiterating her perception of conversation as the ''optimal discourse for studying everyday structures of social interaction'' and '' for investigating linguistic interaction to encode, enact, negotiate and modify the cultural values and norms of individual speakers''(p16).

Chapter 2 ''Literature review and descriptive framework'' presents a
comprehensive literature review of the research on conversation
analysis, particularly what has been done in previous studies of
conversation in terms of the five culturally laden features the author
has selected as the focus of her study. While summarizing theories and
research findings of former studies, Cheng lays out her own framework
for the study of intercultural conversation. A brief introduction of
the hypothesis, assumptions and approach of the investigation on each
of the five focused topics is given in this chapter.

Chapter 3 is entitled ''Research methodology and data collection''. In
this short chapter, the author explains how her study ''has situated the
intercultural conversation both in their wider context and in their
immediate conversational context'' (p37). Winnie Cheng stresses the
advantage of data from spontaneous naturally occurring conversations
over data collected from ''invented decontextualized sentences''
(Channel, 1994:38) in revealing the true nature of real-life
interaction. With that claim she gives a detailed description of the
procedures of data collection followed by information of the 25
recorded intercultural conversation between HKC and NES.

Chapter 4 ''Preference organization'' focuses on how HKC and NES manage disagreement. As the author states'' Every act of disagreement is
situated in both its linguistic and its intercultural context. It
provides rich information that throws light on the complex
interrelationships and interaction among various linguistic, social and
cultural variables'' (70). Through analysis of the structure of
discourse and politeness strategies as well as the redressive language
used in conversational extracts from the 25 intercultural
conversations, the author has proved the three hypotheses for
disagreement as a realization of preference organization. It is
concluded that HKC and NES differ from one another in their perception
of the ''independent and interdependent conceptions of the self ''(
Markus and Kitayama, 1991, 1994)and such difference is reflected in the
varying efforts they each make in the negotiation of facework and
management of interpersonal relationships.

In Chapter 5 ''Compliments and compliment responses'', Cheng compares how HKC and NES make and respond to compliments. The comparison is made through analysis of 7 compliments identified in the 25 intercultural
conversations in terms of the compliment topics and the types of
response to compliments. The author's hypotheses for the study of
compliment are that what is considered acceptable or favorable topics
of compliment may be different by HKC and NES and that HKC are more
likely to adopt rejection and self-denigration as response strategies
while NES prefer to use ''more acceptance and self-praise avoidance
mechanisms''(p95). It is pointed out that both social norms and context
specific factors account for the differences observed in the speech act
of compliment between HKC and NES.

Chapter 6 ''Simultaneous talk'' focuses on simultaneous talk as an
important discourse organizational feature. To investigate the turn-
taking, turn-yielding and turn-holding behaviors of HKC and NES, the
author proposes the ''Typology of Initiation of and Yielding to
Simultaneous Talk'' as a working framework. Following detailed discussion of simultaneous talk in conversational extracts, the author concludes that ''cultural differences are manifested in the way HKC and NES are oriented to observing the turn-taking rules, in the way they initiate simultaneous talk, yield to simultaneous talk and, in particular, the way they are unyielding to the initiation of simultaneous talk''(p146). It is found out that compared with NES, HKC are more inclined to follow the pattern of ''one-at-a-time'' and therefore are more concerned about observing the
organization rules in conversation and more ready to yield the floor.
Cheng argues that simultaneous talk at both non-Transition Relevance
Place (TRP) and of the current speaker's turn and at or near a TRP of
the current speaker's turn are both indication of participants' efforts
towards development of the on-going interaction as well as management
of the interpersonal relationships.

In Chapter 7 ''Discourse topic management, Winnie Cheng looks into how
HKC and NES are compared in topical strategies, topic content
orientations and culturally sensitive topic management. To begin with,
five topical strategies are exemplified: strategies of change, shift,
drift, digression and resumption. Contrary to her hypothesis, the
author finds out that HKC and NES exhibit equal speaker rights in
introducing topics and the HKC do not appear to be initiating and using
fewer strategies for topic introduction. However, it is confirmed that
HKC tend to initiate speaker and addressee-oriented and addressee-
oriented topics. In managing culturally sensitive topics, both HKC and
NES are found to ''be involved in the processes of negotiating common
ground along the lines of racial identities, stereotypes and

Chapter 8 ''Discourse information structures'' is devoted to the study of
how HKC and NES organize information in face-to-face interaction.
Cheng observes both similarities and differences in the discourse
patterns by the Chinese and Western English speakers in the 25
intercultural conversations. The comparative study has confirmed her
hypothesis that HKV tend to use more inductive strategies, e.g. in
making a request or suggestion and managing culturally sensitive
topics. Cheng asserts that such phenomenon is the result or
manifestation of Chinese and Western cultural differences in the
perception of ''the purpose of communication, the notion of self in
relation to others, and the conception of face and politeness''(p229).
For HKC, interpersonal goals and respect or concern to others seem to
be given priority over other considerations in face-to-face
interactions. Their preference for indirectness, which is actualized in
the form of inductive pattern, comes out of cultural tradition.

Chapter 9 is the concluding chapter for the whole book. The author
summarizes what has been covered in previous chapters regarding the
culturally laden features of conversation discussed throughout the
book. The author stresses two major observations: one is that both
similarities and dissimilarities exist in the intercultural
conversations between HKC and NES in terms of the five conversational
features investigated; and another observation is that specific
contexts in which the conversation takes place also plays an important
role in the interpretation of the communicative behaviors of
interlocutors. In other words both micro and macro cultural factors
should be taken into consideration in conversation analysis.
In this chapter, Winnie Cheng also points out the contribution of the
study, limitations of the study and directions for future research.

In general, Winnie Cheng has well achieved her goals for the study of
intercultural conversation between HKC and NES. The present reviewer
finds the book particularly valuable in making special contributions to
existing literature on intercultural conversation and in providing
insights into the nature of naturally occurring conversation,
especially that between HKC and NES. The research in this book also
sets up a good research model or framework for similar studies in the

The best way to approach intercultural conversation is to study it as
it is in real life situations. Fully aware of the importance of data
from genuine exchanges, Winnie Cheng uses naturally occurring data as
the subject of her research and makes it one of the first studies that
investigate a series of important conversational features of HKC
English speakers in intercultural dialogues with Native English
speakers. Her study is no doubt a good reference for relevant research
in the same field.

The analysis of conversational features in this book is well balanced
between investigation at both micro and macro levels, seeing both
similarities and differences, making both descriptive and critical
analysis and looking at both local and global contexts. The integrative
approach Cheng adopts renders thoroughness and profundity to her study. The intercultural perspective of discourse/conversation analysis
enables the author to go beyond the linguistic performance of the
participants and probe into the cultural factors that contribute
towards the linguistic realization of cultural values, beliefs and
perceptions of the speakers involved. In this way both the immediate
and wider communication contexts are brought into play in the analysis
of how meaning and relationships are constructed and negotiated in the
dynamic process of dyadic interaction. As van Dijk (2001:354) points
out that the integration of various approaches is crucial in arriving
at satisfactory and complete description of the text and talk because
in everyday interaction and experience macro and micro aspects of
communication ''form one unified whole'' and both local and global
contexts ''exercise constraints on discourse''. Cheng has successfully
demonstrated in her study how the integration of various approaches can
be made in discourse analysis and intercultural communication studies
in general.

In addition, the way the author approaches conversational features
examined in this book is not only theoretically well grounded and but
also practically applicable to future research in the same field. Cheng
uses the assumptions based on cultural stereotypes as the starting
point of her research, and employs descriptive and critical approaches
to analyze the data collected and to test her hypotheses. In examining
simultaneous talk, Cheng proposes the ''Typology of Initiation of and
Yielding to Simultaneous Talk'' -- a model that enables her to capture
the organizational features of spontaneous talk, especially the turn-
taking patterns among HKC and NES. The manner in which Cheng carries
out her study as well as the data collected and the research findings
will prove of great value for future research in the same field.

However, like all empirical studies, the small size of samples or data,
to some extent at least, reduces the credibility and accordingly
applicability of the research findings. This is particularly true in
the case of the author's investigation of compliments and compliment
responses in Chapter 5. Only 7 compliments are identified among
thirteen hours of data from recordings of 25 intercultural
conversations. Any conclusions about such complicated speech event as
compliment drawn from examination of a few subjects will stand to

Although overgeneralization seems to be unavoidable, the inclusion of
more samples and more factors related to the subjects under study will
help to reduce the risk to the minimum. The exclusion of such factors
like the participants' age, gender, and national differences in the NES
group ruthlessly leaves the study of this book as somewhat too general.

In terms of organization, the present reviewer feels that the
introduction to the study seems to be scattered in different sections
of the book rather than explicated in one particular chapter or in a
preface as most authors do. The description of the study, therefore,
appears to be repetitive as it is done in more than one place, e.g. in
Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 and Chapter 9.

The present reviewer also finds the categorization of the five
conversational features negotiable. Among them, compliments and
compliment responses seem to be more like one common kind of speech
event in everyday interaction than a feature characteristic to all
conversations like the other four focused conversational features
discussed in the book. Compliment may or may not appear in all
conversations and it is hardly a structural feature and thus does not
fit into the alignment of the other four features that are common to
all conversations and structure related.

In spite of all these weaknesses, Winnie Cheng has made a unique
contribution to discourse analysis and intercultural studies by
presenting a well-grounded research on the intercultural conversation
between HKC and NES and offering valuable data and insights as well as
exemplary approaches to future studies in likewise areas.

Channell, Joanna (1994) Vague Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cheng, Winnie (2003) Intercultural Conversation. Amsterdam &
Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company

Markus, Hazel R. and Kitayama, Shinobu (1991). ''Culture and the self:
Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation''. Psychological
Review, 98, 224-253.

Markus, Hazel R. and Kitayama, Shinobu (1994) ''The cultural
construction of self and emotion: Implications for social behavior'', in
Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence, Kitayama,
S., & Markus, H. R. (Eds.), 89-130. Washington: American Psychological

Van Dijk, Teun A. (2001) ''Critical Discourse Analysis'', in The Handbook
of Discourse Analysis Schiffrin, Deborah; Tannen, Deborah; Hamilton,
Heidi Ehernberger (Eds) 352-371. Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell
SONG Li is an associate professor of English at the Department of Foreign Languages, Harbin Institute of Technology, P. R. China. Her research interests include intercultural communication studies, pragmatics, discourse analysis, cultural dimension of TEFL and teaching English as an international language.