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Review of  Professional Communication across Languages and Cultures


Reviewer: Zsuzsanna Zsubrinszky
Book Title: Professional Communication across Languages and Cultures
Book Author: Stanca Măda Răzvan Săftoiu
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Pragmatics
Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 24.1866

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Review:
SUMMARY

This volume approaches the topic of professional communication from a cultural perspective, providing insights into the dynamics of creating and maintaining relationships at work, which are deeply influenced by various linguistic patterns. In their introduction (”Understanding the dynamics of dialogue at work”) the editors outline the theoretical and analytical frameworks and present an outline of the book. The eleven contributions conducted in various professional settings are grouped together in three different parts.

Part I (“Dialogue and identity in professional settings”) is a collection of five papers in which the sociolinguistic aspects of communication (e.g. gender, ethnicity, professional identity, language and context) are explored. The first paper in Part I, “Leadership and intercultural competence at work”, by Janet Holmes, analyses the workplace discourse of leaders from different ethnic groups (Māori and Pākehā) within one country where two well-established cultural groups co-exist, and examines evidence of the influence of different cultural values and interactional norms on leadership performance in culturally contrasting workplace contexts. The leadership performance of the mainstream, Pākehā leader provides little evidence of intercultural awareness, while the Māori leader’s performance demonstrates intercultural competence. The analysis suggests how new intercultural norms are forged by particular individuals in influential positions in a multicultural society.

Next, Edda Weigand’s article, “Professional action games: Theory and practice”, takes a holistic approach to context, language and culture in the form of ‘professional action games’. Focusing on the example of business games, the crucial structure (e.g. the topics of the agenda) and essential points (e.g. stocktaking, reporting, evaluating and reasoning) of business are elaborated based on human beings acting and reacting as cultural beings in a complex business meeting.

In their contribution, (“Managing the director’s views: Decision-making in a small firm context”), Jo Angouri and Evi Angelidou reveal the complexities of the personal and professional identities and status of speakers in the process of negotiating agreements and ratifying decisions. In the workplace, negotiating alternatives, revisiting and making new decisions, constitute a daily reality for most employees. The authors’ findings show that the personal histories of employees cannot be disentangled from other facets of their identity and that status plays a key role in the small firm decision making context.

Liliana Coposescu’s paper (“Discursive hybridity at work”) examines intercultural data in three types of social interactions: at selection interviews for future professionals in social work; telephone conferences in two multinational companies in Brașov; and Virtual Networking Communication (VNC) sessions with a number of professionals from different parts of the world. Her aim is to describe the way in which participants deal with hypotheticals, narratives and small talk. The author shows how the professional, institutional and personal experience modes shift throughout the encounters. Narratives have been found to perform different functions: 1) in the selection interviews they shift from hypothetical to real-life talk; 2) in telephone conferences they report past actions; and 3) in VNC they are embedded as small talk.

Finally, Jonathan Clifton’s “Doing trust in workplace interaction” prepares the ground for Part II through the discussion of the various resources by which practitioners achieve the enactment of trust: objectives and unmitigated statements, general truths, first-hand knowledge, formulations, consensus and detailed accounts. Using transcripts, naturally-occurring talk and conversation analysis, this paper provides a first-order account that makes visible the machinery of talk by which trust is achieved. Findings indicate that trust can be achieved through displays of epistemic primacy, which are oriented as displays of trustworthiness, and thus can lead to the doing of trust as an in situ members’ achievement.

Part II (“Functions and strategies in professional communication”) is devoted to the range of acceptable communication strategies in workplace situations, such as indirectness and politeness, requests and evaluation, and humour and moderation techniques. Michaela Gheorghe and Adina Velea’s paper on “Control acts in Romanian” opens the second part of the volume with a descriptive approach to directives and requests in Romanian. The authors’ aim is to identify the grammar and language specific features that allow speakers to use certain mitigating devices. The first section shows that the form of control acts in Romanian is dependent on some typological features, mainly those related to the lexicalisation of internal and external arguments of the main verb or to the sensitivity towards the prominence of the speaker or the hearer. The second part of the paper is a case study on control acts (Ervin-Tripp, Guo & Lampert 1990: 308) in Romanian written workplace discourse. The results of the study draw both on qualitative (i.e. description of control acts patterns) and quantitative (i.e. frequency of linguistic forms) analyses. The most frequently used form of expressing both requests and directives is considered to be the imperative mood. Regarding the scale of directness, it can be noticed that the mood derivable (i.e. the bare infinitive) is the most direct form of expressing requests. The next categories on the scale of directness are represented by explicit performatives (please and the future tense), by scope stating (need to and could), and finally, by preparatory conditions (Can you..? Could you..?). With regard to directives, a small amount of them were found in the data. In four out of six of the writer’s directives, ‘have to’ is used in order to underline an employee’s obligation. There was one example found for the non-finite verbal form expressed by the passive voice as a directive expression.

The next chapter, ”Mitigation at work: Functions and lexical realizations”, by Gabriela Chefneux, focuses on features of intercultural communication such as evaluation, modality, questions and humour, which are analysed in terms of functional and linguistic choices of the participants experiencing the process of mitigation. The results indicate that Romanian participants are more indirect in their utterances, using more words to react to what they perceive as face-threatening situations. For instance, hedging devices are used for three main reasons: 1) politeness (commands and evaluation); 2) downplaying of professional experience; and 3) accountability, in order to justify the fact that tasks are not completed. Lexically speaking, the most frequently used mitigation strategies are indirect speech acts expressing requests, question tags, clauses of reason and condition, downtoners and adverbs, approximators and diminishers, as well as words indicating possibility.

One specific area of professional communication is “Moderation techniques in meeting management”, which is explored by Stanca Măda. She aims at analysing the role of the chair, from a moderator’s perspective, in workplace meetings. The author approaches the behaviour of chairs by means of using efficient communication techniques for facilitating discussions. She has developed three sets of moderation techniques -- opening, debating and structuring -- all of which can contribute to a successful moderation style. One of the most important techniques is the opening one, in which the moderator needs to create the appropriate climate for discussions in order to gain the participants’ trust in him/her. Also, the moderator needs to control the meeting in an organised manner, without intending to monopolise discussions or to prevent conflicting opinions. And finally, topic management is another duty a chair must perform during the meeting. “Structuring” refers to the way in which the chair manages the objectives of the meeting. Măda argues that the introduction of moderation techniques will increase positive results in all kinds of teamwork including meetings, conferences, discussions, focus groups, political committees and decision-making boards.

The last chapter in Part II is Răzvan Săftoiu’s paper on “Small talk -- a work of frame”, in which the author reviews some theories on interpersonal communication in order to suggest an integrating definition of small talk. He starts with three distinct theories -- conversational continuum, identity and frame -- and emphasizes the idea that small talk is a strategic mini-ritual. His main findings are that in professional contexts, there are the so-called ‘transitional phatic episodes’ (e.g. McCarthy 2003) when interactants want to renegotiate their social relationship, which may re-establish the balance of power between them, and as a result, can settle a dispute or facilitate a transition to core talk. An example of this would be when a chairperson accepts the interruption of a speaker and does not interpret it as a sanction.

Part III (“Specific issues in professional communication”) contains two studies. The first reviews the importance of translation and the advantages of corpus-based approaches to translation, and the second focuses on the usage of address forms in Portuguese and Romanian written communication. Oana Tatu and Mona Arhire’s article (“Translation as a form of intercultural workplace communication”) aims at shedding light on the interdisciplinary nature of translation studies, as well as on translators’ tools (i.e. machine translation, translation memory, terminology databases and dictionaries, and electronic corpora). The study reveals the advantages of modern research methodologies related to corpus-based translation studies, which are compared to traditional approaches in the field. The authors argue that electronic corpora are indispensable translation tools, as they provide a fast, reliable and authentic search and documentation method. However, the professional translator is the ultimate authority, and needs to use judgement, semantic competence, playfulness, creativity and originality in the translation process.

The final paper is (“Forms of address in professional communication in Brazilian Portuguese and Romanian”) by Veronica Manole. Her corpus consists of two types of data: authentic workplace documents (mainly from private companies); and templates from two recently published business correspondence books in Romanian and Brazilian Portuguese. Her findings reveal that in contemporary language, the address system of each language is undergoing an overall simplification process. For instance, she argues that although both Portuguese and Romanian have complex address systems, only a few forms of address are used in written communication.

EVALUATION

This volume depicts relevant theoretical and practical issues related to professional communication, which results from the in-depth research conducted by the contributors. It is a useful resource for scholars and advanced students who are interested in professional communication across cultures, as well as for people who need to use English at work to communicate effectively in a wide range of situations through both written and spoken means.

In their introduction, the editors state that the general aim of the volume is “to capture changes in professional communication occurring in different parts of the world: New Zealand, United Kingdom, India and Romania” (2). Considering the large number of contributions, this general aim has certainly been met. As with most edited volumes, the contributions are of mixed quality, but overall, this publication succeeds in summarising and discussing the most prominent strands of recent and ongoing research on professional communication. Although the editors admit that the complexity of the phenomena accompanying professional communication requires different approaches, which most of the articles solve quite well, the heterogeneity of analytical tools used in some of the papers does not provide enough background information for the reader in order for him/her to judge the value of the research presented (e.g. Chapter 7). In addition to this, it should be noted that all contributions require considerable knowledge of conversation analysis, discourse analysis and corpus linguistics.

One of the merits of the volume is that the invited authors have analysed authentic verbal or written interactions in order to show the strategies used by participants when coding and decoding messages. I would like to highlight Săftoiu’s well-structured article on small talk (pp. 213-233), where he includes humour as a means of achieving transitional small talk. He argues that using jokes to release tension proves to be beneficial in business encounters and adds that participants must not interfere with the joke mechanism if they want to turn it into a successful transitional phatic episode. The combination of small talk and humour in a professional context is relatively under-researched, and therefore, Săftoiu’s article opens new avenues for further research. Also, Măda’s contribution offers interesting suggestions concerning the roles of a moderator in professional contexts. She shows that by means of various linguistic devices, such as open questions, the moderator can appear as a respected authority who manages to solicit the opinion of all participants and to facilitate group decisions.

One specific shortcoming of the volume is the editorial work, which can be criticized regarding both form and content. Concerning form, the lines in the abstracts are not justified throughout the book. Also, the volume would have benefited from better proofreading. For instance, in one abstract (83) the author mentions “2 types of social interactions”, and in the corresponding conclusion (103), she refers to three events. Furthermore, in the “Mitigation at work” article, there are a number of spelling inaccuracies (e.g. “This paper is part of a more complex study which analysis…”(169)) and other evidence of a lack of revision (e.g. “Hofstede” being repeated in reference to only one author (170)).

All in all, the volume “Professional Communication across Languages and Cultures” succeeds in providing a thorough and welcomed overview of many emergent issues in the field of cross-cultural professional communication.

REFERENCES

Ervin-Tripp, Susan, Guo, Jiansheng and Lampert, Martin. 1990. “Politeness and persuasion in children’s control acts”. Journal of Pragmatics 14: 307-331.

McCarthy, Michael. 2003. “Talking back: ‘Small interactional response tokens in everyday conversation”. Research on Language and Social Interaction 36(1). 33-63.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Zsuzsanna Zsubrinszky is Associate Professor of English Linguistics in the English Department at Budapest Business School, College of International Management and Business. Her research interests include discourse analysis, intercultural communication and English for Specific Purposes. She has published on business communication, intercultural communication and politeness issues in business emails.