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Review of  The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication

Reviewer: Laura M Callahan
Book Title: The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication
Book Author: Christina Bratt Paulston Scott Fabius Kiesling Elizabeth S. Rangel
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Greek, Modern
Issue Number: 23.4797

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EDITORS: Christina Bratt Paulston; Scott Fabius Kiesling; Elizabeth S. Rangel
TITLE: The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication
SERIES TITLE: Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2012

Laura Callahan, The City College and Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY)


This collection contains a preface, introduction, 23 papers (all of which were written for this volume), and an index. Notes and bibliography follow each chapter. The chapters are divided into five sections: Background, Theoretical Perspectives, Interactional Discourse Features, Intercultural Discourse Sites, and Interactional Domains.

Part I: Background

1. Ingrid Piller. Intercultural Communication: An Overview. Piller makes the case against static, essentialist views of culture, and advocates for empirical research into intercultural discourse. She calls for increased recognition of linguistic proficiency and communicative competence, on the one hand, and inequality and injustice, on the other, as being the cause of more problems in intercultural communication than cultural differences per se.

2. Leila Monaghan. Perspectives on Intercultural Discourse and Communication. Monaghan traces the history of research on intercultural discourse, from anthropology and linguistics in the first part of the twentieth century, to U.S. governmental interest in intercultural communication from the 1950s to 1980s -- with the parallel development of discourse analysis -- up to the current combination of the two.

3. John Edwards. Cultures and Languages in Contact: Towards a Typology. Edwards offers a framework for a comprehensive typological model, to facilitate data comparison between studies of situations of cultural and linguistic contact. Speaker, language, and setting provide the basic categories for the model, which is then expanded to include 33 variables, distributed between eleven disciplinary perspectives, from demography to linguistics to education to media.

Part II: Theoretical Perspectives

4. John J. Gumperz and Jenny Cook-Gumperz. Interactional Sociolinguistics: Perspectives on Intercultural Communication. The authors provide an introduction to Interactional Sociolinguistics, contrasting its event-focused analysis with approaches that have attempted to find exact instantiations of a priori assumptions about idealized, uniform communities. Like several other contributors to this volume, Gumperz and Cook-Gumperz point out that “different linguistic and cultural background experiences […] do not all lead to misunderstanding” (p. 75).

5. Scott F. Kiesling. Ethnography of Speaking. Kiesling gives an exposition of Dell Hymes’ (e.g. 1962) original Ethnography of Speaking model, including the SPEAKING grid (Setting, Participants, Ends, Act sequence, Key, Instrumentalities, Norms, Genre). Kiesling uses this grid to compare a gathering in a Kuna village, Panama (Sherzer 1987), to a college fraternity meeting in the U.S. (e.g. Kiesling 1998).

6. Ryuko Kubota. Critical Approaches to Intercultural Discourse and Communication. Kubota examines critical approaches to applied linguistics, the concept of culture, and intercultural communication, asserting that post-modern approaches perpetuate essentialism. She urges an increased problematization of “domination, iniquity, and discrimination” (p. 93), maintaining that what is often attributed to cultural difference is actually the product of unequal relations of power and privilege.

7. Suresh Canagarajah. Postmodernism and Intercultural Discourse: World Englishes. Canagarajah traces the application of primordialist, social constructivist, and performative perspectives on the use of English as a lingua franca. He examines Kachru’s (1986) “three circles” model of World Englishes, and concludes the chapter with theoretical and pedagogical implications.

Part III: Interactional Discourse Features

8. Deborah Tannen. Turn-Taking and Intercultural Discourse and Communication. Tannen uses her seminal case study of a conversation between New Yorkers and Californians (Tannen 1981, 1984), as well as data from other investigations, to examine turn-taking behavior and intercultural communication. The variables involved include speaker and hearer gender, the use of overlap, tolerance of silence between turns, and non-verbal and paralinguistic signaling.

9. Ikuko Nakane. Silence. Nakane provides an exposition of the units and functions of silence along with a review of the research on silence in intercultural communication. She notes that silence includes not only the measurable spaces between turns (see Tannen, chapter 8 of this volume), but also the total, collective silence of an audience, and, what is less obvious, the omission of particular topics due to censorship or the denial of opportunities to speak.

10. Michael Lempert. Indirectness. Lempert reviews the various senses of the term indirectness. These range from the most common type -- located in speech acts, or, indirect performativity -- to indirect addressivity. The author interrogates the assumption that there exist cultures of directness or indirectness.

11. Janet Holmes. Politeness in Intercultural Discourse and Communication. Holmes first undertakes the difficult task of defining politeness, then moves on to present theoretical frameworks and research methodologies for its analysis in intercultural communication. She offers a glimpse of intercultural politeness in interaction, with an excerpt from the transcript of a staff meeting in a Maori workplace.

Part IV: Intercultural Discourse Sites

12. Eirlys E. Davies and Abdelali Bentahila. Anglo-Arab Intercultural Communication. Davies and Bentahila offer a critical review of the literature on Anglo-Arab intercultural communication. The authors question, among other assumptions, the premise “that difference is always a problem, and that knowledge of difference is always a solution” (p. 247).

13. Steven Brown, Brenda Hayashi, and Kikue Yamamoto. Japan/Anglo-American Cross-Cultural Communication. Brown, Hayashi, and Yamamoto examine the qualities long assumed to typify Japanese and American cultures: collectivism versus individualism, hierarchy versus egalitarianism, and direct versus indirect communication. The authors conclude that each has been exaggerated, and they emphasize the importance of using representative samples, something groups of university students rarely constitute.

14. Lars Fant. “Those Venezuelans are so easy-going!” National Stereotypes and Self-Representations in Discourse about the Other. Fant uses interview data from Danish- and Swedish-owned companies in Venezuela and Mexico to show how group members produce collaborative stereotypes, via self- and other-categorizations. The author cautions researchers not to “embrace stereotypical representations of groups of people” (p. 289) to thus avoid the perpetuation of power hierarchies.

15. Maria Sifianou and Arin Bayraktaroğlu. “Face,” Stereotyping, and Claims of Power: The Greeks and Turks in Interaction. Continuing with the theme of self- and other-characterization seen in the preceding chapter, Sifianou and Bayraktaroğlu analyze a television serial that depicts the courtship between the son and daughter of Greek and Turkish families. The show features “stereotypical, prejudicial language targeting both groups” (p. 301), and the authors argue that the image of the other is based on historical rather than cultural knowledge.

16. Russell H. Kaschula and Pamela Maseko. Intercultural Communication and Vocational Language Learning in South Africa: Law and Healthcare. Kaschula and Maseko make the case for students of law and pharmacology to receive instruction in the language and sociocultural practices of the clients they will serve. The authors outline a program implemented at their institution, and cite cases in which miscommunication led to a miscarriage of justice.

17. Rocío Fuentes. Indigenous-Mestizo Interaction in Mexico. Fuentes presents data from ethnographic work in Michoacán, Mexico, in which indigenous children are taken advantage of by mestizo vendors. The author recommends that Spanish language lessons for these youngsters include explicit pragmatics instruction to prepare them for the asymmetrical interactions they will face in the marketplace and elsewhere.

Part V: Interactional Domains

18. Eirlys E. Davies. Translation and Intercultural Communication: Bridges and Barriers. Davies considers how translators and interpreters facilitate or hinder -- but always affect -- intercultural communication. Examples cited include political speeches that have been altered to mitigate or aggravate their effect on a particular audience.

19. John Hooker. Cultural Differences in Business Communication. Hooker compares low- and high-context culture -- which can also be described as rule- versus relationship-based -- and the implications for business communication between members of the two groups. Differences may manifest in workplace regulations, contracts, business meetings, and negotiations.

20. Diana Eades. Intercultural Communication in the Law. Eades synthesizes the intricate issues involved in courtrooms and police interviews, highlighting the potentially lethal combination of unequal power relationships, cultural presuppositions, and diverse communicative styles. She cites examples in which authorities, plaintiffs, and defendants were speakers of different linguistic codes, including regional or ethnic dialects, creoles, and sign languages.

21. Claudia V. Angelelli. Medicine. Angelelli discusses the ethics, role, education (not to be confused with training) and certification of medical interpreters. The chapter includes a telephone conversation transcript that shows one of the many ways in which medical interpreters are called upon to do much more than merely repeat participants’ words in a different language.

22. Amanda J. Godley. Intercultural Discourse and Communication in Education. Godley provides an exposition of issues and research in intercultural student-teacher, student-student, and parent-teacher communication ranging from seminal studies such as Philips (1972), Bernstein (1974), and Heath (1983), to more recent work that questions the very concept of culture.

23. Jonathan M. Watt. Religion as a Domain of Intercultural Discourse. Watt points out several junctures at which linguistic and religious issues intersect, such as when immigrants must choose whether to worship in a host country’s language, and religions whose sacred texts are written in a language that may not be widely accessible to followers of the faith.


The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication is a valuable addition to the discipline. The collection includes diverse perspectives in a single volume, with comprehensive and often critical literature reviews in most of the chapters. This combination makes for a book that will be useful to students and scholars, from those just becoming acquainted with the field to those who conduct research and teach courses on intercultural discourse and communication. Paulston, Kiesling, and Rangel’s contribution will be of particular interest to instructors of graduate level seminars in such areas as discourse analysis, intercultural communication, pragmatics, and anthropology.

As noted above, several of the chapters offer insightful literature reviews with critical examinations of claims both old and new.

The question of what is meant by the term culture arises. Definitions commonly seen describe culture as the shared beliefs, worldviews, and behaviors of a given group of people. Several of the contributors seem to accept this as at least a serviceable working definition, and some come close to what Piller describes as a conflation of national and ethnic identity with culture. Others problematize the static nature suggested by standard definitions. Godley, for example, notes that scholars of education “now tend to view culture as shifting over time, as referring not just to the practices that students bring to school, but also as something that is revised and created through interactions between people in schools [...]” (p. 457).

Another notion notoriously difficult to define is that of politeness. Holmes provides an incisive overview of this disputed question. Of the division some investigators have proposed between popular and scientific conceptualizations of politeness (termed politeness 1 and politeness 2; see, for example, Eelen 2001; Watts 2003), Holmes affirms that “[w]hile this distinction seems plausible, it is very difficult to maintain when undertaking research (cf. Mills 2003: 8)” (p. 209). On the related issue of face and facework, Sifianou and Bayraktaroğlu acknowledge the value of social constructivism, but caution against discarding the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, stating: “Within a facework theory, it has been argued that although face is co-constructed by interlocutors and is emergent in the current interaction one should not ignore its pre-existing, though obviously not static, nature. What is co-constructed is based on interlocutors’ relational history whether existing or imagined” (p. 307).

Finally, more than one author counsels against the over-attribution of communication problems to cultural differences. Difficulties may stem instead from a speaker’s lack of skills in the language of interaction. In addition, as Kubota warns, “[i]n contemporary discourse, cultural difference […] has both replaced the idea of racial difference and made racism obscure” (p. 99). As Piller states, “In thrall to a cultural worldview, we see ‘culture’ where linguistic proficiency and communicative competence (or their lack) and inequality and injustice would explain much more” (p. 8).

In any case, “mere linguistic and cultural knowledge is not a necessary, not even a sufficient condition for the success of intercultural communication” (Wilson and Wilson 2001: 78, quoted in Davies and Bentahila, p. 244). Or, as Scollon and Scollon (2001) also note, confusion can arise from one speaker having some knowledge of -- and perhaps attempting to accommodate to -- another speaker’s norms, if that speaker likewise has some knowledge of and is expecting to be the one to accommodate. In such a situation each speaker could misinterpret the other’s behavior, and it would be more useful to proceed on an assumption of ignorance.

In sum, “The Handbook of Intercultural Discourse and Communication” promises to be a stimulating resource with the potential to inform and to invite debate, inspiring and equipping readers to ponder recent and enduring issues anew.


Bernstein, Basil. 1974. Class, Codes, and Control: Theoretical Studies towards a Sociology of Language. Vol. 1, 2nd ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Eelen, Gino. 2001. A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Heath, Shirley B. 1983. Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hymes, Dell. 1962. The ethnography of speaking. In Thomas Gladwin and William C. Sturtevant, eds. Anthropology and Human Behavior. Washington, DC: Anthropological Society of Washington. 13-53.

Kachru, Braj. 1986. The Alchemy of English: The Spread, Functions and Models of Non-Native Englishes. Oxford: Pergamon.

Kiesling, Scott F. 1998. Men’s identities and sociolinguistic variation: The case of fraternity men. Journal of Sociolinguistics. 2-1: 69-100.

Mills, Sara. 2003. Gender and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Philips, Susan U. 1972. Participant structures and communicative competence: Warm Springs children in community and classroom. In Courtney B. Cazden, V. P. John, and Dell Hymes, eds. Functions of Language in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press. 370-393.

Scollon, Ronald and Scollon, Suzanne Wong. 2001. Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sherzer, Joel. 1987. Kuna Ways of Speaking. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tannen, Deborah. 1981. New York Jewish conversational style. International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 30: 133-149.

Tannen, Deborah. [1984] 2005. Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. Revised edition: New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Watts, Richard. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, Shi-xu and Wilson, John. 2001. Will and power: Towards radical intercultural communication research and pedagogy. Language and Intercultural Communication. 1: 76-93.

Laura Callahan is Associate Professor of Hispanic Linguistics in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at The City College, City University of New York (CUNY). She is a member of the doctoral faculty in the Ph.D. Program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures & Languages at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and has given seminars on Language & Identity and Language & Intercultural Communication. She is author of “Spanish and English in U.S. Service Encounters” (2009) and “Spanish/English Codeswitching in a Written Corpus” (2004). Her articles have appeared in various journals, including Intercultural Pragmatics, International Multilingual Research Journal, Heritage Language Journal, Language & Intercultural Communication, and Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development.

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ISBN: 1405162724
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