Oct 262009


If you’re British and enjoy throwing parties, the US is a great place to be. The first time I threw a party here I was struck by a couple of things:

  1. How engaged and excited my guests seemed from the very get go
  2.  How loud and noisy the conversation seemed

It’s not that I haven’t been to some pretty lively parties in the UK, but I’ve grown to expect a slower warm up and for things to get a bit wilder as more alcohol is consumed and everyone starts feeling more relaxed.

I think this difference might be closely related to conversational styles. The sociolinguist Deborah Tannen coined the terms ‘high considerateness’ and ‘high-involvement’ to describe the way we see slower speech and longer pauses in conversation in some cultures (Finland, Japan, Korea, Swiss-Germany, etc) and faster switches in turns, and more frequent overlaps others (Russia, Greece, many South American and African countries, etc). So we build rapport differently – in some cultures by making sure we’re considerate and don’t impose, and in others by constantly throwing in our two penny-worth to show how involved and engaged we are.

I wonder if it might be easier to switch from high-considerateness to high-involvement (or vice versa). And how can we explore this in our English classes?

Many thanks to Holly Suel  for prompting these questions.

 Posted by at 8:17 am

  6 Responses to “Conversational styles”

  1. Great post and great question at the end, Vicki and one I have often had to deal with, especially in business English classes.

    How I deal with it may not be every business English teacher’s answer, but my usual approach is to start talking about Grice and his cooperation principle as well as Lakoff’s politeness principles.

    This is discourse stuff I use in Teacher Ed courses but I found that if I use the same or similar worksheets with ESP students, they get it instantly. We then discuss choice; it’s their choice really to apply or not apply these rules, as well as other protocols (e.g. in Arab countries) found in most good ESP materials.

    My best memory in a lesson was a young Greek top executive in a pharmaceutical company, who responded to a comment of mine by saying this famous line:

    “This is a very interesting point, Marisa” and in an aside tone, he added “I am making you feel good!”

  2. I’m not great at parties….

    Interesting you should mention Japanese communication. One of the first things I noticed when I first came here was the difference in response timing. I’m English, but I was working with American trainee teachers and Japanese students… Americans expect a respose immediately (anything at all!) whereas for the Japanese, silence seems to show that you are thinking carefully to give a proper answer.

    Having said that, if you see two Japanese people (who know each other) in communication, the amount of backchannel and high-involvement is immense. But in a party full of strangers, I think I know who would be more fun (until I got tired, anyway).

  3. Marisa, welcome and thank you so much contributing.
    I was really interested to hear (though not surprised) that you’ve had success using sociolinguistic teacher training materials in class. Good materials are good materials and many studies indicate that talking about this stuff is the way to go. I’ve used odd powerpoints I’ve designed for teachers with students as well and, like you, I’ve found students cotton on fast. Plus a lot of this stuff is both funny and insightful, which is a pretty winning recipe. Loved your student’s comment!
    An interesting offshoot of this is I think it implies it requires a different teaching approach in class. If we’re teaching grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation ‘showing’ and ‘demonstrating’ language in action is generally a good way to go. Hence too much ‘talking about’ the language is often frowned on. But the hidden rules we follow in our social relationships are very hard to demo efficiently and overtly describing them and throwing them open for discussion seems like a better route to me.
    I’ve actually avoided mentioning Grice in class. I don’t feel confident, because there’s stuff in his maxims that I don’t fully understand. But politeness theories are something I find myself bringing up more frequently. I think some of it might be because now I’m working in the US, positive and negative face issues are a more ‘in your face’ experience for me and my students.

  4. Darren, lovely to meet you! But which party would be more fun?
    I read a study somewhere that had data showing those back channeling aizuchi appearing about twice as often in Japanese conversation as they did in American. That’s quite a difference. They are supposed to be hard to get the hang of when you’re learning Japanese. I think the other tricky thing for foreigners is we might think they mean the listener is agreeing with us, when they’re not.
    It takes some getting used to, but there’s something very restful about teaching a Japanese discussion class. There’s a nice analogy made by someone called Susan Steinbach where she says Deborah Tannen’s ‘high-considerate’ style is like the sport of bowling – so folks taking the ball one at a time and waiting their turn, and then rugby is ‘high-involvement’ – so lots of physical contact, so a bit of a free for all. She says Americans are basket ball players.

  5. Actually, I learnt all the aizuchi.. I just can’t get the hang of the content!

    I like the sporting analogy (I think in metaphor, and football metaphor in particular). But then, here is a very big bunch of questions. Is it right for language teachers to impose the communication style of a native speaker culture on the language learner? Does English as an international language mean that we all have to do business like the Americans? And what happens when a Greek talks to a Korean?

    Nice to meet you too ; D

  6. So is the danger of using the aizuchi well that they might think you know what they’re talking about? Ha! I can see that could be a problem. It can be dangerous to appear more proficient in a language than you are. It sometimes gets me into trouble in the US too. Folks think I know what they’re talking about when I haven’t a clue.
    I’ve found the sporting analogy useful in class because it provides some simple metalanguage we can use talk about different communication styles.
    Your EIL questions are very interesting and merit a different posting.

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