Communication across Cultures

Heather Bowe and Kylie Martin. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. ix + 208.

Reviewed by Marilyn Lewis
The University of Auckland
Auckland, New Zealand

Bowe and Martin, both from Monash University in Australia, cast their net widely in choosing aspects of cross-cultural communication to focus on. The result is a reminder of the many subtle ways in which speakers of a new language may fail to communicate as intended. Although advertised as a book for linguistics students and for non-linguistics researchers, it should be useful also to language teachers.
The short first chapter sweeps broadly over concepts explored over the past thirty years, including culture, directness and indirectness, naming and addressing. Details show how concepts develop over time, such as the word culture, which once referred uniquely to the tending of crops and animals (p. 2). Chapter two, about direct and indirect messages, then builds on the work of Austin and Grice from the mid-1900s. An example of an underlying message sets the scene as we ponder this announcement by a teenager to a mother: I ve come straight home from school today (p. 9). Readers can also find differences from one language group to another such as the Vietnamese tolerance for ambiguity, a discussion which leads to chapter three, Politeness and face. As with the other chapters, examples are sourced widely, in this case from speakers of Zulu, Arabic and Japanese and others.

The content is organized so that later chapters keep returning in greater depth to earlier topics. Chapter four revisits speech acts and politeness across cultures by referring specifically to requests, complaints, apologies and how to accept them. There is plenty here for teachers to pass on. Chapter five, on conversational analysis, includes information on the roles of laughter. In chapter six the subject matter becomes more serious: Power relations and stereotyping. Hofstede s table of cultural dimensions will no doubt provoke discussion as readers assign their cultures to such categories as small power distance or large power distance. Chapter seven, one of the longest, is about the ways we name and address one another with details such as the relationship between and faithful servant (p. 99), or, more contemporarily, employer and employee. There is also fascinating data on the use of honorifics.

Chapter eight turns from the spoken to the written word. The diagrammatic representation of a Japanese text is sobering in its detail and its difference from the traditional English essay. Chapter nine is about interpreting and translating. To support workers in this important field there is information about training opportunities. Chapter ten opens with data collected in Melbourne from the minefield of intercultural communication amongst professionals and other workers and uses court data showing the answers of an Aboriginal court witnesses to underline the problem.
The book ends on a positive note with chapter eleven, Towards successful intercultural communication, which shows how successful communicators must establish common ground: Let us not lose patience with those who repeat themselves; it turns out that repetition has at least nine purposes.

The authors have an easy style; in fact in places there is a sense of listening, perhaps to their lectures. Another interesting feature is one which makes the book s references easy to follow up: Each of the eleven chapters ends with a few titles of Suggested further reading which reappear (along with many more) in the final list.

At 194 pages, Communication across cultures is a good value and a reminder of how far we have moved since the 1970s work on cross cultural communication–a book which is warmly recommended to both language teachers and their trainers. The only drawback is that readers might be so absorbed by the topic that they find themselves becoming unduly analytical of every conversation they are part of, in and beyond the home.