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ETAS Journal Editors' Choice Number 30 (April 2018)

Chia Suan Chong: Understanding intercultural communication

ETAS Journal Volume 31, Number 1 (Winter 2013), pp. 26-27

The number of people using English to communicate is constantly growing as English dominates as a global lingua franca particularly in the business world, but do we actually understand each other?

The situations Chia Suan Chong uses in this fascinating read on intercultural communication will be all too familiar to some:

The time she asked her husband why his shoes were in the hall. Cue a boring story about what he was doing with them all day, when what she really meant was “Put them away, please.”

Imagine you are in the UK or Ireland having dinner and your host asks if you want more food. You are actually still quite hungry but the polite Brit in you never wants to make a fuss, so you decline a few more times while the host keeps asking, then eventually say, “Oh, go on, then!”, but still feel terrible for it somehow.

A similar scenario happens at a German dinner table, except the host takes your first “No, really, I shouldn’t!” to mean just that. You go to bed confused, and hungry.

How to say “No” in a culture that never uses it, or give constructive feedback without beating about the bush for those who just want you to get to the meat? And how did a meeting ruin a promising partnership, leaving both parties feeling perplexed? Learn about two very different cultures while reading a study on business culture.

These are just some of questions Chong invites us to reflect on in this eye-opening article about illocutionary force in discourse and its implications for the English-speaking world. Few will deny that it is a tricky topic to navigate and it will leave you wondering how on earth will your students survive when you, yourself, can’t make head nor tail of things sometimes. What it will then do is encourage you to incorporate some strategies into your lessons to help your students become more culturally competent.

What those are exactly will not be found in this article, but I would go to her blog after reading and see what else you might find:

Hannah McCulloch

Understanding intercultural communication

Chia Suan Chong

Saying no 1

Saying 'no'

When discussing the implications of English as a lingua franca (ELF) in the world of English language teaching, we sometimes seem to be stuck in a place where debates tend to be about whether ELF is a variety in its own right or whether proponents of ELF are at all advocating the dumbing down of the teaching of lexis and grammar. However, the fact is, English is increasingly being accepted as the main lingua franca of global business and trade, and perhaps the issues this is posing to intercultural communication are really discourse-related, and not strictly grammar- or lexis-related. But can we look at the discourse of intercultural communication without considering the different discourse styles of the different cultures? Would that then mean that English teachers now need to also be cultural trainers?

Some claim that as language trainers, we should just be teaching language. We could, of course, confine ourselves to looking at the linguistic differences between cultures and how people use of language to convey a more hidden illocutionary force. Let me further exemplify.

Saying no 2

When I say to my partner, “Why are these shoes sitting in the hallway?”, the real meaning behind my utterance is “These shoes don’t belong in the hallway. You really should have put them away.” This ‘real meaning’ is the illocutionary force of my utterance.

However, my partner completely misunderstands me and perceives this to be a real question. The perlocutionary force for him is “I really want to know why the shoes are in the hallway”. So he proceeds to explain that the shoes were wet when he came in from the snow, and how he didn’t have time to put them on the shoerack. From my point of view, the time he has taken to explain why the shoes are in the hallway could have been better spent just putting those shoes away.

Clearly, what is meant by the speaker is not always perceived correctly by the interlocutor. And some say that this could be put down to the simple cultural differences between the way men and women speak.

Saying no 3

When everyone agrees and we’re all saying “yes”, things are usually much simpler. But having to say “no” to someone is a face-threatening act (FTA) and often has to be handled with a bit more tact.

When a Japanese person looks at a proposal and says “Omoshiroidesune…” (i.e. That’s interesting…), it is really a polite and face-saving way of rejecting the idea and saying ‘no’. In fact, learners of the Japanese language often find out soon enough that the word for ‘no’ is hardly used in Japanese. So someone asks me ‘Are you Japanese?’, I’d answer “Eh…chigaimasu…” (i.e. Well…that’s different…).

The act of saying no to offers can conversely be used to show how much we hate to burden our conversation partner. Such preservation of what Applied Linguists call ‘negative face’ is seen quite often in the UK and Ireland. When asked if one wants a second helping at the dinner table, it is often polite in England/Ireland to refuse by saying things like, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly”. The host would then insist once or twice in order to tell the difference between a true refusal or one that is only meant to be polite.

Host: “Would you like more potatoes?”
Guest: “No, I couldn’t possibly.”
Host: “Oh go on. Have some more. Go on…”
Guest: (looking apologetic) “Oh, okay, if it’s not too much trouble...”

Saying no 4

Polite refusals in Germany, on the other hand, are often taken at face value.
Host: “Would you like more?”
Guest: “No, I couldn’t possibly.”
Host: “Ok, then.”

My German friend who was having dinner with a family in Dublin found it incredibly irritating that he had to reiterate his refusal of those potatoes several times before being understood, while his Irish counterpart found it shocking that his initial polite refusal – not wanting to seem rude – was immediately accepted in Bavaria, and he was left hungry and wanting more food.

Saying no 5

As we can see, confining our training to merely linguistic differences can sometimes overlook the different rhetorical conventions of the different cultures. In what is becoming a common maxim in the service culture, the use of the word ‘no’ or any form of negative in a sentence is to be avoided at all costs when speaking to customers. Here’s a recent experience my partner had that perfectly exemplifies how this can sometimes lead to frustration and misunderstandings.

Flight Attendant: What would you like to drink?
Passenger: Fanta orange, please.
Flight Attendant: We have Coke, Sprite, Orange juice and Apple juice.
        (She avoids saying ‘no’ to the passenger’s question)
Passenger: It doesn’t have to be Fanta. Any kind of fizzy orange drink will do.
        (The passenger has failed to understand her illocutionary force: “No, we don’t have any fizzy orange drinks.”)
Flight Attendant: Well, I can put some orange juice into fizzy water for you if you like.
Passenger: So, you don’t have any kind of fizzy orange juice?
        (Exasperated and thinking, “Why is she not answering my question?”)
Flight Attendant: Well, I can give you Sprite or Coke, if you like?
        (Exasperated and thinking, “Is he being daft or just difficult?”)
Passenger: Oh, alright then, give me a Coke.
       (Still perplexed but has given up on trying to get a straight answer out of the attendant)

Saying no 6

The expectation of a more direct answer has left the passenger feeling condescended and frustrated by the end of the conversation, and the culture of never saying ‘no’ in the flight service industry clearly has not worked for this one exasperated flight attendant. As seen in the above examples, the term ‘culture’ is in no way limited to discussions solely about national cultures. Each different social or gender group, community, company, and industry could have a culture of their own, and even so, this culture is dynamic, and always changing and developing. As it develops, it might even take on the qualities or values of the cultures of new participants or new influences.

In the above example, the assumption that indirectness is always more polite and therefore the preferred way in customer service industry could be due to the fact that quite a lot of recent customer service training has its roots in the USA, and therefore is very much based on an American/British discourse pattern.

As English becomes a lingua franca of global businesses, would the culture of the economically dominant native English speakers also become the norm in such global industries as flight service? Or should we take into account the fact that such customer service approaches might not work as well when communicating with those from cultures that expect more direct answers?

After all, the response to a simple question like “How are you?” might provoke different interpretations depending on what the interlocutor is used to. While the answer “Fine, thank you”, might be what is usually found in language textbooks, the more commonly heard “I’m great, thanks!” spoken with too enthusiastic an intonation could be misinterpreted by some to be unnecessarily earnest and perhaps even a touch self-obsessed. A more humble and self-effacing response like “Not too bad. And you?” might work well in Britain but might provoke an “Oh dear, what happened?” in the countries of South America.

Dr Sabrina Mallon-Gerland (see her website: ) showed in her research how  sometimes a misinterpreted illocutionary force could lead to missed business opportunities.

When examining the language used in meetings between the Germans and the Americans, she found that whenever the Americans proposed something, the Germans would say, “Yes, but the problem is…”

After hearing the Germans list out the problems with their proposals, the American perceived the illocutionary force to be, “We don’t like your proposal. Give us another option.” 

So the Americans went on to suggest different things. But each time, they were met with the same “Yes, but the problem is…” by the Germans.

Exasperated, the Americans gave up and felt that the meeting was a failure.

Meanwhile, the Germans were confounded by the Americans’ fickle behaviour. They couldn’t understand why the Americans would move on to a different proposition just when they were about to sink their teeth into a good one. To the Germans, the illocutionary force behind “Yes, but the problem is…” was one that meant “This sounds good. Let’s explore it thoroughly and examine it from all sides.” 

Giving feedback 3

The interpretation of someone else’s feedback could be a minefield in itself, and so understanding how negative feedback (or what we prefer to call ‘constructive feedback’) is given in certain cultures can sometimes help us to reduce cultural misunderstandings. One example of such variation can be seen in the way line managers deliver negative feedback to their employees.

Giving feedback 4

In many American and British corporations, the ‘Hamburger (or what some call the sandwich) approach’ is often employed when giving negative feedback. When an employee is asked to see the boss, the boss would start off the meeting by saying something positive to the employee, e.g. “You did a really good job on the MH Project and the results that have come in so far show a significant improvement in productivity.” This would be the top bun of the hamburger.

This is then followed by the ‘meat’ of the hamburger, i.e. the constructive feedback, e.g. “But there were some concerns as to how the know-how of some of the team members were not being fully exploited, and perhaps we could consider offering more opportunities to the team that will allow them to contribute in a way that demonstrates their expert knowledge.”

The meeting with the boss is then concluded with the bottom bun, e.g. “But overall, you led the team really well and everyone commented on your very good leadership skills. So, well done. We’re really proud of you.”

In Japan, it is believed that the hamburger is given without the meat, thus saving the face of all involved. The very act of calling an employee to the boss’s office should be enough to ensure that he/she reflects upon what has not been done well. So although only the top and bottom bun, i.e. the positive feedback, is given, the employee goes away thinking about how they can do their job better in the future.

Giving feedback 5

In Germany, on the other hand, the hamburger is said to solely comprise of the meat. Being more ‘to the point’ and direct, bosses tend to focus on the areas that need work. However, more and more companies are now allocating budgets for management training where many of the trainers and consultants have been influenced by the management theories and practice of top American schools/colleges and businesses. Managers in Germany, for example, are increasingly being encouraged to employ the ‘Hamburger approach’ so as to improve staff morale.

Being on the receiving end of such an approach, would the German staff finally feel validated and recognized? Or would they be thinking, “Will he/she just get to the point?” Conversely, would an American working for a German company find the directness of the ‘meat only approach’ easier to swallow if they were aware in the first place that the feedback was going to be direct and not meant to be taken personally?

Giving feedback 6

Arguably, some recipients of the ‘Hamburger approach’ might become familiar with its repetitive use, and start to anticipate the ‘meat’, paying no heed to the seemingly false praise given at the beginning and the end of the meeting. Would prior knowledge of the hamburger approach render the top and bottom bun superfluous? Or does the top and bottom bun pander to the egos of the recipients regardless of the conventions they are used to?

As the English language continues to cement its position as the global business lingua franca, would the target culture (i.e. American/British) become prevalent, or even forced upon the discourse styles and rhetorical conventions of the global business world too? Or would the target culture, just like the target language, be adapted and morphed into one that works for all interlocutors involved? If culture is dynamic and fluid, would prolonged interaction lead to increased reflection and the creation of a ‘third space’ (Kramsch, 1993), one that is actively constructed among all the interlocutors due to a need for mutual understanding?

Or perhaps, after lots of Americanised management training, the Germans might only appear to be using the ‘Hamburger approach’ on the surface, but really…it’s just horsemeat on the inside.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Editor’s Note: This article is a modified version of two posts that originally appeared in the English Teaching professional ( Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and the English Teaching professional.

About the Author

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, writing, and blogging regularly for the ETp website ( You can find out more about her on her blogsite (