Intercultural Communication – Check it out!


“[P]rofessional communication between people who are members of different groups” (p. xi) guides the theory and examples that Ron Scollon and Suzanne Wong Scollon develop in their book Intercultural Communication (1995, Blackwell Publishers). Intercultural Communication focuses on “discourse systems,” which the authors describe as “our cultural groups, our corporate cultures, our professional specializations, or our gender or generation groups” (p. xi). Examples that highlight these discourse systems come from around the world in Intercultural Communication, but the authors field-tested the book in Hong Kong thus emphasizing Chinese speakers of Cantonese.

One of the most important differences in speaking comes between Anglo-Americans and Chinese who organize their presentation of information differently even when using English as a common language. Scollon and Scollon write that the Chinese defer the main point of a discussion until background on a topic is given in a structure that resembles the following:

Because of

Y (topic, background, or reason)

X (comment, main point, or action suggested) (p.1)

For example, a Chinese businessman might say:

The supply delivery was late the elevator is broken down.

Should we bring the materials up by the stairs?

An Anglo-American businessman would probably construct this information in the following way:

Should we bring the materials up by the stairs, since the delivery was late and the elevator isn’t working?

The Anglo-American example follows the structure of:

X (comment, main point, or action suggested)

Because of

Y (topic, background or reason) (pp 1 -2)

Practical examples of this type illustrating differences in communication styles between East Asian and Anglo-American speakers of English abound in Intercultural Communication.

Scollon and Scollon use the examples to argue that language is often like a crossword puzzle where initially we guess at meanings and then fill in information gaps more capably as we progress in a discussion. The authors also provide methods for how to probe for information to clarify assumptions held by conversation partners. (p.13) Scollon and Scollon emphasize that a successful communicator knows his or her limitations and works to bring meaning and information to light in what conversation partners say to one another. (p. 252)

Intercultural Communication provides useful advice for succeeding as a communicator in many cultures, but excels in dealing with how to work with Chinese speakers of English.