- Cultural speaking rules

Communication is culturally patterned. Speaking rules in different cultures have been studied more systematically since 1960s, particularly in ethnography of speaking (or ethnography of communication), founded by Dell Hymes.

A typical example of this approach is the following characterization of Finnish speaking rules, proposed by Donal Carbaugh (1995):

  • Do not say the obvious!
  • When you speak say something worth of everybody´s attention!
  • Do not bring forth conflicting or questionable issues! Try to keep harmonious relationships!
  • Be personally committed in what you are saying!
  • What you say forms a basis for the subsequent interactions!

According to Carbaugh these rules are very demanding. Speech becomes deliberate and perhaps scarce. When people using these kinds of rules meet others from different cultures, such as mainstream Americans, misunderstandings are possible.

Carbaugh goes further in describing that in the USA there are many cultures, each with their own speaking patterns and rules. According to him, in general it is important for the Americans to be able to express oneself by speaking. Everyone has the right to speak and to be heard. The social worth of the speech is less important than its personal significance. In these kinds of circumstances the amount of speech is large, and the topics of conversation are often personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. This may contribute to members of cultures representing other speaking patterns perceiving the Americans as being "superficial" (Carbaugh 1995).

Conversation has been a particular focus of linguists and discourse analysts for several decades. In intercultural studies, many regularities of conversation and joint features have been found. Conversation is like a ball game: It has its own rules. The participants need to know how to open conversation, to respond appropriately, to maintain conversation and to finish it. Turn giving and taking has been found to be systematic and is signaled by, for example, nonverbal means (e.g., eye contact, body position) or paralinguistically (e.g., intonation). In intercultural encounters, different conversational rules can cause misunderstandings. Pauses between turns, for instance, have been found to be longer in Finnish than in German conversation. This may lead to turn taking by Germans, which might be perceived by Finns as rude interruptions. Overlapping speech is common in Southern European conversation and is perceived as involvement and a sign of presence. In many Finnish contexts, overlapping speech is perceived as impolite.

(original text by Liisa Salo-Lee, 2006)


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