- Perception, interpretation and evaluation

The interpretations people make about each other during an interaction are results of simultaneous functioning of various messages: verbal, paralinguistic and nonverbal. The information conveyed by these messages are present in a certain context. The context and earlier information about the other and all relevant aspects related to the situation influence interpretations.

Contextualization cues

During interactions, people process a large number of verbal and nonverbal cues, so-called contextualization cues (Gumperz, 1992). On the basis of these cues they make interpretations about each others´ intentions and their mutual relationship. Effective communication depends on how well people perceive each others´ intentions and how they interpret the messages. The perceptions, i.e., what is perceived and how that is interpreted, are culturally learned. One's own culture provides the measure for which something is evaluated, for instance, as being "beautiful" or "ugly", "polite" or "impolite".

People are, in their own culture, not particularly conscious of contextualization cues (sometimes also called orientation cues). When all parties seem to understand each other, and there is no obvious miscommunication, interpretation processes are not paid attention to. If misunderstandings occur, their origin is difficult to pinpoint. There is no widely accepted language for talking about, for instance, someone's conversational style. The following example by a Finn working in a multicultural organization in Mozambique illustrates this difficulty (Vasko, Kjisik & Salo-Lee 1998):

"I came back from the holiday, noticed that something had changed in the office, there was a new guy. He was a nice guy, something in his  speech, or behaviour was such that it didn't fit there. He was eager and effective, maybe it was his way. I told him too that he should change but I couldn't say what it was".

Important contextualization cues in oral communication are, for instance, intonation, pitch or loudness. These are metamessages that tell how to interpret the verbal message. Decisive is not only WHAT is said but HOW something is said.

Linguistic awareness of cultures and recognition of cultural differences can be developed (e.g., Müller-Jacquier, 1993, 2003). According to Müller-Jacquier, linguistic awareness of cultures (LAC) means that "all cultural differences are ´hidden´ in linguistic manifestations. These expressions of cultural difference are found in all languages and they can be classified in different grammatical and lexical categories or even expressed non-verbally. ... There is a source of mutual misunderstanding when these linguistic indicators or manifestations are not perceived by the interactors" (2003: 53).

Müller-Jacquier (2003) has elaborated LAC criteria for the analysis of communicative events. There might be cultural differences in interpretation along the following criteria:

  • social meaning, lexicon
  • speech acts, speech act sequences
  • organization of discourse, conventions of discourse
  • choice of topic
  • directness/indirectness
  • register
  • paraverbal factors
  • nonverbal means of expression
  • culture-specific values/attitudes
  • culture-specific behaviour (including rituals)
  • behaviour sequences


© Liisa Salo-Lee, 2006



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