A scrap­book of stereo­types

A look at in­ter­cul­tural di­a­logue ends up as an ir­ri­tat­ing guide to man­ners, says Su­san Bass­nett

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Su­san Bass­nett is pro­fes­sor of com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of War­wick.

Get­ting Through: The Plea­sures and Per­ils of Cross-cul­tural Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

By Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts MIT Press, 304pp, £22.95

ISBN 9780262036313 Pub­lished 29 September 2017

Wan­der round any air­port book­shop and you will find books of­fer­ing ad­vice on how to en­gage with other cul­tures. The think­ing here is that, even if you can’t speak a word of an­other lan­guage, you can learn about cul­tural prac­tices such as the im­por­tance (or not) of time-keep­ing, whether busi­ness meet­ings mat­ter more than the din­ner af­ter­wards in terms of seal­ing a deal and whether in­ter­rupt­ing is bad man­ners or stan­dard be­hav­iour.

Ques­tions of in­ter­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion are also fun­da­men­tal to trans­la­tion stud­ies, the field that in­ves­ti­gates the shifts and changes that take place when texts are trans­ferred from one con­text to an­other, in terms not only of lin­guis­tic adap­ta­tion but also of the cul­tural im­pli­ca­tions and the mul­ti­ple agen­cies in­volved. When I saw the ti­tle of this book, I ex­pected it to be a work that I could rec­om­mend to trans­la­tion stu­dents, but de­spite the 70 pages of notes and ref­er­ences, trans­la­tion is not there. In­stead, what we find are gen­er­al­i­sa­tions, snip­pets from a wide va­ri­ety of lin­guis­tics sources and, ev­ery few pages or so, per­sonal anec­dotes which feed on stereo­typ­i­cal knowl­edge.

So in Chap­ter 4, grandly ti­tled “The El­e­ments of Prag­matic Style”, we are in­formed that one of Roberts’ col­leagues work­ing in Korea once re­ferred to some­one with a PhD as “doc­tor”, but that “this in­di­vid­ual be­came up­set be­cause he ex­pected the even more el­e­vated term ‘pro­fes­sor’”. This story is used to tell us some­thing about the Korean in­sis­tence on hon­orifics. On the same page, we are in­formed that “if you are a na­tive English speaker, then you are prob­a­bly only dimly aware of all this”, im­ply­ing that hon­orifics in English are rarely used. Both these as­sump­tions are wrong: na­tive English-speak­ing aca­demics (of the pompous kind, ad­mit­tedly) get equally ag­i­tated if not ad­dressed with the proper ti­tle, and hon­orifics in Bri­tish English are still widely used.

The fact that there are vari­a­tions be­tween Englishes also seems to have passed the au­thors of this book by, and they never en­gage with the com­plex­i­ties of re­gional, class and gen­der lan­guage vari­a­tion. They touch on such ques­tions as turn-tak­ing, rhetor­i­cal ques­tions, po­lite­ness strate­gies, hu­mour, blas­phemy and in­sults, greet­ings – but all so su­per­fi­cially that noth­ing is dealt with in any mean­ing­ful way. There are car­toon-style il­lus­tra­tions and snappy head­ings for sub-sec­tions, pre­sum­ably to re­in­force an at­tempt at light-heart­ed­ness.

Roger Kreuz teaches psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Mem­phis and Richard Roberts works in the US State Depart­ment. This is their sec­ond book from MIT Press, a highly rep­utable pub­lisher, but who the tar­get read­er­ship might be is a com­plete mys­tery. In mit­i­ga­tion, the au­thors come across as nice peo­ple. In their pref­ace, they de­clare that they have tried “nei­ther to over­state nor un­der­state the in­flu­ence of cul­tural dif­fer­ences”, and that they make no at­tempt to de­ter­mine what con­sti­tutes cross-cul­tural work. “We re­spect and cel­e­brate di­ver­sity,” they de­clare, dis­miss­ing any dis­tinc­tion be­tween the in­ter- and in­tra­cul­tural as “a fool’s er­rand”. It is this very nice­ness, com­bined with the lack of orig­i­nal think­ing in this ba­si­cally palimpses­tic book, that makes it such a point­less read.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.