Intercultural conversation

Intercultural conversation. By Winnie Cheng. (Pragmatics and beyond new series 118.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2003. Pp. xii, 279. ISBN 1588114651. $126 (Hb).

Reviewed by Bingyun Li, Fujian Normal University

In Intercultural conversation Winnie Cheng attempts to answer the following question: ‘How do Hong Kong Chinese and native speakers of English, being culturally divergent participants, manage the organizational and interpersonal aspects of English conversation?’ (17). To do this, C scrutinizes twenty-five ‘authentic’ intercultural conversations amounting to thirteen hours of situated discourse, with particular emphasis on five conversational features: preference organization, compliments and compliment responses, simultaneous talk, discourse topic management, and discourse of information structure.

This book consists of nine chapters. In Ch. 1, C talks about the differences between Chinese and Western cultures and mentions some a priori assumptions about the cultural divergences between Hong Kong Chinese (HKC) and native English speakers (NES) for her present study, arguing against overdeterministic taxonomies in intercultural studies. At one point, C makes a distinction between intercultural and cross-cultural communication (1); I am not sure, however, whether this distinction is really useful or necessary. Ch. 2 reviews previous work on the five conversational features mentioned above and outlines C’s own descriptive framework. In Ch. 3, C touches upon the research methodology and data-collection procedures, attaching much importance to using ‘spontaneous naturally occurring’ conversational data. Chs. 4–8 each have a roughly similar structure: hypotheses are put forward and tested by quantitative and qualitative analyses. The preference organization in the form of disagreements is discussed in Ch. 4, and compliments and compliment responses are investigated in Ch. 5. Ch. 6 analyzes 974 instances of simultaneous  talk, focusing on its nature and functions. Ch. 7 reports on discourse topic management, examining in particular topical strategies, topic content orientations, and management of culturally sensitive topics. Ch. 8 analyzes discourse information structure, and is followed by a conclusion in Ch. 9. The book ends with author and subject indices.

To sum up, the author should be credited with providing very detailed descriptions and analyses of the ‘authentic’ English conversation between HKC and NES, shedding some new light upon how intercultural conversations go and how intercultural conversations can be researched. This book would be most welcomed by those interested in conversation analysis and discourse analysis in particular and intercultural studies in general.

I have some reservations, one of which concerns the notion of ‘naturally occurring’. This book is claimed to be a study of ‘naturally occurring’ English conversations between HKC and NES. Throughout the book, however, C does not seem to give a clear definition of naturally occurring conversation; rather, the meaning is taken for granted. Actually, what can be really counted as naturally occurring in social interaction may be more complex than usually conceived. Since the conversations ‘were recorded with the prior knowledge of the participants’ (232), how is it possible to make the conversations ‘as naturally occurring and authentic as possible’ (232)? In such cases, people may more often than not resort to manipulating their discourse. Some people may argue in response that research has shown that after the social interaction has been under way for about ten minutes or a bit longer, they may have totally forgotten that they are being recorded or filmed. I do not think this is completely true. As a matter of fact, what is claimed to be naturally occurring discourse often turns out to be the result of manipulation. As I see it, there are many cases in our everyday life encounters where people, in an effort to realize their communicative intentions, plan and manipulate their discourse long before the actual interaction takes place. It is in this sense that the author’s claim that ‘meaning is jointly constructed by conversational participants’ (2) is only partially correct and that the extent to which conversation is naturally occurring or authentic appears to have something to do with communicative goals or intentions. Of course, this is not to say that the interaction process always goes as planned; after all, communication often takes place at a risk and is to a great extent unpredictable.