Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

Managing Understanding in Intercultural Talk: An Empirical Approach to Miscommunication (1)

Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

Managing Understanding in Intercultural Talk: An Empirical Approach to Miscommunication (1)

Article excerpt

Research on miscommunication has not ceased to grow since the early 1980s, especially in connection with the analysis of cross-cultural communication. Yet, this interest has not stimulated a critical debate on the theoretical models underpinning most miscommunication research. This study aims at encouraging scientific discussion by advocating an empirical treatment of communicative conflict, that is one which is grounded in the detailed examination of linguistic data. Through the fine-grained analysis of participants' sense-making processes in a corpus of real-life intercultural data, we seek to unveil the linguistic and conversational strategies that speakers put to work in the handling of miscommunication. Our empirical analysis of understanding difficulties, based exlusively on observable trouble in talk, suggests that analysts can legitimately focus only on those stretches of talk which are experienced as problematic by speakers themselves. It also shows that miscommunication cannot be attributed to an individual speaker, but that it is jointly constructed by interactants through the ways in which they assess and respond to each other's conversational contributions.

1. INTRODUCTION

This paper seeks to characterise the linguistic and conversational strategies whereby speakers manage to achieve intersubjective understanding (Heritage 1984) in intercultural communication. Participants' local interpretive processes are investigated through the detailed, fine-grained examination of the way in which they handle comprehension troubles in situated talk. Rather than a disturbing factor, miscommunication is viewed here as a resource, a 'rich point' in communication (Agar 1993, 1994 quoted in Hinnenkamp 1999).

Over the last two decades the analysis of miscommunication phenomena has aroused a great deal of interest among social interaction researchers (Schegloff 1987). In fact, as Hinnenkamp claims (1999: 2), the investigation of misunderstandings has become the raison d'etre of much intercultural communication research. (2) This scientific interest, however, has not stimulated a critical debate on the theoretical models and research methods used in the field (Dascal 1999). Hinnenkamp (1999: 2), for example, argues that the very notion of 'misunderstanding', borrowed from ordinary talk, is still in need of a formal, scientific definition "independent of lay concerns".

A large number of studies on miscommunication have adopted a sender-receiver model of communication (Wagner 1996, 1998) equating the achievement of a successful communicative exchange with the correct transmission of information. This theoretical positioning has determined the analytical treatment comprehension troubles have received in the literature. For instance, the distinction between non-understandings and misunderstandings drawn by Gass and Varonis (1991) is based on researchers' external analyses of what they perceive as communication difficulties. One consequence of this has been the objectification of misunderstandings (Hinnenkamp 1999), that is their treatment as 'self-contained wholes' which can be both isolated from the interactional contexts in which they occur and dissociated from the speakers that construe them.

This study seeks to explore miscommunication from an empirical and a participants' perspective. The theoretical framework adopted is conversation analysis (CA). The study is based on the fine-grained examination of 31 tape-recorded exchanges, 5 of which are presented here. They come from a corpus of authentic service interactions gathered by the researcher at the main Tourist Information Centre (TIC) in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, between November 1997 and March 1998.

This paper is structured as follows. Firstly, we provide a definition of the notion of miscommunication as it is understood here. Secondly, we outline some of the working assumptions of existing research in this area. In Section 4 we briefly explain our empirical approach to miscommunication and we provide specific examples to illustrate the theoretical points made. …

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