[This article was first published in our newsletter in December, 2005, and has been made available online in January, 2006.]

The Language of Drama: When "enough" is not enough

The facts and figures of daily business are neutral, but the people who discuss them and make the decisions are decidedly not. Business is done entirely in a cultural context, and business people carry with them a heavy load of baggage. Cross-cultural communication doesn't always have to end problematically, though this can often be the case. Language skills are a necessary tool for dialogue, and perhaps because acquiring them already poses a considerable enough challenge, we tend to focus most of our resources on perfecting our technical skills of communication. And yet, language is only one tool of intercultural communication. In this article, therefore, the author poses a key question: how can cross-cultural communication fail even where technical language skills are "perfect"?

One of the most deceptively simple pleasures we encounter first in foreign cultures, and which plays an important role in cross-cultural communication, is food. While the ubiquitous seaweed-topped pizza in Japan is certainly one measure of the relative ease with which cultural products can travel today and be integrated seamlessly into the fabric of local tastes, here I'm thinking more along the lines of how food is actually shared between people in different cultures. How food is offered by the host, for instance, how much is offered, how it is received by the guest - slight and pronounced differences in how hospitality is shown and received can in fact create considerable confusion and discomfort.

I often recount a story from an Italian student in one of my intercultural communication seminars, which always gets a laugh. Having invited her new German boyfriend home to meet the family over a week's vacation, Valeria's family indulged him in Italian hospitality, which in this case meant Valeria's mother made sure the boy got enough to eat. Every evening the boy would sit down to the best of mom's home-cooking and heartily polish off his plate. Seeing this and fearing the boy wasn't getting enough to eat, the mother increased his portions each following day. And each evening the boy again finished his plate. Towards the end of the week, just before the evening meal, the boy took Valeria aside and confided, "Everything tastes great, but I don't know how much more I can eat. Every day I eat up but the next day your mom piles more on the plate!" As Valeria wandered back into the kitchen, disconcerted by this unexpected ripple in domestic harmony, her mother took her worriedly aside. "Daughter, I wonder about your friend," her face wrinkled by concern, "I think he is not getting enough to eat. Every day I cook more, but everyday he finishes his plate. I just don't know how much more I should cook!"

Sitting down to a friendly meal is obviously not always a simple matter of hunger or thirst. In very relationship-oriented cultures, it is equally an intimate dance between host and guest as each gives the other "face". In some cultures, this can mean a straightforward yes or no, thank you response from the guest to an offer by the host. In the more fact-based Northern European cultures, the host gives "face" in his way by respecting the guest's individual choice and not persisting his offer. A simple question receives a clear and honest response. Also, especially where the culture teaches respect for the food as well as its provider, not eating up is not only a sign that the food was not to one's taste, it's wasteful. In a communication style of clarity that values truthful, accurate answers, hospitality is in one way measured by what the guest himself needs and asks for, and entails the host providing enough to go around. Whatever your request, the host may be prepared to comply, but "you just have to say so", as even the most hospitable host is no mind-reader.

Meals, social or business, are a drawn-out affair that rarely has to do with how much one can eat. It is a time for exploring common ground in the business and personal relationships that are so inextricably enmeshed.

By contrast, in cultures where sharing food is infused with the weight of emotional bonding and reciprocal face-giving, hospitality requires always providing more than enough. The dramatic cycles of offering-refusing-insisting engaged in by host and guest at the table "inflate" the dialogue with more words, as well as by a repetition of the same words, which serve to intensify symbolic face-giving value rather than add content to the dialogue. Models A to D below are variations of the symbolic face-giving dialogue between host and guest, and illustrate the gradual shift towards a "language of inflation" that is characteristic of the high context drama at Asian, Indian, Turkish, Southern European, Latin American or Arabic tables.

Host:Would you like another serving?
Guest:No, thank you, I'm full. It was very delicious.

Host:Can I get you another serving?
Guest:Oh, thank you, I'm fine.
Host:Are you sure now?
Guest:Thank you, I'm fine. It was very delicious.
Host:Well, if you think you might like some more, please do help yourself.

Host:Please take some more food.
Guest:(No) thank you, I'm very full.
Host:Oh, but you must!
Guest:No, I really couldn't!
Host:You don't like the food!
Guest:Oh, but I do! It's very delicious!
Host:Well then, have some more!
Guest:Thank you, thank you, you're too kind!

Host:Please, take some food.
Guest:Thank you, thank you. I'm already full.
Host:Oh, how can you eat so little!
Guest:Really, I can't eat anymore. There's just too much food!
Host:No, no, don't be so polite!
Guest:Really, I'm not being polite at all!
Host:Here, then take some more! Eat well!
Guest:OK, thank you, thank you, it's all very delicious!

Whether you are technically hungry or can realistically finish that fourth serving isn't the point here: the guest needs to give the host the chance to offer and let himself be "won over" by his host's generosity. In the context of a reciprocal face-giving "language of inflation" between guest and host, no can equally mean no, I really cannot resist your over-generous hospitality, and leftover food on the plate is completely acceptable evidence of it. Notice too the gradual tonal change as we shift from a polite question from the host ("Would you like another serving?") to an almost aggressively imperative command ("You must take some more food!") that would seem to contradict the face-giving value of the dialogue. In fact, in the context of symbolic face-giving, the imperative tone is a dramatic measure of the host's concern for the welfare of his guests and therefore entirely appropriate.

Note that the English word "polite" in Model D is a weak translation for the more inclusive vocabulary that may be used in native Farsi, Mandarin Chinese, or Hindi to express the concept of face-giving that is central to politeness. English "politeness", for example, refers primarily to the appearance of correct social usage and courteous behaviour. In contrast, in the original Mandarin version of Model D, the host would give face to the guest by imploring him to "bu yao keqi", meaning literally "don't be so overly concerned about giving me face". The guest, as required by the etiquette of the symbolic "drama", would return face by insisting that he or she is not being polite just to give face: the concept is so central to the interaction that it is explicitly verbalised by the host and denied by the guest! But not to be fooled: it is clear to both parties that the entire exchange is all about giving face!

The more traditional the host is, the more insistent he or she will likely be, with the interchange of offering-refusing-insisting increasing easily to 6 or 7 cycles. A guest can also expect to repeat the interchange several times throughout a meal, as each new dish is brought to the table. Meals, social or business, are a drawn-out affair that rarely has to do with how much one can eat. It is a time for exploring common ground in the business and personal relationships that are so inextricably enmeshed. Especially as business is nothing if not intensely personal in these cultures, the informal business meal is seen as an extension of formal business time rather than a break from it. It's a time to talk about family, personal experiences, and to listen to anecdotes, all of which enable potential business partners to gage each other's character, sincerity, and expectations and assumptions from his or her history of relationships. At these times, one should especially pay attention to the very stories that have apparently nothing to do with the relationship you are currently building. Describing past experiences in other relationships is a very safe "high context" tactic that enables harmony-focussed cultures to be clear about the hopes, expectations, concerns or even complaints they may harbour for their new relationships without having to be direct.

The same dramatic language of symbolic face-giving inevitably ensues when it comes to paying the check. Who pays, for example, even if the roles of host and guest have been technically decided upon?

The same dramatic language of symbolic face-giving inevitably ensues when it comes to paying the check. Who pays, for example, even if the roles of host and guest have been technically decided upon? For instance, a German manager who is the guest of a Taiwanese company in Taipei has enjoyed the generous hospitality of his hosts for the entirety of his one week stay. At the end of the trip, to reciprocate face, he arranges to host the Chinese at their last dinner together. Imagine his confusion when during the course of the meal the Chinese continue to act as host, taking care to serve the German and giving him first offer of each new dish. Imagine the further confusion at the end of the meal when the Chinese jump to action, snatching the German's credit card from the waiter's hand, shoving it back into his hand, and sending the waiter off with their own credit card in his pocket!

It is entirely likely that the manager, as a guest in the Taiwanese's home turf, will never get the chance to pay, though that is not the point: he has to participate in the "fight" for the bill, in other words, in the symbolic dialogue of reciprocal face-giving. In a relationship-oriented culture such as this one, the point is never who in the end pays because - and you can be sure of it - your turn will come. And even if you paid this time, it doesn't exclude you from offering to pay next time! Everyone is obligated to give everyone else in the group face. Reciprocity, however, ensures that everyone will share equally in paying, but sharing in the group dialogue of mutual face-giving has even greater value.

There are certainly worse things that could happen than overdosing on good food. And we can all relate to the young German suffering for true love. Making our rounds of dinners on our yearly trips back to Toronto, my German husband meanwhile slips effortlessly into the drama of dinner with our various international friends and family who receive us in über-host mode. I'd like to think that the best intentions propel most cross-cultural encounters; unfortunately, the "rules of engagement" are entirely culture-dependent and often the least transparent to others, rendering such good intentions obscured or misinterpreted.

Language skills are an important tool in cross-cultural communication; and they will have to be up to the job if one needs them to perform business transactions. As we teach in our seminars, however, to know how to use language effectively in cross-cultural dialogue requires one to understand that one tends to speak a foreign language the way one speaks one's native tongue, unless one learns otherwise. German-English, for example, no matter how perfectly it may be spoken technically, may be quite inadequate for the German businessman who sits down as the guest at an Indian table, overwhelmed as he is likely to be by both the volume of food and words. Similarly, the Chinese who expects his English host to anticipate his wishes and requests will likely find himself waiting for some time before the misunderstanding is cleared up.

How language is used - sparsely or voluminously, quietly or vociferously, literally or symbolically - is shaped and coloured by the cultural values they express. It might be worth keeping this in mind next time you find yourself sitting at an opulent business banquet dinner staring down at a unfamiliar slippery piece of seafood delicacy with high face-giving value. I asked Valeria how an Italian might deal with this tricky situation? "No problema," she smiled with a flourish of the hand, "you taste, you push it around a little bit here, a little bit there, just make like you eat!"

Alexia Petersen, December 2005

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