“Superficial Americans” vs. “Unfriendly Germans”?

Contrastive and interlanguage approaches to intercultural communication

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Research
2.1. Face and face work
2.2. Contrastive Pragmatics
2.3. Interlanguage Pragmatics
2.4. Methodology and procedures

3. Findings
3.1. Dimensions of cross-cultural difference
3.1.1. Directness vs. indirectness
3.1.2. Self-orientation vs. other-orientation
3.1.3. Content vs. addressees / explicitness vs. implicitness
3.1.4. Ad-hoc formulation vs. verbal routines
3.2. Discourse rituals
3.2.1. Greetings
2.2.2. Farewells
3.2.3. Compliments
3.2.4. Criticism
3.2.5. Di scussions Opposition formats Concessions Intercultural disagreement
3.3. Cross-cultural convergence

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

In the age of globalization, intercultural communication has become a necessity in many areas of life. Considering a worldwide increasing mobility, economists, politicians, scientists, tourists, exchange students, global celebrities, and many others frequently communicate in languages different from their mother tongues. Since English is widely spoken in the Western hemisphere, many native speakers are used to conversing with people who have acquired English as a foreign language. Misunderstandings are very likely to occur, often due to linguistic incompetence. Learners who have acquired basic knowledge of a foreign language in school, frequently struggle with their vocabulary, let alone grammatical correctness. Hence, a sufficient command of a (foreign) language is indispensable in order to communicate efficiently. Equally important is the awareness of cross-cultural differences, which often have a major impact on interactions in business as well as in everyday life.

Being able to adequately interact with people from different cultures according to their respective values and unwritten rules of communication is referred to as intercultural competence and includes behavioral, communication and comprehension skills (Lüsebrink 2005:9). Interculturally competent individuals have usually appropriated their skills in a learning process of personal experience in foreign countries and theoretical knowledge about various aspects of one or several culture(s). Intercultural trainers are in demand: Seminars and workshops teaching basics of intercultural communication aim at passing on a general awareness of cross-cultural differences and possible difficulties resulting from them. As Casper-Hehne states, a major challenge in intercultural communication is to capture the link between linguistic phenomena and patterns of thought, emotion, and action, which are culture-specific for our interlocutors (2006: 63).

Linguists define intercultural communication as interpersonal face-to-face encounters between members of different cultures (Lüsebrink 2005: 7). Aside from dealing with the interlocutors’ respective communicative premises, linguistic approaches to intercultural communication focus on how these premises affect the actual interaction (Knapp 2004: 411). The case of German and English shows that, although people from German- and English-speaking countries have been cooperating – and communicating – with each other for centuries, misunderstandings still occur. Germans have other cultural conventions than people from English speaking countries, and speech acts are realized differently according to these conventions. Unfortunately, cultural differences are often not interpreted as such, but as misbehavior or impoliteness instead. Generalizations such as “Germans are unfriendly and distanced” or “Americans are superficial” are the result.

In the following, this paper sets out to provide an overview of the findings of researchers who have investigated instances of intercultural communication between speakers of German and speakers of English. Namely, I will refer to the works of Helga Kotthoff (1988, 1991, 1993), Juliane House (1996, 2003), and Hiltraud Casper-Hehne (2006), who all conducted contrastive research on intercultural communication, and, with the exception of Juliane House, also approached the topic via interlanguage pragmatics. Furthermore, the concept of face work, originally coined by sociologist Erving Goffman, will be briefly introduced and discussed in relation to German and English speakers.

2. Research

2.1. Face and face work

As suggested by Brown and Levinson (1980), all human beings, regardless of their respective cultural backgrounds, have two basic needs: “the want to be unimpeded and the want to be approved” (qtd. Kotthoff 1988: 13). “Face” is defined as “the negotiated public image, mutually granted each other by participants in a communicative event” (Scollon/Scollon 1995: 35). The concept is further divided into negative and positive “face wants”:

negative face wants include the wish not to be imposed on by others, as well as the need for distance and independence (Kotthoff 1988: 13). Positive face wants are the needs for appreciation, love, sympathy, and the like (Kotthoff 1988: 13). As Scollon and Scollon emphasize, “both aspects of face must be projected simultaneously in any communication” (1995: 36).

Fulfilling the other’s face wants in communication is referred to as face work. Positive face work seems to be of higher importance in English speaking countries, while negative face work is regarded more frequent in the German context (Kotthoff 1988: 13): While Americans are used to making each other feel comfortable by expressions of approval, Germans tend to keep the distance from their interlocutors via negative face work strategies. In intercultural encounters between Germans and Americans, positive and negative face threats are likely to occur due to these differences, often resulting in unintended misunderstandings. Face and face work are widely considered to be groundbreaking concepts, not only to the field of sociolinguistics.

2.2. Contrastive Pragmatics

In using a contrastive pragmatic approach, researchers analyze how language is spoken (and written) intraculturally. Therefore, speech acts, written texts, role plays, and naturally occurring discourse sequences are analyzed in different languages and compared to one another (Casper-Hehne 2006: 39). Hence, culture-specific discourse phenomena can be detected and related to culture-specific traits. According to Casper-Hehne, this method is only helpful if it is used in addition to investigating intercultural conversations: The combination of both helps to reveal cross-cultural differences and researchers can try to explain why intercultural misunderstandings occur in the first place (Casper-Hehne 2006: 64 f.).

2.3. Interlanguage Pragmatics

Interlanguage pragmatics focuses on the problems we have when conversing in a foreign language: Since the majority of German native speakers does not necessarily learn a lot about British or American pragmatics in their English classes (and vice versa), it is not surprising that they occasionally apply their own, i.e. German, conversational conventions to the English language (c.f. Casper-Hehne 2006: 38, Kotthoff 1988: 7). Talking to native speakers of English (in English) can thus result in misunderstandings and confusion on both sides. The interlanguage pragmatic approach uses intercultural discourse as data and can be quite revealing about certain deficits in language teaching (Casper-Hehne 2006: 42). Also, in comparing the findings of contrastive and interlanguage pragmatic analyses, researchers can investigate whether interlocutors neglect some of their own pragmatic conventions and acquire new conversational patterns in order to make their intercultural encounters more efficient.

2.4. Methodology and procedures

As Casper-Hehne states, many scholars describe intercultural misunderstandings between Germans and native speakers of English solely based on their own experiences and observations (2006: 55). One of them is Helga Kotthoff, who, instead of analyzing empirical data, bases her work (1988) in large parts on her own subjective impressions regarding pragmatic differences in Germany and the USA. Her observations revolve around several discourse rituals and the way they are realized by Germans and Americans, respectively. Later (1991), Kotthoff focuses on disagreement sequences in order to detect cross-cultural differences in turn-taking. Here, she acquires data by recording role-plays and carries out qualitative discourse analysis. Her subjects are German and American (exchange) students and professors at the University of Konstanz, Germany.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


“Superficial Americans” vs. “Unfriendly Germans”?
Contrastive and interlanguage approaches to intercultural communication
University of Hannover
Intercultural Communication
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
487 KB
Americans”, Germans”, Intercultural, Communication, Intercultural Communication, Misunderstanding, Linguistics, differences, cross-cultural
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2007, “Superficial Americans” vs. “Unfriendly Germans”?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/85549


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