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Review of Professional Communication in International Settings
Date: Tue, 21 May 2002 16:52:17 +0800 From: David Deterding Subject: Pan, Scollon & Scollon (2002) Professional Communication
Pan, Yuling, Suzanne Wong Scollon and Ron Scollon (2002) Professional Communication in International Settings. Blackwell Publishers, 240pp, hardback ISBN 0-631-22508-0, paperback ISBN 0-631-22509-9.
David Deterding, National Institute of Education, Singapore
SYNOPSIS This is a practical book, giving advice on how professionals can become aware of and overcome problems in cross-cultural communication and thereby improve their skills and effectiveness when dealing with people in other societies. Particular attention is given to the origins of many practices in professional communication, the ways they need to be adapted to deal with the fast pace of change of modern technology, how these patterns of communication differ between cultures, and how people can become aware of problems via a reflective process, especially by collecting a dossier of professional language usage, a Communication Display Portfolio (CDP), and exchanging it with people in other countries.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part analyses a variety of domains where cross-cultural problems can occur, with one chapter each on telephone conversations, resumes, presentations, and meetings. In most of the chapters, a historical survey summarises the origins of current practices, so that for example telephone behaviour has been quite substantially influenced by the poor quality of the original instruments, and all aspects of business communication continue to be heavily influenced by the suggestions of Dale Carnegie that originated in the United States in the 1930's and may not be quite so appropriate in other societies today. Then, in each chapter, there is a discussion of problems that arise in communication between people in different societies. Much of the background for this discussion of current issues in cross-cultural communication comes from the authors' research project involving participants in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Finland, and how these people reacted to the communication practices of those in the other sites.
In the second part of the book, advice is given on how business trainers might organise a reflective process in an organisation, preferably by collecting a CDP, which includes data on language usage in such domains as telephone conversations, resumes, presentations and meetings, and exchanging these materials for an in-depth critique by people from different cultures. There is also an outline of a one-day workshop that trainers might use for those who are unable to implement the exchange of a full CDP.
CRITICAL EVALUATION The analysis of cross-cultural conflicts in business communication presented in this book is interesting and makes a lot of common sense, particularly with regard to criticism of the widely-held assumption that recommendations originally developed by Dale Carnegie for American society are appropriate throughout the world. However, at times there is a frustrating lack of detail. For example, we are told that the Finnish participants of the research project evaluated the style of a presentation from Beijing, but as that presentation was in Mandarin, how could the Finns have understood what was going on, and how could they have known that the presenter began with an outline of "why", "when", "who" and "where" (p.97)? Presumably, there was some kind of translation into Finnish, but we are not told about this or how it worked. Furthermore, for the brief transcripts of telephone conversations, we are only given one side of the conversation, and also there is no attempt to show details such as the intonation patterns that occurred.
It is certainly true that the best way to solve problems in cross-cultural communication is to engage in a substantial process of reflection crucially involving the reactions of non-local personnel, and to obtain a truly broad critique, this should preferably involve people from more than one other society. However, one wonders how many business people actually have the time or the energy to proceed with such a project. On page 37, with regard to the layout of the traditional QWERTY keyboard and the adoption of an ergonomically more efficient alternative, we are told that "Most users of keyboards resist the days or weeks of retraining it would take to make the change, and the loss of productivity during the changeover time." But exactly the same might be said of the time-consuming demands of undergoing a thorough program of reflection and review of intercultural communication practices, even though one might also argue that anyone involved in doing business with people from other societies cannot afford not to engage in this kind of substantial reflective process.
Quite apart from the time factor, there would be some quite substantial problems in implementing a comprehensive review of cross-cultural patterns of communication. One of the four main topics considered is the resume, but the main purpose of a resume is for applying for jobs, and it is not clear how someone trying to apply for a job in a different country might first organise an elaborate exchange of information with people in that country. It is further not clear how many organisations would be enthusiastic in organising workshops to allow their personnel to improve their skills in applying for other jobs.
One advantage of using resumes is that they are quite easily available (though apparently not necessarily in Finland). The same cannot be said for detailed videotapes and records of meetings, partly because such data are usually confidential and partly because the filming of such an event is not straightforward. Even in their own project, the authors resorted to using a video of a simulated meeting in China, as it appears that none of the three sites were able or willing to provide authentic meeting material. This problem is quite severe, as we are told that the way meetings are held differs greatly between different societies, with Americans tending to engage in a full exchange of information and substantial debate following a pre-determined agenda, Japanese preferring to use the opportunity to build personal relationships and eschewing anything so restrictive as a fixed agenda, Chinese using meetings to reinforce the hierarchical structure of the organisation, with speaking order, seating positions, and even order of entering the room of absolutely crucial importance, and Brazilians tending all to talk together in what, to others, might seem like a massive, chaotic argument but which the participants consider to be a highly constructive debate.
In contrast with the difficulties in obtaining authentic data on meetings, it would be fairly straightforward to collect data on a presentation, but the research on which this book is based suggests that the problems that occur in presentations can be quite similar in different societies, with everyone grappling with the same issues of how to use modern computer-based display technology while at the same time maintain a proper rapport with the audience. The book suggests that in the data from all three sites the presenter was somewhat wooden and failed to achieve any kind of true rapport with the audience, partly because the attention of the audience was focused on the material projected onto the screen at the front and not on the presenter, but surely this feedback could be obtained internally, with no need for an elaborate inter-cultural exchange of materials.
In this book, the authors do not consider issues involving e-mail, because in their research such problems "were not regarded as significant by any of our participants" (p.7). This is a little surprising, as one would expect that e-mail, as a newly developing and rapidly expanding medium of communication in the modern world, does create many problems. For example, in Singapore, many official e-mail messages begin with "Kindly be informed that ..." and there are regular "gentle reminders" about forthcoming events, and although this is the local norm, it is sometimes found to be overly formal and even rather threatening by expatriates not familiar with local patterns of language usage. But perhaps it is true that most of the problems with e-mail are universal, including the degree of formality expected, the style of salutations at the start and signatures at the end, the use or avoidance of abbreviations such as "4U" instead of "for you", and whether spelling should be carefully checked or not, so there may be no need for elaborate exchanges of e-mail material with people in other countries, even though collecting and printing out such data would be quite straightforward.
In fact, this brief consideration of e-mail does seem to illustrate a slightly unfortunate pattern: The most easily collected data are generally not the most important for the kind of comprehensive review of cross-cultural communication recommended in this book, while the data that are most crucial are not easily collected.
In conclusion, this book offers many fascinating insights about problems with cross-cultural communication and much valuable advice on how to overcome these problems, even though it seems that some of this advice might prove somewhat impractical for many organisations to implement. In any case, whether they choose to implement a full review or not, many people will find this book very interesting and extremely useful.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER David Deterding is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, where he teaches phonetics, syntax, and Chinese-English translation.