Saying no 1

When discussing the implications of English as a lingua franca (ELF) in the world of English language teaching, we sometimes seem to be stuck in a place where debates tend to be about whether ELF is a variety in its own right or whether proponents of ELF are at all advocating the dumbing down of the teaching of lexis and grammar.

However, the fact is, English is increasingly being accepted as the main lingua franca of global business and trade, and perhaps the issues this is posing to intercultural communication are really discourse-related, and not strictly grammar- or lexis-related. But can we look at the discourse of intercultural communication without considering the different discourse styles of the different cultures? Would that then mean that English teachers now need to also be cultural trainers?

Some claim that as language trainers, we should just be teaching language. We could of course confine ourselves to looking at the linguistic differences between cultures and how people use of language to convey a more hidden illocutionary force. Let me further exemplify.

Saying no 2

When I say to my partner, ‘Why are these shoes sitting in the hallway?’, the real meaning behind my utterance is ‘These shoes don’t belong in the hallway. You really should have put them away.’ This ‘real meaning’ is the illocutionary force of my utterance.

However, my partner completely misunderstands me and perceives this to be a real question. The perlocutionary force for him is ‘I really want to know why the shoes are in the hallway’. So he proceeds to explain that the shoes were wet when he came in from the snow, and how he didn’t have time to put them on the shoerack. From my point of view, the time he has taken to explain why the shoes are in the hallway could have been better spent just putting those shoes away.

Clearly, what is meant by the speaker is not always perceived correctly by the interlocutor. And some say that this could be put down to the simple cultural differences between the way men and women speak.

Saying no 3

When everyone agrees and we’re all saying ‘yes’, things are usually much simpler. But having to say ‘no’ to someone is a face-threatening act (FTA) and often has to be handled with a bit more tact.

When a Japanese person looks at a proposal and says ‘Omoshiroidesune…’ (i.e. That’s interesting…), it is really a polite and face-saving way of rejecting the idea and saying ‘no’. In fact, learners of the Japanese language often find out soon enough that the word for ‘no’ is hardly used in Japanese. So someone asks me ‘Are you Japanese?’, I’d answer ‘Eh…chigaimasu…’ (i.e. Well…that’s different…).

The act of saying no to offers can conversely be used to show how much we hate to burden our conversation partner. Such preservation of what Applied Linguists call ‘negative face’ is seen quite often in the UK and Ireland. When asked if one wants a second helping at the dinner table, it is often polite in English/Ireland to refuse by saying things like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly.’ The host would then insist once or twice in order to tell the difference between a true refusal or one that is only meant to be polite.

Host: ‘Would you like more potatoes?’
Guest: ‘No, I couldn’t possibly.’
Host: ‘Oh go on. Have some more. Go on…’
Guest: (looking apologetic) ‘Oh, okay, if it’s not too much trouble...’

Saying no 4

Polite refusals in Germany, on the other hand, are often taken at face value.
Host: ‘Would you like more?’
Guest: ‘No, I couldn’t possibly.’
Host: ‘Ok, then.’

My German friend who was having dinner with a family in Dublin found it incredibly irritating that he had to reiterate his refusal of those potatoes several times before being understood, while his Irish counterpart found it shocking that his initial polite refusal was immediately accepted in Bavaria, and he was left hungry and wanting more food, but not wanting to seem rude.

Saying no 5

As we can see, confining our training to merely linguistic differences can sometimes overlook the different rhetorical conventions of the different cultures. In what is becoming a common maxim in the service culture, the use of the word ‘no’ or any form of negative in a sentence is to be avoided at all costs when speaking to customers. Here’s a recent experience my partner had that perfectly exemplifies how this can sometimes lead to frustration and misunderstandings.

Flight Attendant: What would you like to drink?
Passenger: Fanta orange, please.
Flight Attendant: We have Coke, Sprite, Orange juice and Apple juice.
(She avoids saying ‘no’ to the passenger’s question)
Passenger: It doesn’t have to be Fanta. Any kind of fizzy orange drink will do.
(The passenger has failed to understand her illocutionary force: ‘No, we don’t have any fizzy orange drinks’)
Flight Attendant: Well, I can put some orange juice into fizzy water for you if you like.
Passenger: So, you don’t have any kind of fizzy orange juice?
(exasperated and thinking, ‘Why is she not answering my question?)
Flight Attendant: Well, I can give you Sprite or Coke, if you like?
(exasperated and thinking, ‘Is he being daft or just difficult?’)
Passenger: Oh, alright then, give me a Coke.
(still perplexed but has given up on trying to get a straight answer out of the attendant)

The expectation of a more direct answer has left the passenger feeling condescended and frustrated by the end of the conversation, and the culture of never saying ‘no’ in the flight service industry clearly has not worked for this one exasperated flight attendant.

Saying no 6

As seen in the above examples, the term ‘culture’ is in no way limited to discussions solely about national cultures. Each different social or gender group, community, company, and industry could have a culture of their own, and even so, this culture is dynamic, and always changing and developing. As it develops, it might even take on the qualities or values of the cultures of new participants or new influences.

In the above example, the assumption that indirectness is always more polite and therefore the preferred way in customer service industry could be due to the fact that quite a lot of recent customer service training has its roots in the USA, and therefore is very much based on an American/British discourse pattern.

As English becomes a lingua franca of global businesses, would the culture of the economically dominant native English speakers also become the norm in such global industries as flight service? Or should we take into account the fact that such customer service approaches might not work as well when communicating with those from cultures that expect more direct answers?

Do you consider these issues worth discussing in your language classroom?

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: