Human communication is a combination of cooperation and understanding. Success in communication depends greatly on the ability to recognize speakers’ communicative intentions and pragmatic meaning of their utterances. Actually, those who may be regarded as fluent in a second language owing to their phonetic, syntactic and semantic knowledge of that language may still be unable to produce language that is socially and culturally appropriate. As a result, Larina (2008) shows that numerous problems in communication occur because people do not only speak different languages but use them in different ways according to specific social and linguistic norms, values, and social-cultural convention.
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Many people devalue the importance of invitation’s refusal strategies because normally, it is a person right to say something he/she doesn’t like or doesn’t want to. However, it is not as simple as it is thought to be since misbehavior in this domain can result in the interlocutor’s feeling of being shocked, angry, or even seriously insulted. It is because every body, as a human being, expects the appreciation and respect from others. America and Vietnam are two countries with different culture so their social and linguistic norms are different as well. This paper is an attempt to provide a cross-culture comparison of ways American and Vietnamese deal with a tactful-required kind of speech act: refusing an invitation. In this paper, the similarities and differences in refusal strategies between American native speakers and Vietnamese native speakers will be discussed under three circumstances: when the invitee is at a lower status; when the invitee is at an equal status; and when the invitee is at a higher status. To make my topic more practical, I also suggest some implications in language teaching. I hope that this paper will be a contribution to the study of cross-cultural pragmatic understanding and effective communication.
In the 1950s and 60s two philosophers of language, John Austin and John Searle, developed speech act theory from their observation that language is used to do things other than just refer to the truth or falseness of particular statements. Austin’s book How to Do Things with Words (1962) is the next to a series of lectures he gave at Harvard University on this topic. John Searle, a student of Austin, further developed Austin’s work in his book Speech Acts, which was published in 1969.
Austin’s and Searle’s work appeared at a time when logical positivism was the prevailing view in the philosophy of language. They launched a strong and influential attack on this work. The logical positive view of language argued that a sentence is always used to describe some fact, or state of affairs and, unless it could be tested for truth or falsity, is basically meaningless. Austin and Searle observed that there are many sentences that cannot meet such truth conditions but that are, nevertheless, valid sentences and do things that go beyond their literal meaning.
Searle and Austin argued that in the same way that we perform physical acts, such as having a meal or closing a door, we can also perform acts by using language. We can use language, for example, to give orders, to make requests, to give warnings, or to give advice. They called these speech acts. Thus people do things with words in much the same way as they perform physical actions.
Paltridge (2000) provided us the definition of Speech Act:
A Speech Act is an utterance that serves a function in communication. Some examples are an apology, greeting, request, complaint, invitation, compliment or refusal. A speech act might contain just one word such as ‘No’ to perform a refusal or several words or sentences such as: “I’m sorry, I can’t, I have a prior engagement”. It is important to mention that speech acts include real-life interactions and require not only knowledge of the language but also appropriate use of that language within a given culture. Socio-cultural variables like authority, social distance, and situational setting influence the appropriateness and effectiveness of politeness strategies used to realize directive speech acts such as requests (p. 15).
Refusal as a speech act
According to Al-Eryani (2007), a refusal is a respond negatively to an offer, request, invitation, etc. Refusals, as all the other speech acts, occur in all languages. However, not all languages/ cultures refuse in the same way nor do they feel comfortable refusing the same invitation or suggestion. Moreover, how one says “no” may be more important in many societies than the answer itself. Therefore, sending and receiving a message of ‘no” is a task that needs special skills. The interlocutor must know when to use the appropriate form and its function. The speech act and its social elements depend on each group and their cultural-linguistic values.
Refusals are considered to be a face-threatening act among the speech acts. “Face” means the public self-image of a person. It refers to that emotional and social sense of self that everyone has and expects everyone else to recognize. Refusals threaten the inviter’s face because they contradict hisher expectations and restrict the inviter’s freedom to act according to hisher will. On the other hand, refusals may threaten the addressee’s public image to maintain approval from others.
Because a failure to refuse appropriately can risk the interpersonal relations of the speakers, refusals usually include various strategies to avoid offending one’s interlocutors. However, it requires a high level of pragmatic competence and the choice of these strategies may vary across languages and cultures. For example, in refusing invitations, offers and suggestions, gratitude was regularly expressed by American English speakers, but rarely by Egyptian Arabic speakers (Nelson, Al-batal, and Echols, 1996). When Mandarin Chinese speakers wanted to refuse requests, they expressed positive opinion (e.g., ‘I would like toâ€¦.’) much less frequently than American English since Chinese informants were concerned that if they ever expressed positive opinions, they would be forced to comply (Liao and Bressnahan, 1996).
Politeness can be at once be understood as a social phenomenon, a means to achieve good interpersonal relationships, and a norm imposed by social conventions. So it is phenomenal, instrumental and normative by nature. According to Brown and Levinson (as cited in “Politeness,” 1997), politeness strategies are developed in order to save the hearers’ “face.” Face refers to the respect that an individual has for him or herself, and maintaining that “self-esteem” in public or in private situations. Usually you try to avoid embarrassing the other person, or making them feel uncomfortable. Face Threatening Acts (FTA’s) are acts that infringe on the hearers’ need to maintain his/her self esteem, and be respected. Politeness strategies are developed for the main purpose of dealing with these FTA’s. What would you do if you saw a cup of pens on your teacher’s desk, and you wanted to use one, would you
say, “Ooh, I want to use one of those!”
say, “So, is it O.K. if I use one of those pens?”
say, “I’m sorry to bother you but, I just wanted to ask you if I could use one of those pens?”
Indirectly say, “Hmm, I sure could use a blue pen right now.”
There are four types of politeness strategies, described by Brown and Levinson (as cited in “Politeness,” 1997), that sum up human “politeness” behavior: Bald On Record, Negative Politeness, Positive Politeness, and Off-Record-indirect strategy.
If you answered A, you used what is called the Bald On-Record strategy which provides no effort to minimize threats to your teachers’ “face.”
If you answered B, you used the Positive Politeness strategy. In this situation you recognize that your teacher has a desire to be respected. It also confirms that the relationship is friendly and expresses group reciprocity.
If you answered C, you used the Negative Politeness strategy which similar to Positive Politeness in that you recognize that they want to be respected. However, you also assume that you are in some way imposing on them. Some other examples would be to say, “I don’t want to bother you but…” or “I was wondering if …”
If you answered D, you used Off-Record indirect strategies. The main purpose is to take some of the pressure off of you. You are trying not to directly impose by asking for a pen. Instead you would rather it be offered to you once the teacher realizes you need one, and you are looking to find one.
In many ways, politeness is universal. It is resorted to by speakers of different languages as a means to an end and it is recognized as a norm in all societies. Despite its universality, the actual manifestations of politeness, the ways to realize politeness and the standards of judgment differ in different cultures. On her thesis, Nguyen, T. L (2010) points out some aspects we should consider in order to achieve the goal of politeness as following:
– The social background of the communicator. Generally, the more educated a man is, the more he tends to show his politeness to other people. The more he knows about the suitable ways to show politeness, the better he uses them to be polite to others. Besides, the personality of the communicator is also very important here. Good-tempered person prefers to use “face-saving act” while bad-tempered person prefers “face-threatening act” when they come across the “face-losing condition”.
– The communicative circumstances. Communication is a very complicated process. In formal occasions, people tend to use formal expressions to show politeness, esp. between the new acquaintances. While in informal states, people tend to be casual to show intimacy even if it is in the very moment they meet. And that doesn’t mean impoliteness. Look at the following example:
Ex 1: A man came into a bar and said to the waiter: “Hi! Buddy! Gimme some whisky, would ya?” Although they’ve never met before, the man used very casual phrases to enclose their relationship. This is a usual way to show friendliness to strangers in similar entertaining places.
– The social distance. The social distance between speaker and hearer is one of the factors that determine politeness behaviors. The notion of social distance refers to the consideration of the roles people are taking in relation to one another in a particular situation as well as how well they know each other, which means the degree of intimacy between interlocutors. However, there are still some exceptions. For example, people often use family names to call their close friends, and when these people speak to each other, they will use direct offer or request. But sometimes they use very formal expressions in their speech. Look at the following example.
Ex 2: Husband to his wife: “Would you be so kind as to hand the bread over to me?”
Surely we know that the wife has just quarreled with the husband and the husband is trying to amuse her in a certain way.
– The cultural differences. Different culture causes different views of values, which affects the criteria of politeness and leads to differences in various aspects.
+Ways to greet each others and farewells.
+ Ways to address terms.
+ Ways to praise others.
+ Ways to express thanksâ€¦
Directness and indirectness
Directness and indirectness are basic form of expression, which are universal in all languages and culture.
Directness is a style of communication in which speaker want to get the straight forward to the points. The speech interprets exactly and literally what the speaker said. The power of directness is the hearer does not have to look for what the speaker might have mean by uttering such and such sentence. Everything in their interaction is expressed explicitly. Misunderstanding hardly occurs.
Indirectness is any communicative behavior, verbal or nonverbal that conveys something more than or different from what it literally means. In order to protect privacy, to minimize the imposition on the hearer and to avoid the risk of losing face, there is a preference for indirectness on the part of the speaker to smooth the conversational interaction. For example when conveying the pragmatic meaning I want you to do it, the English make special effort to diminish and soften their imposition and show their respect for other people’s privacy. An illustration of this is when someone says “can you pass the salt?” Here, they are not asking about your ability to pass the salt – the literal meaning of the sentence – but requesting you to pass the salt. This is very common in service encounters where “can” is often used to refer to something other than ability or permission.
There are many socio-cultural factors affecting the directness or indirectness of utterances. Nguyen (1998) (as cited in Nguyen, T. M. P, p.13) proposes 12 factors that, in his view, may affect the choice of directness and indirectness in communication:
1. Age: the old tend to be more indirect than the young.
2. Sex: females prefer indirect expression.
3. Residence: the rural population tends to use more indirectness than the urban.
4. Mood: while angry, people tend to use more indirectness.
5. Occupation: those who study social sciences tend to use more indirectness than those who study natural sciences.
6. Personality: the extroverted tend to use more directness than the introverted.
7. Topic: while referring to a sensitive topic, a taboo, people usually opt for indirectness.
8. Place: when at home, people tend to use more directness than when they are elsewhere.
9. Communication environment/setting: when in an informal climate, people tend to express themselves in a direct way.
10. Social distance: those who have closer relations tend to talk in a more direct way.
11. Time pressure: when in a hurry, people are likely to use direct expressions.
12. Position: when in a superior position, people tend to use more directness to their inferiors.
These factors help to determine the strategies as well as the number of semantic formulae used when speakers perform the act of refusing.
Comparison of refusal strategies in America and Vietnamese
Basing on the data collected from Nguyen, T. L (2010), I will focus on three situations in which American and Vietnamese refuse the invitations from inviters who have higher, equal and lower status than theirs respectively.
(1), (2), (3), (4) means position of the utterance is presented.
When the invitee is at a lower status.
The components which are typically found in American’s way of refusals when the invitee is at a lower status are (1) Gratitude/appreciation + (2) Excuse/reasons/explanation + (3) Positive opinion. For example, when a student declines a professor’s invitation of having lunch with his/her family, he/she might answer as following:
“Thank you. I have already eaten. It’s so nice of you to ask”.
[(1) Gratitude + (2) Reason + (3) Positive opinion]
2. “Thank you but I just had lunch”.
[(1) Gratitude + (2) Reason]
3. “I just ate at the Indian restaurant down the street and I got a little indigestion, thank you though”.
[(1) Reason + (2) Gratitude]
Vietnamese native speakers tend to use the formula: (1) Thank you + (2) Addressing term + (3) Offer for alternatives or a promise for future acceptance. For example:
“Cáº£m Æ¡n giáo sÆ°, Ä‘á»ƒ khi khác em sáº½ dùng bá»¯a cùng gia Ä‘ình tháºy áº¡”.
(Thank you, professor. I will join with your family next time.)
[(1) Gratitude + (2) Addressing term + (3) Promise for future acceptance]
2. “Cáº£m Æ¡n giáo sÆ°, má»i tháºy và gia Ä‘ình cá»© dùng bá»¯a tá»± nhiên áº¡”.
(Thank you, professor. Be yourself with you family.)
[(1) Gratitude + (2) Addressing term + (3) Alternaitves]
3. “Em cáº£m Æ¡n tháºy, tháºy dùng bá»¯a tá»± nhiên, em ngá»“i uá»‘ng nÆ°á»›c trà Ä‘á»£i tháºy cÅ©ng Ä‘Æ°á»£c áº¡”.
(Thank you, professor. Be yourself. I will drink some tea to wait for you.)
[(1) Gratitude + (2) Addressing term + (3) Alternatives]
According to the results above, both American and Vietnamese use expression of “gratitude/appreciation” in their refusals; However, gratitude maybe in different orders (either at the beginning or at the end of the utterance).
One noticeable difference occurs in this component of refusal is that Vietnamese prefer offering a promise in the future to maintain the relationship between the professor and the student. Vietnamese speakers are somehow less likely to give a straightforward respond to decline the professor’s invitation. In contrast, Americans often say directly the reason why they cannot accept the invitation by saying “I have eaten” or “I just had lunch”. Besides, Americans only use their popular addressing term “you and I’ while Vietnamese tend to use many addressing terms such as “Professor” or “Mr.” in the conversation between the professor and the students.
When the invitee is at an equal status.
The second case involves the speaker refusing an inviter who has equal position with him/her. When refusing a classmate’s invitation, American normally use this formula: (1) Regret/excuse + (2) Offer of alternatives or a promise for the future acceptance. For instance:
“I’m really sorry. I have another commitment. I am generally available. Can we set it up for another time?”
[(1) Regret + (2) Reason + (3) Offer an alternative]
2. “What a pity. I already have plans. Please let me know the next time you go and I would love to come along”.
[(1) Regret + (2) Reason + (3) Promise for future acceptance]
Meanwhile Vietnamese semantic formula is (1) A promise for the future acceptance/ an offer of alternative + (2) reasons as following:
“Äá»ƒ láºn sau nhé, láºn này mình báºn máº¥t rá»“i. Äá»“ng ý chá»©?”
(Perhaps next time, I’m busy now. All right?)
[(1) Promise for the future acceptance + (2) Reason]
2. “Äá»ƒ bá»¯a khác Ä‘Æ°á»£c không? Hôm nay mình máº¯c há»c rá»“i”.
(Can we set it up for another time? I have to study today.)
[(1) An offer of alternative + (2) Reason]
These examples show that both Americans and Vietnamese rarely say “no” directly to their friends even though they are in equal status. Mostly, Americans use regret like “I’m sorry/what a pity” to start their refusal. This style is culturally and socially important and appropriate in America. In contrast, Vietnamese may feel that it is less necessary to express their regret due to the familiarity and close social distance. It reflects traditional thinking of Vietnamese that in close relationship, people should be open, friendly and informal with each other. Although both two groups tend to use the excuse and reason to soften their refusal, there is slightly different in the order between Americans and Vietnamese. Whereas Vietnamese people offer alternatives or promise for the future acceptance before giving their excuse as a way to reduce threatening face of inviter, Americans use excuse first and follow other alternatives in the future.
When the invitee is at an upper status.
In the last situation, the speaker, who is at a high social status, declines an invitation to go to the spa with the staff.
American speakers refuse this kind of invitation by saying patterns like (1) regret + (2) reason/excuse/explanation. For example:
“Sorry, I’ve made plans”.
[(1) Regret + (2) Reason (subjective reason)]
2. “That sounds lovely. But I have far too much to work right now. Thank for inviting me”.
[(1) Positive opinion + (2) Reason (subjective reason) + (3) Gratitude]
Vietnamese’s responses are more complicated and detailed. The usual formula is (1) Gratitude + (2) Reason
“Cáº£m Æ¡n cáºu nhÆ°ng mình không Ä‘i Ä‘Æ°á»£c. Mình không muá»‘n các nhân viên khác hiá»ƒu nháºm. Thông cáº£m cho mình nhé”.
(Thanks, but I can’t go with you. I’m afraid to be misunderstood by other staffs. Sympathize with me!)
[(1) Gratitude + (2) Reason (objective reason) + (3) Sympathy)
2. “Cáº£m Æ¡n cáºu ráº¥t nhiá»u nhÆ°ng cuá»‘i tuáºn này mình pháº£i tham dá»± Ä‘ám cÆ°á»›i cá»a Ä‘á»©a báº¡n máº¥t rá»“i”.
(Thank you so much but I’m going to attend one of my friend’s wedding at the weekend.)
[(1) Gratitude + (2) Reason (objective reason)]
Once again, regrets are favored by Americans when refusing an invitation. Vietnamese, however, produce many “thanks” as gratitude first and state reasons later. In this case, although Vietnamese bosses are at higher status than invitees, most of them say thank you to their staff in order to appreciate their staff’s good will. There is a striking difference between American and Vietnamese speakers when giving reasons for their refusals. Americans often give their subjective reasons like “I’m so busy”, “I’ve made my plan” to inform the inviter that they can’t go. Because one of American culture values is to respect individual freedom. Therefore, if the invitees give their own personal reasons, the inviter will accept their refusals and are not curious about real reasons anymore. Meanwhile, Vietnamese tend to use objective reasons to soften the face threatening act of the refusals.
America and Vietnam are two countries with different linguistic and cultural features. However, in cross-culture linguistic, beside the differences due to socio-norm dissimilarities these two countries still have something in common. When taking strategies in refusing an invitation into consideration, we can find out main similarities and differences as following:
– When refusing an invitation, American and Vietnamese speakers usually use indirect strategy with most communicating partners. Both of them avoid saying no directly to their interlocutors whether they are at high, low or equal status.
– The common tendency is that Americans and Vietnamese give a variety of reason to avoid losing their inviters’ faces.
– Americans produce much more expression of regrets and reasons to refuse invitations. Typically, regrets often follow reasons in an utterance of refusals. Americans tend to give their subjective reasons in most cases.
– Vietnamese counterparts are fond of offering alternatives or a promise for acceptance in the future to make the inviter feel released. They also try to give the interlocutors the objective reasons to soften the face threatening act.
The results of this thesis demonstrate that refusing in general and refusing an invitation to be specific is a complex task because it requires the high level of communicative competence. In order to avoid pragmatic failure, speakers need to understand fully both socio-cultural strategies used by most native speakers and the rules for their appropriate implementation. Therefore, I have some following teaching recommendations for L2 teachers:
– Prepare authentic materials for learners because learning a second language also means learning a second culture. Students should have a chance to get familiar with materials that are closely related to the daily activities of the country of the language they are learning.
– Teach language forms and functions parallel and contextually in both formal and informal situations in order to develop the learners’ sociolinguistic ability in an L2.
– Encourage students to perform different speech acts in an L2 in different situations of social status, social distance, and with reference to the gender relation between the speakers and interlocutors.
– Organize activities that students can have chances to communicate with both native and non-native speakers of English.
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