2012-04-20

Intercultural pragmatics

For the past few weeks I have been working on a talk I am invited to give at some huge international conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Israel to be held in the beginning of May in Jerusalem. The talk I proposed is entitled "Cultural Differences and Possible Misunderstandings in Communication between Japanese and Israelis". This is the first time that my talk at an academic conference will be based not so much on purely academic research by myself and others as on my personal experiences, observations and reflections (in this specific case, first as a Japanese citizen, now as an Israeli citizen, as a speaker and teacher of both Japanese and Hebrew, and as a researcher of Hebrew).

I remember reading some books about how cultural differences affect intercultural communication and being fascinated by the subject when I was still a high school student. I continued to study various languages and linguistics since then, but it was not until a few weeks ago that there exists an independent linguistic discipline studying this and similar subjects called "intercultural pragmatics" or "cross-cultural pragmatics". In the meanwhile I have found and started reading two fascinating books (Cross-Cultural Pragmatics by Anna Wierzbicka; Pragmatics across Languages and Cultures edited by Anna Trosborg) and checking one academic journal (Intercultural Pragmatics) devoted to this discipline.

These two books have given me a clear academic answer to what I felt during and after the World Congress of Esperanto last summer in Copenhagen: what we say in intercultural communication may be correct grammatically but not culturally, hence communicatively; cultural differences in pragmatics (= how to use the language in real contexts) must also be understood. I am even inclined to go so far as to say that true communication is possible only between people sharing more or less the same culture.

Having been "hovering" between Japanese and Israeli cultures for the past 24 years, I have an impression that it will not be so easy to find two cultures that are so different from each other than these two cultures. In terms of communication, Japanese and Israeli cultures can be characterized as indirect and context-dependent, and direct and context-independent respectively. There are also fundamental differences in their respective strategies for various speech acts, including apologizing, requesting, inviting, agreeing, refusing, complaining etc., as well as in aspects of non-verbal communication.

This is an excellent occasion for me to formulate differences between Japanese and Israeli cultures of communication and become aware of possible misunderstandings that they may cause.