Posted by: kellermax | December 18, 2008

South East Asia part 3: Thailand

Well, actually, that’s what I should write right now. But there were so many things I had to do in-between that by now our holiday is such a long time ago that it’s hardly appropriate anymore to write about it.

You deserve a short overview, however.

We spent one night in Bangkok in a lovely hotel close to the über-touristy Khao-San road which we visited in the evening. For the following day we had hired a driver with a Volkswagen van who brought us to Kho Chang. This island is situated off the coast of Thailand’s region bordering Cambodia.  The island is a national park except for the beaches that are packed with hotels and tourists. In the last years innumerable hotels, ressorts, pubs, shops and restaurants have popped out of the ground and turned an Robinson Crusoe island in a standard tourist-place. Except that they refrained from building the hotels more than 2 storeys high. Which is at least something.

It seems that tourists, no matter how much they seek to be remote from civilization and immersed in nature, still do not want to forego commodities as pubs, beer, internet and shopping.

We made a terrific snorkeling trip. That was probably the highlight of our Thailand holidays. So clear water and an abundance of colourful fish. Otherwise we did nothing special on the island because we were all in need of some serious relaxing. After all, we had spent quite a long time before on the move and seen a lot of things already.

After leaving Koh Chang we spent two more days in Bangkok, visited the king’s palace, Wat Po, Wat Pra Keo and Wat Arun. The architecture is strikingly different from what I knew from Europe. It was really nice. On our last day we visited the national museum which was also really cool. The history section was very interesting with the facts arranged in a way that they gave the impression that Thailand always was the leading power of the region. Moreover it supported Thailand’s claims on certain areas that once (a long time ago) belonged to Thailand. It was as if in a German national museum there was be a display of Sicily as a rightful part of the German empire (because, of course, as everybody knows, Sicily belonged to the German empire in the times of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II). Okay, I admit it, that is a bit too far fetched. But you’re getting the point. For the critical mind of mine it was a tad too biased and that again a bit too obvious.

But the people of Thailand were usually extremely friendly people and made us visitors fell very welcome. It is indeed a nice country. But before going to Asia again I want to see America north and south.

Posted by: kellermax | November 17, 2008

South-East Asia part 2: Malaysia

This is the second part of the report about our travels in South-East Asia.

We left Singapore on a Saturday by bus with destination of Kuala Lumpur. We queued at the border to exit Singapore and queued again to enter Malaysia. I had never quite realized how utterly nice this Schengen thing is. In KL we met Anne and Jan (friends of our’s) in the hotel they had booked. Unfortunately our room was already taken by some creepy little bugs who also slept in our bed. But we didn’t realize this first because we went out for a drink with a former colleague of Tanja’s. Finding a taxi to ride back to the hotel was interesting. You wave a taxi down but the taxi-driver will refuse to use the meter because he recognizes you as a European and therefore as a to-be-ripped-of-tourist. He might ask you for 20 or 30 Ringits although the ride will probably cost about 5 or 8. So you tell him, no, that’s too much and maybe he will start bargaining. May be he will just laugh and drive away. So you try the next cab. When you’re tired and want to go home this can be quite enfuriating. And sometimes they don’t really know the way. But after half an hour of waving down taxis and bargaining and 10 minutes of driving we made it safely back to the bugs.

The next morning we left KL early with a full-package tour towards Taman-Negara national park. A van took us to a point south of the national park from where we took a boat for the rest of the distance. The boat ride was quite nice. Unfortunately the rainy season was about to begin and so we got quite wet shortly before arriving. The national park is on the left river bank, the hotels mostly on the right bank, so the river marks the national park’s border. We stayed in a quite costly resort in a nice and large room with balcony and a toilet flush that was not working. Which I found out after using the toilet. (Of course). The janitor fixed it later and showed me it that it worked. It worked that one time he showed to me. After that it was broken again and the procedure was repeated. After the second attempt we gave up and I would fill the provided kettle with water and use that to flush.

In the evening we did a night jungle walk to have a look at the insects. There is an abundance of little six-legged fellers in the jungle. Termites, giant timber-ants, stick-insects and the like. This was quite interesting. Tanja was bitten by a warrior-termite and almost bitten by a leach. Our guide found the fucking little bugger when it was climbing Tanja’s shoe. But otherwise we returned home unscathed.

The next day we made a jungle hike. (The paths are quite trampled down and wide and most animals have fled the hordes of trampling tourists – fortunately – unfortunately). We climbed up a little hill, a bit steep but not too bad. Due to the humid heat, however, we were quite exhausted and drenched in sweat when we finally had made it to the viewpoint. (Though I must admit that we both dressed in long trousers and longsleeved shirts to avoid too many mosquito bites). We climbed down again and walked the famous, world’s-longest rope bridge canopy walkway. After lunch-break we were all quite exhausted. The equatorial wheather conditions are not exactly what makes physical activity pleasant. Anne and Jan were so exhausted that they even cancelled our afternoon activity, a cave exploration. So Tanja and I set out with the guide and an another elderly couple. After a half hour jungle walk we reached the cave. As the guide was small, light and used to the climate and the other couple were aethletic, skinny people in brilliant shape, they all were faster than Tanja and I and so the two of us stumbled behind them, panting and sweating hectoliters, having to stop for a gulp of water every five meters or so. Then we entered the cave. It was very, very narrow and we often had to crawl with hands and feet (I really missed a third arm to hold the torch light) and full of bats. (Consequently, the floor of the cave was full of bat-droppings and my hands…well). After the first “room” of the cave Tanja was too scared to go on so she returned. I went on and became soon quite scared as well. The guide (estimated: 1,65m and 58kg) had claimed that the cave was quite narrow at places. For me (1,83 and e-hem, 90kg) it was quite very-really narrow indeed. But I was able to take a couple of nice bat-pictures and make it safely out of the cave again. On the way back we stopped in a village where aboriginal people still live a stone-age life. They showed us how to make fire and how to craft a blow-dart using only jungle-grown ingredients. We had thought this village to be a tourist spoof but those people still actually live that way. We also witnessed a fight for life between a flying gecko and a snake. And after our sweat was dried a bit the monsoon rain got us soaked-soaked wet in seconds. (Even the bank notes in my wallet had become wet!).

The following day we left Taman Negara towards the Cameron highlands. They are situated in the middle of the Malaysian peninsula at approx. 1500m above sea level and therefore quite cool in comparison to the rest of Malaysia. The wheather, however, is according to our guide, “reassuringly british (…) and unpredictable”. It rains a lot. But the landscape is nice and so we stayed put there for two days. The Cameron highlands are very fertile and therefore used for growing vegetables and tea. We made a guided tour of several farms which grow roses and strawberries and we also visited the BOH tea factory. The other main activity in the Cameron highlands is hiking. We tried ourselves at it but we didn’t go too far as we were scared to become lost in the dense forests. The damp climate prevented clothes from drying really. Therefore the clothes that had become wet in Taman Negara on Monday were still wet on Thursday morning. We arrived Thursday afternoon back in KL and met Tanja’s colleague again. We went to the bar of the Hilton hotel because there was a DJ from London that night. And we spent half of a day’s budget on two drinks. But it was worth it to get a glimpse at a posh and bored crowd.

Friday we spent exploring KL. In the morining we visited the Petronas towers and the surrounding park where we also had lunch. We also climbed the tower in which Tanja’s colleague is working and had a nice view of the city (without having to queue for the sky-bridge of the Petronas towers). In the afternoon we explored the south of the city. KL was kinda cool but unfortunately public transport and pedestrians didn’t have any priority in the development of traffic. For example, we were unable to get by foot to the old train-station just on the other side of the river because the only bridge nearby was a highway bridge. We had to return to the metro, go one more station and then change to the commuter train. Therefore it took us half an hour just to get to the train station on the opposite river bank. Taking a cab was out of question because cab-drivers as a default charge tourists much more than necessary. When you tell them that they’re rip-offs and want to bargain they might just leave you standing there and you’d have to wave down the next taxi…(but I already mentioned that above).

So there were some things about KL I didn’t like, the smell, the pollution (combustion engine rules in KL). The humid heat, the exhaust from the cars, smell from cooking which takes place everywhere and rotting debris from the same combined to become a horrid and oppressing stink at times. There are also quite different parts of the city: it is very modern and clean around the Petronas towers and some other parts of the city. They also have huge shopping malls there. But there are also the parts of KL in which it is extremely dirty and poor.

On Saturday we left with AirAsia towards Bangkok. And that’s stuff for the next post.

Posted by: kellermax | November 10, 2008

South-East Asia part 1: Singapore

We have just returned from an amazing trip to the far east. Still a bit jet-lagged, I have to put some thoughts down…

As we visited Singapore Malaysia and Thailand I think it will be too much to put into one post. Therefore I’m going to split things up a bit. This post consequently is about Singapore.

We started in Singapore where we stayed with Ranjan who is Singaporean and who I met in Belfast when we both studied Electrical Engineering at Queen’s University. He gave us really good introduction into this city. Singapore is amazing. It gives an impression, I think, how many South-East Asian countries could look like once they are fully developed and industrialized. An interesting realization for me was the “cold-warm-inversion”. In Europe, in winter, it is cold outside and heated in houses. Shopping for Xmas presents means therefore freezing outside and sweating inside the shops. In Singapore it was the other way round: The humid heat outside made me sweat and the chilly air-conditioned ambience of shopping malls made me feel cold.

Singapore is a fine city. You can be fined incredible sums for doing wrong. Strangely enough, it works. I never saw cleaner streets and more orderly behaviour before. Although this way of dealing with things seems strange to westerners, for people in Singapore it works fine. They accept some by-products of Singaporean authoritarianism because they enjoy a crime free, nice and clean life.

Also the two-year draft for military service for every male person appears a bit harsh to a European point-of-view. On the other hand it means that Singapore citizens are treated fairer than German citizens: in Germany not every male is drafted and thus not every male suffers the same loss of lifetime to the military.

All in all I must say that I liked Singapore a lot. There are certainly some drawbacks but as the systems seems to be working fine for Singaporeans I don’t want to judge the system. After all, it might boil down to different cultural perceptions and what is more, the fact that Chinese, Malay and Indian parts of the population live together largely peacefully and without discriminating against each other is very impressive.

From a tourist’s point-of-view, Singapore is a very good starting point for travellers of South-East-Asia. One can get used to the hot and humid climate without having to forgo western hygiene and lifestyle. Sights are quite numerous and easy to find with the very good public transport system MRT (=Mass Rapid Transit). But the most special thing of Singapore is the feel that this city can offer. A very very small and crowded place, high-rise buildings everywhere and a fully developed and industrialized society in Asia. Some people claim that it is merely “Asia light” and not really worth visiting but I say that exactly this fact makes Singapore completely unique and therefore worth visiting.

Posted by: kellermax | October 10, 2008

In Cre Dible

I can hardly believe it. USA Erklärt linked to my blog and therefore more people visited my blog in a single day than in the 6 months before…

It all began with a seminar in English didactics. I asked Mr. Stevenson whether I could use his post about Anglo-Saxon conversational behaviour for the preparation of a possible school lesson about intercultural communication. This is how Germany’s most important blogger (imho) got to know this blog – and that I’m interested in intercultural communication.

Today I was rewarded with a link. Fortunately I had quite recently extended my expertise in intercultural communication. Therefore this blog can now offer

first a (hopefully) quite entertaining short introduction to IC and second a (somewhat) scientific and lengthy essay about IC. It feels strange to have so many visitors here. In two point five previous years this blog had less than 4000 visitors – contrasting to about 700 only today!!

This will be, btw, be the last post until November because Tanja and I will embark to South-East-Asia next week. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. I will report upon return.

Posted by: kellermax | September 25, 2008

Intercultural communication Mk. II

Tomorrow I will have to write an exam about intercultural communication. As a by-product I came up with this essay about intercultural communication. I thought some readers might find this interesting. Big thanks to Laurence and Tanja for proof-reading it.

We live in a world in which encounters between people from different cultures have, due to travel, business and migration, become quite numerous. Unfortunately, however, these encounters very often suffer from misunderstandings even if the language skills of the people involved are good. The problem is that different cultures have different assumptions about how to deal with things, how to solve problems, how to behave politely etc. This is exactly where communication is most likely to fail.

Studies of intercultural communication attempt therefore to clarify differences between cultures and to make people aware of them.

This essay shall serve the purpose of giving a short introduction to the topic of intercultural communication. To achieve this, in a first step some important definitions will be given. In a second step I will introduce two possibilities of describing cultures in a very general way. A third section will be dedicated to an analysis in how far linguistics can be a useful tool for understanding intercultural communication because it focuses on language as a tool for communication. I will especially introduce the linguistic branch of pragmatics which seems especially suitable for intercultural communication as it is concerned with the context of language use. The context we will focus on in this essay is constituted by the respective cultures of participants in communications. In a fourth step I will try to illustrate the aforesaid by giving examples before finally come to a conclusion. The reader will have to bear in mind that this essay aims to show that pragmatics can be a useful tool in understanding intercultural communication. The aim is not (and in the given time cannot be) to give guidelines on how to successfully interact with persons from other cultures.

When talking about intercultural communication, the very first step must necessarily be a definition of culture. Culture can be defined in two ways. The first definition is that culture encompasses all cultural things that are visible: art, literature, music, etc. These are so-called “institutions” of culture. This aspect of culture is referred to as “objective culture”. The second definition is that culture is “the learned and shared patterns of beliefs, behaviours, and values of groups of interacting people” (Bennet). This aspect is referred to as “subjective culture” and is, in the realm of intercultural communication studies the more important of the two. This is because subjective culture often remains unconscious and so people are not aware that a certain pattern of values is not universal but specific to their culture.

As to limit the scope of the topic and make it manageable in the given time, we will assume that it will not be necessary to take the use of different languages in intercultural encounters into account. Many negotiations of an intercultural kind take place in English and therefore we will assume that the participants understand the spoken words but interpret them wrong on the basis of different cultural backgrounds.  Moreover, when people have no common language to communicate in they are much more aware of the danger of misunderstandings and therefore more cautious. The serious misunderstandings occur when people think that they understand each other because they can use a common language.

In intercultural communication research it seems prudent to point out that identifying some elements or dimensions of a given culture and attributing them to all members of that culture means to generalize or, even worse, to create stereotypes. This is true, of course. It is, however, necessary to make cultural generalizations despite the problem of stereotypes because otherwise we would have to assume that all differences between persons are purely based on their unique characters. This is not in line with the observation that within one culture communication is largely successful whereas between cultures it is not. Although nearly all possible beliefs are represented in all cultures at all times, each different culture has a preference for some beliefs over others. Of course individuals can be found in any culture who hold beliefs similar to people in a different culture. However, they do not represent the preponderance of people who hold beliefs closer to the norm of the group. In other words: although any individual may hold beliefs very different from their cultural norm, on average persons from that culture will hold beliefs rather similar to their cultural norms.

As we have now identified three important basic tenets, namely a definition of culture, the assumption that a focus on context will be sufficient because intercultural communication largely takes place in English and that the use of generalizations is necessary, we can proceed to the next section of this essay.

In this section we will try to identify possibilities of describing and classifying different cultures. We will see that there are two classifications which both identify five dimensions of culture with which it is possible to describe the values of different cultures. These sets of dimensions are held to be useable for a classification of any given culture.

According to Hofstede there are the five dimensions of Power distance, Masculinity, Individualism, Uncertainty avoidance and Long-term orientation. Power distance refers to the assumption of status difference between people, Masculinity refers to the assumption of gender difference; Individualism refers to the assumption of self-reliance; Uncertainty avoidance refers to the willingness to tolerate ambiguity and the willingness to take risks or not, and Long-term orientation refers to a focus on future rewards. Hofstede developed this categorization by using an inductive approach and surveying a large number of people from different cultures. After having identified the five dimensions he used the data from the national cultures and was able to rank the cultures in terms of each dimension. For instance, Japanese ranked 7th out of 50 on uncertainty avoidance whereas the U.S. ranked 46th. On individualism the U.S. scored 1st and Japan 22nd.

Another approach was used by Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck. In a deductive approach they defined, based on research with different cultures, five dimensions of cultural assumptions: people’s relationship to the environment, to each other, to activity, to time, and to the basic nature of human beings. Each of these dimensions is constituted by a continuum of possible relationships that people might assume with the subject. While all positions on the continuum will be represented to some degree in all cultures, one position will be preferred. This general preference constitutes a cultural value.

When the two approaches are compared we can see that the five respective dimensions bear some resemblance. What Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck identify as people’s relationship to each other is reflected in Hofstede’s Individualism, Power distance and to some degree in Masculinity. Relationship to time and Long-term orientation are also somewhat similar although the Long-term orientation also encompasses certain elements of Kluckhohn/Strodtbeck’s relationship to activity (depending on whether activities are carried out with the hope for future rewards). The relationship to activity on the other hand contains some elements of Uncertainty avoidance because activities can take more or less risk when carried out.

A closer analysis reveals that all five of Hofstede’s dimensions refer to the three relationships to time, to activity, and to each other. The relationship to the environment and to the basic nature of human beings are not mirrored in Hofstede’s dimensions. Therefore the Kluckhohn/Strodtbeck approach is the broader one. In this essay, however, Hofstede’s approach will be favoured because it makes finer distinctions in the realm of interpersonal relations possible (people’s relationship to each other versus Power distance, Individualism and Masculinity). As this essay’s focus is on the (linguistic) interaction of people, it seems more important to have access to these finer distinctions of Hofstede’s.

After these preliminary theoretical considerations we can now have a closer look at how linguistics can be of use in understanding intercultural communication. It is evident that nearly all communication, be it intercultural or not, uses language as a communicative tool. In intercultural communication the first obvious problem is to find a language that all participants share. In many cases this will be English. But as communication is now channeled through the medium of a language that might not be the native language of some or all participants, new problems arise. This is mainly because people have only seemingly gained a common ground for communication. There still might be the influence of other languages, as English is very likely not the native language of all participants.

Unfortunately, language does not only serve as a tool for communication but also is a system of representation for perception and thinking. The Whorf/Sapir hypothesis states that human beings dissect nature along the lines laid down by their native language. As impressions have to be organized by the mind, they will be organized by the linguistic system of the mind. This statement is called the strong hypothesis. There also is the so-called weak hypothesis in which Whorf states that language thought and perception are interrelated. These two forms of the Whorf/Sapir hypothesis introduce the concept of linguistic relativity: linguistic relativity suggests that human beings are predisposed by their native languages to make certain distinctions and not others.

There are certainly some flaws to these hypotheses; it is e.g. essentially impossible to prove or disprove them. After all it is impossible to determine whether a certain way of perceiving things created an appropriate language or rather a way of linguistically describing things accounts for the perception of them. We will therefore only use the weak hypothesis here. Despite all problems the Whorf hypothesis alerts the student of intercultural communication that cross-cultural understanding goes beyond logic and reason: intercultural communication might entail a clash of different realities and understanding therefore needs apprehension of essentially alien experience. If one fails to assume that people from different cultures may sincerely perceive the world differently, then all efforts toward understanding are bound to fail.

If we assume that the native language has at least some influence on thinking, it seems to be a good idea to approach intercultural communication from a linguistic point of view. Edward Stewart and Milton Bennet compared English with some other languages (e.g. Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese) and their findings support the idea of a relationship between languages and culture-specific thinking. I will present some of their findings in the following paragraph.

On a semantic level it can be noted that English has one counting system (one, two, three, etc.) whereas in Japanese there are different counting systems depending on the shape of the objects to be counted. Yet another counting system is used for counting human beings. We could imagine that the experience of objects is much richer in a culture where language gives meaning to differences in shape. Indeed, Japanese aesthetic appreciation of objects seems more developed than that of Americans. Another semantic aspect of Japanese is its elaborate system of second-person singular words which indicate the relative status of speaker to listener. The assumption is that Japanese people must therefore be more aware of social hierarchy and status than Americans who only use one form (you) for second-person singular. This is in line with the observation that hierarchies are indeed very important in Japanese culture. Again on a semantic level we can find that many adjectives in English combine in pairs, such as far and near, heavy and light, good and bad, and high and low. It seems that the adjectives of a pair are opposite but equal in their power to describe positions on the continuum between their extreme positions. In actual use, however, the two adjectives are not equal which can be seen from the use of the adjectives in questions: “How far is it to Aachen?”, “How heavy is this box?”, “How good is the food?”. Therefore, the continuum is defined by two opposites and at the same time referred to as a whole by only one of them. If someone asked “How bad is the food?” the question would mean more than a mere request about the quality of the food. It is already a statement that the quality must be pretty low. Thus, good is general and bad is precise. The same holds true for most adjective pairs. This linguistic feature generalizes to American behaviour easily: In English it is quite easy to criticize and find fault because the vocabulary for negative evaluations is precise. More evidence can be found in a typical phenomenon for American speakers. It is quite common to select a general noun which lacks precision and add to it another noun or adjective as modifier. The modifier may be equally vague but the combination suggests precision. An example might be “reading material” instead of “book”. Whereas a book is a structural concept, a thing, the combination of “reading” and “material” shifts the focus from the structure to the process of using it. These combinations of two or more words that modify each other represent the American preoccupation with processes. The preceding examples have all been taken from semantics. But Stewart and Bennet also found support for the Whorf hypothesis in syntax. By the subject/predicate form speakers of English are constantly forced to express causality. If the subject (the cause) should be missing it is often replaced by “it”. Through this conception English is an actor-action-result model which suggests questions such as “What caused that?” or “What effect will this have?”. It is thus possible to assume that this syntactic feature of English predisposes native speakers of English to interpret events in the world as a linear chain of cause and effect. This is, however, a feature of the English language and other languages might support other ways of logical thinking.

These examples indicate that there might indeed be a relationship between language and thinking. As persons from different cultures usually speak different languages it is rather probable that their communication is troubled by different conceptions. No matter whether cultural differences arise from language or some other causes, the differences remain and must be understood and taken into account if cross-cultural communication is to be successful.

So far we have defined culture and found two possibilities of describing it. Additionally we have confirmed that a linguistic approach to different culture can shed some light on the origins of different cultural features. It is now time to turn to the problem of how to alleviate the devastating effects that cultural differences can have on intercultural communication. A possible way to do this is offered by the branch of linguistics called pragmatics. We will now show how pragmatics can be of use in understanding intercultural communication.

As pragmatics is concerned with speaker’s meaning it is a valuable tool when it comes to analyzing what speakers want to achieve with their utterances. It is indeed often the case that a purely semantic analysis of utterances cannot explain the effects an utterance has for its receivers. This is especially true when in intercultural negotiations an utterance can be misunderstood by a hearer who is from another culture than the speaker is. This is where the notion of context becomes important. All utterances are uttered into a wider background of cultural and other knowledge and presuppositions. In intercultural communication these backgrounds and presuppositions of participants may be very different – the context of the utterance is a different one for speaker and hearer, respectively. This is the main reason why pragmatics is such a mighty tool in an analysis of intercultural communication: it allows the scientist to consider the different cultural contexts of participants in intercultural communication and makes it possible to account for misunderstandings.

In pragmatics, three different contexts of utterances are distinguished. There is the textual context for any utterance, i.e. other utterances surrounding it. Then there is the situational context, the concrete situation in which speaker and hearer interact. Finally there is the widest context possible: the cultural background of values and presuppositions. This last context is, naturally, the most interesting for someone researching intercultural communication, although the situational context is also certainly interesting. Intercultural studies are sometimes criticized for focusing too much on the widest context. Depending on a situational context, speakers may well deviate from values as identified in the wider context of culture. It is, however, much more difficult to determine a situational context than the relatively much more stable cultural context. Moreover, it seems that it is still possible, on average, to (more or less accurately) predict verbal behaviour on the basis of a cultural background only. As it is a main focus of intercultural communication studies to help intercultural communication become more successful it is evident why this focus on a cultural context (which is relatively easy to predict) is made. The completely unpredictable situational context might be taken into account later, when communication breaks down despite the presence of intercultural communication skills. Accordingly, in this essay the focus will be on the widest context, the cultural context.

In the realm of intercultural communication one often hears “context” as “high context” or “low context”. This is used to describe how dependent the meaning of an utterance is of its context. Low context communication means that most or all information is transferred in the explicit code of the language. In high context communication most of the information is in the context – in the speaker, the hearer, their relative position to each other, and the situation. In general, high context transactions are more on the feeling, intimate side while low context ones are much less personal and oriented towards facts and truth. A typical low context conversation might take place in Germany where it is possible to utter criticism of other persons in a very explicit and direct way. A typical high context example would be Japan where criticism will more likely be padded into a story and therefore expressed implicitly. The person wishing to criticize might tell a story about something that went wrong at some other place and some other time and from that the criticized person can guess that something went wrong in the here and now. Moreover, in a culture such as the Japanese, the way the information is expressed will very likely depend on the relationship of the participants and status differences. When now a German and a Japanese person work together, an utterance of the German which is completely acceptable in a German context is interpreted by the Japanese as being very rude. Vice-versa, the storytelling of the Japanese is very likely perceived as vague, delusive or even dishonest by the German. Thus, as the same utterance is interpreted differently on the basis of a different cultural context, misunderstandings occur.

Another example here might be a situation in a company on a Friday afternoon. As the books will be checked on Monday, the head of department wants to make sure everything is in order before the visitors come. In Germany the head might write an email that reads like this: “Please make sure the books are in order before you leave today.” In America it might be this: “Perhaps we should take some time before we leave to check and see if everything is in order?”. In Japan the email will very likely resemble this: “We haven’t had visitors in a while. We would wish them to get the best impression of our department when they next come.” The illocutionary force of all three emails is exactly the same. The boss wants the job done today and it must be perfect. Moreover, it will be understood exactly as intended in the respective cultures. For a German, however, the Japanese email is too vague to suggest that immediate action is necessary. To a Japanese person the German email is far too direct and will be perceived as horribly rude.

With this information it seems that pragmatics with its preoccupation with context seems to be a good method to approach the studies of intercultural communication.

Having considered the previously shown aspects of intercultural communication, we can now attempt to come to a conclusion. The whole problem of intercultural communication per se is far too complex to be understood after so short an essay. It is therefore not possible to describe any culture here in a way that could enable a proper pragmatic analysis of any intercultural communication.

Moreover, pragmatics can only be applied fruitfully once we are aware of what values and assumptions constitute cultural backgrounds. This can be done more effectively, I believe, by other social sciences such as anthropology. But once we have found out about cultural values, preferably also about our own, we can apply this knowledge to a pragmatic analysis of what is said.

Intercultural encounters impose very complex problems on the people involved. Even very deeply embedded cultural values might be put in question and participants therefore have to be aware that even truths that seem to be universal might be culturally specific. Once we have gained knowledge about our own culture and the culture we are dealing with we can go forth and try to analyze intercultural encounters. This can be done effectively by a pragmatic approach as this will enable us to take the respective cultural context into account and incorporate it into the analysis. This is, however, not an easy task (as should be obvious by now) and therefore we can clearly put forward that a real interest in intercultural communication goes beyond compiling a simple list of dos and don’ts. The only universal role might be to never judge other’s behaviour too easily or too fast as one might just not yet know what their true intention was.


Bennet, Milton J. (1998): Intercultural communication. A current perspective. In: Bennet, Milton J.(Ed.) (1998): Basic concepts of intercultural communication. Selected readings. Intercultural Press.

Ramsey, Sheila J. (1998): Interactions between North Americans and Japanese: Considerations of communication. In: Bennet, Milton J.(Ed.) (1998): Basic concepts of intercultural communication. Selected readings. Intercultural Press.

Stewart, Edward C. & Bennet, Milton J. (1991): American Cultural Patterns. A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Intercultural Press.

Young, Linda W. L. (1982): Inscrutability revisited. In: Gumperz, John J. (Ed.) (1982): Language and Social Identity. Studies in interactional sociolinguistics 2. Cambridge University Press.

Posted by: kellermax | September 1, 2008

weird habits of Germans

One of the most frequent searches leading to this blog is about “weird habits of Germans”. Unfortunately the poor suckers that come here only find out this blogger’s weird habits and a bit about his life.

Unfortunately, I as a German cannot comment on weird habits of Germans. To Germans their habits make perfect sense and are not weird at all.

For an American point of view on Germany confer: nothing for ungood.

Posted by: kellermax | August 13, 2008


It is possible to make a pun with the word “bar” in German because it is a word on its own, meaning “pub” (who wouldn’t have guessed) but it is also a suffix “-bar” that, when attached to a noun or a verb, creates an adjective. (Wunder -> wunderbar; machen -> machbar). This suffix is quite recently becoming more and more productive: even words that had previously taken the suffix “-lich” can now instead take the suffix “-bar” [e.g. “unersetzlich” -> “unersetzbar”. The latter is still somewhat unusual but becoming more and more common (cf. Bastian Sick: Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod)].

This lengthy explanation should make you aware that “unsichtbar” denotes “invisible” in German but it can be used for a pun with a bar. Then it means something like “no sight bar”. There is indeed such a place in Cologne. It is not a bar, actually, but a restaurant. Tanja and I invited my parents there for their birthdays. And it was absolutely great.

You eat and drink there in absolute darkness. It is so dark actually, that “you cannot see your hand in front of your eyes” (which is the German idiom for pitch-black dark). So you order before entering the dining room and you just can choose a theme for your menu – after all you want to do some guesswork as to what you actually eat in the darkness. Tanja, my mother and I chose “Cheese” and my father and brother chose “Lamb”. Then you are taken into the dining room by a blind waiter or waitress. They bring you into a “light-lock” with dimmed lights from where they take you to your table. You have to remember your waiter’s name because you have to call out for her/him – waving at them is quite pointless in the dark.

After some chatting with your companions when you try to find out who sits where and to make out your surroundings the food arrives. You can of course try to eat with knife and fork but as it is quite difficult and nobody can see you anyway most people take their hands (or one hand) to help with the task. Then the big guessing starts: what is this strange squishy stuff on my plate? It tastes like…like…mmm…it’s good but I can’t quite think what it is…it’s some vegetable…could be spinach? And this must be…it tastes fried…probably potatoes? Some people who went there before us told us that it is virtually impossible to realise what you are actually eating but Tanja, my mother and I got pretty close. It is, of course, possible that the cheese Menu is easier to guess but what I want to believe is that as we all cook rather often we are more experienced as to what tastes go with what food.

The time was flying and in no time the menu was eaten and more than two hours had passed. I must admit that I found it a bit pricey. I wouldn’t have paid that much for that quality of food in a normal restaurant. But for the experience of absolute darkness and the dependence on hearing, feeling and trusting your waiter it was absolutely worth it. It is a bit scary but also really really cool.

The coolest effect for me was that I was able to “see” after a couple of minutes. There was a film of my surroundings in my head, I saw with an “inner eye”. Strangely, that is also what I remember: I remember the darkness, of course, but only as the concept. But the rest of my memories took the form of pictures, as my brain put together the rest of the information, what I could feel with my hands, what I could hear with my ears. It was something like reading a book when I see at the same time the letters and words in front of my eyes and I also see the world they describe as the words form pictures somewhere in my imagination.


 Here you can find more information.

Posted by: kellermax | August 6, 2008


The Cologne branch of the Swedish tourist recommends: holidays in Sweden. Tanja and I tried it out and we were absolutely convinced.

For two days we stayed in a beautiful cabin just 500 m from the Sweden’s biggest lake. Swedish stereotype fulfilled: it was painted red with white window frames and flying a Swedish flag.

The lake was very refreshing and our hosts (Erik and Niklas with their girlfriends) were absolutely fabulous. They all really did their best to make our stay as pleasant as possible.

Activities included (among others): Swimming in the lake

A ride in a steam engine pulled train

Visiting Moose

and many many more.

In short: it was terrific. Mallifulous. Or to quote a famous German: Hunnertprozentisch Schweinegeil.

Posted by: kellermax | June 30, 2008

European Championship: the résumé

First of all: Congratulations to the seleccion, the Spanish team for winning the cup. They certainly proved to have deserved it by playing very a controlled, fast and high standard football that was also very agreeable to watch.

I don’t remember having predicted anything but I have certainly be surprised a couple of times. The supremacy of the Netherlands in their group came not totally unexpected but their tragic (and deserved) defeat against Russia struck me.

The very fact that Spain was able to beat Italy in the quarter finals also proved to be unexpected, even though we knew Italy was not as strong as two years ago.

Turkey surprised most: with an unbelievable “Teamgeist” they fought themselves back in no less than three matches. In the preliminary round they scored two goals against Switzerland and then three goals against Czech Republich (with the surprising blackout of Peter Czech) in 15 minutes. But in the playoffs against Croatia they scored the most unbelievable goal I ever beheld: In the extra time, just after the Croatian goal, when everybody was absolutely sure that this had been it – the equalizer. Unbelievable. All the excitement that had been missing in 118 minutes put into 5 minutes.

Surprising also that Germany managed to beat Portugal. In retrospect, having seen all the German matches, I can only say that they must have played so well on mistake. Ballack, who was said to be one of the best midfielders of the tournament, disappointed me. He was unable to do what a leader should be able to do: give an example and push himself and the team to the limit. When everything went well, he was good, but when against Croatia, Turkey and Spain the match wasn’t going according to plan, Ballack and the German team seemed to be unable to fight themselves back into the match. Too many missed passes, not enough running without the ball (what I mean is that the players have to run toward or away from the player in possesion of the ball to give him the opportunity to pass), stupid fouls. Very probably the team could not compensate the loss of Bernd Schneider who could not play due to a herniated disc. What was not entirely unexpected though was the German ability to make it to the final only to lose it. [World Championships 1966 (winner: England), 1982 (winner: Italy), 1986 (winner: Argentina), 2002 (winner: Brasil) and European Championships 1976 (winner: Checzoslovakia), 1992 (winner: Denmark) and 2008 (we know that one)].

I am quite content with the overall outcome of this sporting event. There was some really good football to be watched and it was quite thrilling. It was really good to see that Turkish and German people also did the unexpected thing and celebrated together instead of fighting each other after the match. In Cologne there was only one very local riot (in the pub next to the one we watched the match in) which was started by hooligans. The police had already identified them beforehand and was therefore able to stop it very quickly and take them into custody. Tanja and I went to see all the matches in pubs, though not at “public viewing” sites (yes, I know, it’s not proper English, but that’s how Germans call it). There is a reason: with more people to watch you get more of a stadium, mass experience. On those massive scale public gatherings for the purpose of football watching there is, on the one hand, the massive scale stadium experience but as a drawback on the other hand, 90 percent of the people have, although wholehartedly supporting Germany, cladly dressed in black, red and gold, no idea whatsoever about how to play football. They came for the party, not for the match, which can be very irritating for a real football fan. (They might ask you questions such as: Why is England not playing? When are we going to play Brasil?) Yesterday those people also took over the pub we looked the match in and disqualified themselves (in my point of view) by extremely obnoxious and rude behaviour:

1. They booed when the Spanish national anthem was played

2. They were unable to sing the German national anthem properly

3. They chanted nasty things (about Spaniard-Swines that were to be fucked in their arses). I was almost glad that Spain scored, because that shut their big mouths.

4. No matter what the referee did they complained. Fouls committed by Germans were dives by the Spanish and fouls the Spanish committed should have been penalized by red cards.

In short: ignorant people. Another incident: after the Portugal match there was a group of German motherfuckers who were dissing some Portugal-supporting girls when Tanja and I went home after the match. I told their leader “hey, you seem to be a bad winner! Leave them alone!” and he replied “You seem to be a bad German!” I was not exactly happy about that.

Unfortunately these things happen as well. But still, I’m satisfied. It was a really cool event with nice football. Now I’ll have to wait for another two years for getting close to heart attack again.

Posted by: kellermax | June 14, 2008

Don’t ask them…

It is a pity the Irish voted the new European ‘constitution’ down. Yesterday was a very sad day for everybody who believes in the European idea.

I just don’t get it…the European idea, the common currency, the shared ideals of free travel, studying with ERASMUS…everything rejected. But why?

Why do people not see  all the advantages of the European community? And what next? Just because of some Irish people all the hassle, negotiations, conferences will have to be repeated, and a treaty satisfactory for everyone in the European Union will have to be remade.

How sad that is for somebody with friends from all over Europe.

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