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Janet Bowker

BELF (business English as a lingua franca) and intercultural issues: rapport management in consulting and training encounters in international and local settings

Janet Bowker
Dipartimento Metodi e modelli per l'economia, il territorio e la finanza (MEMOTEF)
Sapienza - Università di Roma

This paper considers the de facto diffusion of BELF (Business English as a Lingua Franca) viewed through the lens of interculturality, where global and local scenarios operate in synchronicity. The study is a comparison of two sets of learning-instructional business encounters held by the same multinational group, a world-leader in international organizational consulting: a three-day client workshop in Malaysia, and a series of in-house training and development “webinars”, on the company’s own home ground in North America. Through the application of newly-developing theoretical and descriptive frameworks focusing on the concept of “culture in the making”, and using conversational analytical methodological techniques, the data allows us to trace and identify the substantial differences in rapport management and pragmatic upshot between the two sets of business interactions.

Keywords : intercultural communication, BELF (Business English as a Lingua Franca), “face” and rapport management

1. Introduction

Few people would contest that English has become the de facto main international language of communication in virtually all fields of human activity in today’s increasingly connected world, and moreover, that it will continue to occupy this status into the near, foreseeable future1. It is a commonplace that English is no longer (and has never been, especially in the remote historical perspective of the evolution of The English Language) the property of the native-speakers, and today, infinitely more people use the language either as a second or additional language (as one of their languages of habitual use) or, to varying degrees, as a foreign language. English, then, in functional terms, serves myriads of communicative purposes for very large numbers of people around the world, while, at the same time reflecting, and itself being the vehicle for, vast kaleidoscopes of contrasting socio-cultural realities. This is especially so in today’s world of work:

More people than ever collaborate or compete in real time with more other people, on more different kinds of work, from more different corners of the planet, on a more real footing, than in any previous time in the history of the world. (FRIEDMAN 2005: 8)

A second major tenet of international communication is the unavoidable issue that the two twin, driving forces of globalization processes are technology and business, in a reflexive, tandem-style symbiosis. This has given rise what is currently termed BELF, Business English as a Lingua Franca, conceived of as having its own distinct ontology and hence worthy as the object of linguistic and pragmatic research.

This paper investigates the implications of these realities for describing a series of international and intercultural business interactions in discursive, linguistic terms. The research is an empirical, data-based, comparative case study of professional encounters between business conducted in a global context, in South East Asia, more specifically in Malaysia2, and those conducted on home ground, by the same multinational group, in their own North American setting.

What would appear to be a relatively straightforward matter, however, has raised more questions than can be addressed fully here: qualitative analysis must be grounded in adequate descriptive and explanatory frameworks, and hence the beginning of our quandaries, as we shall see later. The subject of this paper is how interpersonal relationships are managed discursively in the two socio-cultural business situations and how successful rapport in organizational and managerial discourse is created in and through language practices: this calls on central theoretical constructs related to what we mean by “culture” and intercultural communication, lingua franca deployment in multilingual discourse, and personal and professional identity construal, to name the most important issues.

Within social scientific research in general, classic “essentialist” categorization, based on normative, pre-selected, “off-the-shelf” often contrastive categorization, is being overtaken by a fundamentally social-constructionist view of human communication3. In sociolinguistics, interaction and pragmatic entailment are seen to be sited in the very processes of the moment-to-moment creation and unfolding of situated discourse (DURANTI, HERITAGE, 1992; DREW, GOODWIN, 1992, provide a full account of the background, conceptual terminology, and evolution of models and theories). This is also the perspective which informs this study.

2. Changing conceptualizations of culture, international business communication, “face” and identity: from essentialist to social-constructionist perspectives

2.1 Interculturality: culture in the making

One central shift in the conceptualization of intercultural contact is a move away from the idea of culture in terms of what BARGIELA-CHIAPPINI (2009: 5) terms “a bounded object”, describable using pre-determined categories, such as collectivist-individualist, high context-low context, direct-indirect, and so on (which are then usually analyser-imposed on data). This a priori categorization is believed to perpetuate “a myth of predictability of behaviours” (idem), in the description of cultural contrasts (East-West, North American-Asian, etc.). These highly reductionist, simplistic models of intercultural communication are clearly inappropriate when describing the complexity of cultural factors in increasingly internationalized contexts, where differences and similarities in varying degrees traverse borders, states and regions, creating trans-nationalities, and sustain permeable, cultural citizenship.

Interculturality, instead, in a social-constructionist perspective, is viewed as a process of co-constructed meaning creation, focussing on “culture in the making” (idem), in interdiscursive encounters and practices. Intercultural exchange can then be viewed as the source of change and not as The Problem, so creating the potential for communicative success and growth. The dangers of “playing The Culture Card” have been well described by the Malaysian sociolinguist, NAIR-VENUGOPAL, who notes:

Social meanings are generated, rather than being available as a fixed set of options in human interaction […] this implicates culture as “approximations of social reality”, or fluid assumptions regarding such reality, given the instantaneous, interactive and transient nature of most human communication. (2003: 15)

This necessitates a more “emic” (participant) focus in research, as opposed to an “etic” (analyst-centred one), creating indigenous descriptive categories (pertaining to the specific communicative event) and concentrating on the processes and the condition of cultures in contact.

2.2 Organizational communications: the dynamics of business cultures

A corollary of the above for studies of business discourse is the need for far more empirical work into meaning-in-interaction in multilingual workplaces, aimed at discovering patterns of group-related communications and negotiations. The cultural factors in these encounters will place centre-stage the perceptions, interpretations and evaluations about language displays and usage, held by the participants themselves, in their accomplishment of “language at work”. This epistemological shift is reflected in new investigations into the dynamics of BELF (business English as a lingua franca) in regional contexts (see BARGIELA-CHIAPPINI, GOTTI, 2005; NAIR-VENUGOPAL, 2009; TANAKA, 2011, on emerging Asian Business Discourses; SALVI and TANAKA, 2011, for a collection of recent studies in the field).

At a broad level of description, different cultural ways of conducting business certainly exist, but very complex series of phenomena and variables are at work in this and transcend any ready-made “national cultural” concept. It is possible, for example, to talk about the impact of the levelling processes of globalization and internationalization, producing a possible “zero culture”, or an a-cultural business mode, in tension with traditional, regional business practices. It is also undoubtedly true that“corporate cultures” exist: different organizations vary in structure, size, age and industry and evolve distinctive models of operation and differing communicative styles.

Yet, in a social-constructionist approach to professional culture, identities are seen as non-essentialist and constantly on the move: analysis is targeted at workplace talk, from the bottom up, tracking how conversational participants realign their identities and goals in the course of interaction. As one business discourse analyst says:

Organizational actors operate in communication (outcomes) and through discourse (vehicles) […] in communication actors co-create their subjectivities in the form of personal and professional identities, relationships, communities and cultures through linguistic performances. (JIAN et al 2008: 314)

One of the quandaries noted at the outset of this paper, however, refers to how much and what kind of context can or should be used in explaining these real-time processes: people obviously do not operate in a cultural vacuum, so to speak. One useful indication lies in considering the commonly considered three orders of organizational context: the micro (the specific, situated, communicative event), the meso (specific organizational cultural norms and practices) and the macro (the broader societal and cultural context). This three-layered perspective may go some way to explaining the tensions and difficulties which characterize the Malaysian episode as opposed to the North American experience described in this case study.

2.3 “Face”, roles and identities: linguistic and pragmatic indexicality in co-constituting discourse

Another move away from essentialist theoretical frameworks which is directly relevant to this study lies in the side-stepping of classic “politeness” frames, together with a revision of traditional models of “face”, in order to better describe interpersonal rapport dynamics.

It is fair to say that over time hardly any aspect of classic politeness theories has gone unchallenged, starting from the rather banal observation that what is considered “polite” in one culture would not necessarily be considered so in another, hence compromising any claims of the model to universal validity. There are, however, many other more serious problems raised by the dichotomy “positive” and “negative” politeness strategies as labelled in BROWN and LEVINSON’s classic 1987 typology, (renamed by SCOLLON and WONG SCOLLON, 2001, as “solidarity” and “deference” strategies). Basically, the essentialist preoccupation with the listing of discrete, reified analytical categories explains little about the actual processes and “operationalization” of rapport management, located in the flow of events and talk-in-interaction. The fact is that often the empirical data just do not bear the theories out. The static variables are clearly intricately related and embedded and often co-occur, as is demonstrated in this study, in pronominal usage, and boosting and hedging devices, for example.

Alternatively, the works of ARUNDALE (2006, 2010), and HAUGH and BARGIELA-CHIAPPINI (2010), in deliberately eschewing classic politeness theory, provide us with a different conceptualization of face and facework in the form of “Face Constituting Theory”, based on a conjoint model of communication.

Face is theorized as participants’ understandings of relational connectedness and separateness which are conjointly co-constituted in the course of the interaction. […] face interpretings are never a matter of either/or, in isolation, they are always a matter of both connection and separation face together. (ARUNDALE 2010: 2075)

In this view, connectedness and separateness form “a functional opposition”, a dialectic: separateness in a relationship is always framed in view of connectedness, and vice versa, because each state involves and defines the other. We are no longer focusing, then, on “my face” or “your face”, in Goffmanian terms, but “our face”.

An important correlation with this notion of separateness and connectedness relates directly to KRAMSCH’s research conceptualizations, where successful interaction means seeing that “the Other is in Us, and We are in the Other” (2001: 205). This also connects up with Membership Categorization Theory with its roots in ethnomethodology (GARFINKEL, 1967; SACKS, 1989), which allows us to track participant positionings and interpretations through references to “self” and “others”.

In sum, these theoretical shifts lie behind a newly developing area of “relational pragmatics”, integrating affect, interactant intentionality, perceptions and evaluations into the analysis (RUHI, 2010). We shall now see how these theoretical and empirical orientations guide this study in the identification of discoursal indexicality.

3. The data and the research focus

The data consists of a self-compiled, specialist corpus of business communications which I have been gathering, recording, transcribing and analysing for the last ten years or so4. The material includes written, spoken and multimodal documents, produced by one large multinational group over the last ten to twelve years: they cover a wide range of business genres, participants, purposes, communicative situations, and locations both in North America and in South East Asia. The data in the main corpus ranges from internal, in-house communications, mostly in computer-mediated modes, (audio-recorded company presentations, financial reporting in web-casting mode, recorded “webinar” in-service training and knowledge updating, and e-newsletters), to recordings of external client-solution consulting interactions (meetings, workshops, presentations, briefings etc)5. The company in question which furnished the data is a global-leader, North American-based, multinational group specializing in organizational consulting, leadership development and employment transition, and a selection of two parallel sub-corpora was made for this case study:

  • Audio-recordings with power point slides of a three-day company-client workshop in Malaysia in 2009; the consultants had been invited to bring state-of-the-art knowledge, models and practices in the field of human resources to a wide audience of Malaysian professionals in public institutions and private organizations. The data comprises eight hours of audio-recorded material (approximately 120,000 words), and follows four consultant-facilitators, all native-speakers.
  • Audio-recordings with power point slides of a series of in-house, in-service training and development sessions held by the same company, but this time in America, delivered by managers and other qualified personnel to a live audience of employees in the Californian head office and simultaneously audio-conferenced to offices throughout the Pacific area, in the same time frame, around 2009-2011. Again the data consists of approximately nine hours of recordings (around 130,000 words), and includes as many different presenters.
  • The two have been selected for comparison as representative of organizational “instructional” genres, characterized by a net division of roles and asymmetry in status between the imparters of knowledge (the consultant experts, in the Malaysian encounter, and the trainers, in the US one), and the receivers of knowledge, the learners and trainees.

    Given the importance of “face-stakes” and “trust-work” in the creation and sharing of expert knowledge, the analysis will focus on the role of discourse in the first potentially risky “face-threatening” client service event abroad, and the second, safer “face-maintenance” situation on American home ground. More specifically, the investigation focuses on how discourse reflects and itself is vehicular in adjusting the relative power and social distance positioning of the interactants in their work in (inter)action in the achievement of workable, successful relationships, and the role these dynamics play in identity construal.

    Indeed, in the Malaysian episode, the meetings were described by the invited consultants as marked from the outset by mistrust and un-cooperation on the part of the audience, despite the fact that the team included an American Malay and an American Chinese consultant, and that all were highly qualified, with considerable experience in the Far East and S.E. Asia. The data, then, is a rich source of linguistic information about rapport management dynamics, more specifically, conflict avoidance and repair work in critical incidents, and at the same time provides a window on what normally happens in the successful conducting of relationships.

    4. Methodological approach

    Qualitative analysis (seen as including both local textual and wider contextual focuses) is an important corollary of social-constructionist applications to discourse analysis. Three main procedural priorities emerge:

  • The importance of naturally-occurring, empirically rich, authentic micro-data, particularly audio (and increasingly) video recordings, to be used for finely-tuned analysis, in order to facilitate a close-up view of interaction. The transcription process becomes particularly important in these initial stages.
  • A micro-level analysis to identify the social actions that are accomplished through the discourse, which in turn are traceable from the linguistic preferences and patterns which emerge. Ethnographic feedback from participants is indispensable input in this interpretative stage.
  • The application of conversational-talk in (inter)action analytical instruments to discover how these social actions are realized in language. This means focussing on discourse structure, organization and development: paramount attention is given to the discourse principles of stages, moves, sequence, adjacency, synchronicity, turn-taking, topic choice and development.
  • In line with conversational analysis principles, no pre-established linguistic categories were selected for analysis at the outset. These were seen to emerge through the data itself. What was established was a division of the material into its three functional stages related to the instructional tasks involved, with a corresponding shift in modality and interaction patterning, as follows:

  • The power point slides. The objects of teaching and learning are made directly explicit and may be said to constitute a statement of the competence, that is to say the knowledge, practices and skills to be transmitted by the company protagonists in both situations.
  • The oral presentations by the consultants and the trainers, conveying the subjects of the learning, displaying the competence, while at the same time transforming the information, creating and personalizing the knowledge to be imparted.
  • The interaction with the audiences. This consists of both ongoing interactivity with audience participation throughout the presentations, and Question and Answer sessions at the end. In this stage, knowledge is shared with the learners, who contribute to making it relevant for their own purposes, finding the competence,the new learning, appropriate.

  • 4.1 Power point slides: “nouning”


    Pay Structure: Internal Alignment of Pay through Job Levelling or Evaluation

    An internal levelling or grading system enables:

  • Efficient deployment of talent on a local, regional and global basis—career planning, succession planning, promotions and transfers across the organization
  • Effective retention strategies: clarifying career opportunities and development needs
  • Accurate tracking and reporting of employee related costs
  • Recognition and alignment of internal job value—to improve morale and commitment to company values
  • The above slide is typical, both formally and functionally, of the very extensive set of power point visuals (over two hundred) which accompanied the three-day workshop. It serves as a condensed summary of the propositional content of the knowledge and competence that the consultants intend to deliver in the workshop, in a sort of cognitive shorthand format. The most striking grammatical feature is the very high frequency of compound noun groups, noun phrases and nominalised phraseology—there are, in fact only three verbs in the above slide, and this concentration on “nouning” is a recurrent feature throughout the slides set.
    A variety of collegational patterns can be distinguished, using noun clusters with and, of, gerundial patterns and past-participle modifiers, employee-related costs; prefaced adjectives, accurate tracking, also permit evaluation of the concepts.
    In line with cognitive linguistic thinking about the pragmatic value of the noun category (LANGACKER 2009: 119-127), we can say that information takes on a “factive status”, creating a “conceptual reification” through the elimination of reference to agents and actions: the audience is simply presented with “facts” and “points of fact”. Nominalization is therefore a potent rhetorical device, here, encouraging consensus, and by closing dialogic space, precludes disagreement or divergence of opinion6.

    4.2 The oral presentation: separateness and connectedness

    4.2.1 Boosting and hedging: Argumentative Reservation

    The oral data of the Malaysian encounters is marked by what has been termed “Argumentative Reservation” (VAN EEMEREN et al, 1997). This refers to the strategies used in the expression of reservation, to qualify and mitigate the force of one’s assertions and opinions. These devices are extremely marked in the consultants’ presentation of information, and are expressed through boosting and hedging techniques, as the following extract shows.


    Sequence : consultant
    The messaging is huge in terms of how you want to fund for bonus. It’s all part of the mind set change and creating a high performance culture […] That seems to be the mantra around the world—manage fixed costs down, we see right across the world, including Asia. […] One of the things that comes up a lot in the US is whether formulas should be additive or multiplicative [….] Here there are different messages and there are no rights and wrongs […].

    The data reveals that boosting and hedging strategies are closely linked and achieve their pragmatic value by this very dialectic, in a sort of point-counterpoint unity, displayed not only across sequences but within the same sequence. In this way, complex “power” and “distance” dynamics between interactants, can be adjusted, together with their perceptions and interpretations of these.
    In the above extract, the consultants limit the strength of their recommendations, not wanting to appear over-assertive or overly authoritative, in this delicate socio-cultural situation. The speaker claims expert knowledge, but at the same time she is very careful not to appear to be excluding, and so downplays world differences, and doesn’t want to imply that Asian business practices are lagging behind, or that “the American way” is “the right way” or “the only way”.

    4.2.2 Vague language and negativization

    This strategy continues, using other significant discourse features, namely what is termed “vague language”and the use of negativization, as illustrated in the next example.


    Sequence: consultant
    So there are some companiesin the US that I work with, because the market is a little more consistent maybe over time and there’s a sort of a reliable source for that industry that they have actually created individual job ranges and they just move it according to the market […]

    Sequence adjoiner: consultant
    I’m very close to many companies in the Silicon Valley who are very opposed to anything that looks that if it isn’t egalitarian.

    Shift 1. consultant
    […] but, as we know, around the world, perquisites are very important, and can be seenjust as the cost of doing business in certain markets—so offering a company car and a driver in certain Asian markets is obviouslyjust the way business is done.

    Audience member
    We don’t use the term perquisites here in Asia – but of course we use tax effective compensation elements, and that really varies from one country to another, and also by industry. So I’m not sure what the value is of looking at these items from a universal perspective.

    The presenter’s use of ‘vague language’ (some companies, a little more consistent, maybe, a sort of, they just move it) defuses the assertions of the expert, depowering her authority. This then contrasts with boosting (very close, many companies, very opposed) in her defence of American attitudes to egalitarianism as an important business target.
    In the next adjacent sequence, she attempts to connect with the Asian audience’s experience and possible practices that might diverge from the North American “norm”, not wanting to appear over-intrusive or prescriptive.
    This meets with a negative reading of the presenter’s intentions: the topic, perquisites, is thrown out of court as “a non-issue”, and its very existence refuted. In a significant shift in power and distance dynamics, the audience claims superior competence, and at the same time insinuates that the Americans’ recommendations are deficient.
    In this example we can track the membership categorization referencing which relates to separateness and connectedness. Place names, locational and personal pronominal deixis have an important part in this: some companies in the US that I work with; many companies in the Silicon Valley contrast with as we know, around the world, in certain Asian markets, placing “Ourselves” alongside “You, the Other”. The audience, however, establishes an unequivocal, unaligned, disconnected “otherness”; we don’t use; here in Asia; I’m not sure.


    Sequence: consultant
    Sequence opening: There are some very sophisticated global companies using this approach.
    Shift 1.
    I’m not necessarily saying this is a great way to go so much as encouraging you to think […].

    Sequence adjoiner: We did a benchmark study in 2009.
    Shift 2.
    I’m told it’s not statistically significant—it wasn’t really meant to be a research project as much as a study that was for one of our clients, a global company.

    Sequence adjoiner: We have 26 names, they’re all household names you’d recognise, mainly in the US and Europe […]
    Shift 3.
    but we have one or two Asian companies aswell.

    Audience member:
    This looks like an interesting study, but do you have any research that is considered statistically significant, and focused on Asian companies?

    Let me look into that and send you any sources that I can find.

    Once again, the Malaysians misinterpret the communicative strategies of the consultant, and imply that the knowledge is both incomplete and irrelevant to themselves. The membership boundary demarcation remains intact, and the interactional rapport as estranged as before. Trustwork is clearly failing and communication difficulties persist.

    4.3 Participant interaction: Sharing the “knowledge”: “Us” and “You” separateness, divergence

    In the third phase, the consultants try to open up interactive and interpretative space in order to share experience. The audience is invited to establish relevance, applications and to co-create the competence presented in the previous stage. They use indirect question routines embedded in hedged pre-sequences, as the next extract shows.


    Sequence opening: consultant
    So there are some companies in the US that I work with, they just move it according to the market. Do you move the ranges down? Yes, if you have to.

    Shift 1: consultant.
    I wanted to ask. How are people managing this internal salary structuring versus the market place? What sort of techniques are working for you?

    (Audience: silence and collective murmurs)
    Shift 2: consultant.
    I don’t have enough data to know if this is true in Asia. Does this tie in with what you’re hearing?

    The membership categorization shifts around in this sequence as the consultant attempts to make interactional contact: some companies in the USA, I work with, do you, I wanted, are people, for you, in Asia, you’re hearing.
    One very significant indicator throughout the Malaysian data is the double referencing of the personal pronoun you and this is a valuable signal as to how the two parties remain distinct in their communicative investment: you is used as to mean both an impersonal “one”, or “people” as in do you move the ranges, and is used functionally in an epistemological sense, elaborating concepts; in this local discursive context, however, it relates to the consultants’ own sphere of reference, to substitute “as we do” or “ourselves”. The second reference of you is the audience, in an interpersonal function. In marked contrast with the US in-house data, as we shall see in a moment, these two referents remain significantly distinct, and become indexical of the maintenance of “Us, Self” and “You, the Other” positionings.
    This final example from the Malaysian episode sums up the ambivalence and misperception generated by much of the dialogue. Again the consultants are trying to engage the audience in the process of conjoint construal of knowledge: they are setting up a series of case studies for group work.


    Sequence: consultant
    Today we will also work on some real life case studies. We will be breaking into three groups and you will have an opportunity to develop programs that are appropriate for the three organizations in question – all global companies, in different industries and countries.
    Audience member 1.
    This seems different from what we signed up for in this seminar. We expected to learn from you, an expert, not to have to provide our own answers. Otherwise we could have saved our time and money, and just talked amongst ourselves rather than attending this seminar.
    Sequence: consultant
    My belief is that the best way to learn is to have some “hands on” involvement in making decisions around these issues.
    Audience member 2.
    We expected to hear about real situations, not spend time on theoretical case studies.
    Sequence: consultant
    Just to be clear, these three case studies are based on three real-life global organizations and the solutions that were developed for their specific situations.

    This exchange represents a Face Threatening Act, in the classic sense: the audience challenges the experts and their mandate for the entire workshop, completing their criticisms of providing knowledge which they have judged to be inaccurate, incomplete, and now, irrelevant. Finally, the consultant decides to suspend attempts at bridging the interactional divide and to retreat to the high ground of “visiting US state-of-the-art-expert”, Just to be clear!

    Table 1, below, summarizes the rapport management dilemma which emerges from the data described previously. The excerpts show how the consultants attempt to align and realign with their audience’s responses in the ongoing flow of dialogue, shifting ground in a sort of metaphorical fencing match. At times they are explicitly occupying their role as imparters of expert knowledge (and so emphasising their separateness in terms of asymmetrical power and authority status). When faced with evidence of audience misperceptions and unintended evaluations (the external authority is seen to be bullying, arrogant and essentially uncaring about Malaysian real needs), discursively the consultants move onto safer ground, according to their own understanding of the situation, in an attempt to repair misunderstandings and avoid conflict—they understate their authority and open up interactional--interpretative space with their interlocutors (but again imposing a separateness, albeit of a different kind). The audience’s immediate reaction is an accusation of a lack of professional competence.

    In both cases, then, the consultants’ intentions were misconstrued, so that whatever position they took, they were not doing “what they said they would do, what the Malaysian professionals were told to expect, and what, incidentally, they had paid a lot of money to hear” (post-interview with anonymous workshop facilitator, 2009).


    US consultants’ intentions

    Malaysian audience’ perceptions-interpretations

  • Providing state-of-the-art knowledge and advice based on proven US global experience and expertise
  • US expertise lacking relevance to regional realities and practices and so incomplete, ethnocentric and intrusive
  • Inviting the audience to make their own applications to current thinking and best practices, where considered relevant
  • A “competence” failure and abnegation of their role to inform and give direction: perceived as weak and incapable
  • Table 1. The “double bind”—convergent and divergent intentionality and evaluation

    Feedback from the consultants about the interactions (in the form of recorded interviews, written notes and guided questionnaires) are, in fact, very informative. In terms of the three areas of context described in section 2.2, at a micro-contextual level, the audience was very varied in terms of professional background and that there was a degree of mismatch between their expectations and how the workshop had been publicized in Malaysia; at the meso-level, differences in expectancies about instructional styles (degrees of directness and involvement) emerged and a language difficulty factor was also conceded; at a macro-level, there is agreement that the events reflected Malaysian ambivalence to American interventions, possibly connected with issues related to the distribution and access to knowledge and expertise, their needing, but at the same time resenting, North American dominant global business norms and practices, which could be perceived as being in conflict with local, regional needs.

    5. The American in-house training data

    5.1 Power point slides and oral presentation: directive acts


    Slide: Welcome
    Conference Call Guidelines
    Let’s Chat


    Facilitator: We’ll turn it over to Chris and we’ll jump into the webinar. Even though it’s a conference call, it is a webinar, we really want to make it informal.
    Trainer: We’ll try to make this as dialogue and conversational as possible. We know it’s a little hard when not looking at each other—we’re all in our own spaces virtually all over the place. So, if there are any questions, feel free to jump right in.

    The tone of the learning-training situation is clear from the outset. The dialogue aims at creating alignment, consensus and connectedness, and the register is direct, informal and colloquial.


    Slide: “Tips for Interviewing”7

  • Set time aside without interruptions
  • Prepare in advance

  • Compare résumés and applications
  • Gather questions
  • Revisit the résumé on day of interview
  • Put the company’s best foot forward
  • Put the candidate at ease

  • Small talk (i.e. the weather)
  • Plan comparison questions
  • The most striking linguistic feature of the set of slides in the American data is the very high frequency of the imperative form: examples 9 and 10, taken from a session entitled “How to improve your interviewing techniques”,are typical.


    Slide: “Get ready: planning”

  • Create the agenda
  • Review previous agendas for any follow up
  • Ask for input
  • Create a timetable
  • Don’t over-plan
  • Generate interest
  • Allow participants to prepare
  • Clearly the imperative mood is not conveying coercive commands or orders, as classically described: instead it frames suggestions, advice and proposals, tips, in an informal, but concise manner. The interpersonal space is close, creating a proximal stance, as opposed to the distal positioning of the nominalization of the slides in the Malaysian situation, which clearly suggests that the two encounters, while both being typical of learning and instructional interactions, are coloured by different audiences and pragmatic imperatives in managing rapport and face-identity issues. These priorities again relate to adjustments in the distribution of power, authority and status, on the one hand, and the degree of social interactive-interpretative space shared by participants, on the other.


    Trainer: So, putting a little focus around hiring the right person the first time, takes planning and preparation. So hopefully as we go through this webinar and offer our tips and suggestions and the formulating of questions—it really helps you to take those planning and preparation tools. […]
    You want to put the candidate at ease. You want to create a little bit of small talk, the weather, for example. It really shouldn’t go any deeper than the weather. It could be mm “Did you find it OK. Did you have trouble finding the building or the suite “

    The directive function is elaborated in the presentation with the very frequent use of “you want to” throughout the event, which is an interesting lexical choice: it could be interpreted as a less intrusive recommendation than “should”, “have to”, or “must”. Narrative techniques, including direct speech in re-enacted interview scenarios, also convey the conversational, informalized tenor of the exchange.


    Slide: “Determining Motivational Fit”

  • What is motivational fit? The degree to which the work is personally satisfying
  • Are there areas of motivational fit?
  • Job fit. An individual is most likely to repeat certain responsibilities and activities they enjoy ensures successful performance
  • Organizational fit. Providing personal satisfaction through the organization’s values and culture (i.e. teams versus solo)
  • Locational fit.
  • How do I build this into the interview?
  • When? What? Why?
  • (13)

    Trainer: Are you a company or a corporation that really values and works at teams? Do they come from a culture—is that the type of culture that really works for them?
    And, you know, then, the real question is how do you build all of this in to the interview? You want to ask “when”: Tell me when you were most satisfied in your position. Describe to me what you were doing that made you fell the personal satisfaction that you felt. And then the “why”: What was it that made it so satisfying? And you begin to dig deeper into those personal satisfaction type questions.

    Display question sequences are also an important discourse device in the slides, which then become re-enforced in the presentation phase. Again, in 13, narrative sequences are highlighted, me being the imaginary interviewer, and you the hypothetical interviewee.
    This points to what emerges as a key difference between the two sets of data, and is a significant indicator of the membership categorization referencing which is so vital in negotiating roles, status and socio-cultural space, the use of you. In 5.3 the net distinction between you = Us, we, ourselves the consultants, and you = You, the audience, serves to maintain the Self and the Other distance which marks the Malaysian interactions. In the American setting, however, this distinction is all but absent: you is all inclusive, referring to both trainer and trainee in both a generalized learning situation, while also addressing the specific participants, at the very same moment. This is indexical of the degree of status symmetry created through the discourse.

    5.2 Participant interaction: Sharing the “knowledge”: connectedness, alignment, convergence

    5.2.1 Topic development and turn taking


    Trainer: Does anyone have any questions until this point? I don’t want to be talking too fast. Or going over anything too quickly.
    Member of audience 1: Yes, actually. Kind of embarrassing question.
    Trainer: OK.
    Member of audience 1: What do you do if someone walks into an interview and you know in the first minute that you’re not the right person?
    Trainer: We’re going to talk about that. You want to continue with the interview. You’re not going to drag it out for two hours but you want to be respectful of the individual—you’re really going to give the individual the chance—you’re going to give them the respect and consideration that you would show to anyone else. Because you have invited them in and you know they have prepared for the interview and you’re going to be respectful of their time.
    Member of audience 1: Yes, definitely.

    Example 14 fully exemplifies the inclusive referencing power of you in the American data: the provider of knowledge and the receiver have devised a means of viewing the Self in the Other, and vice versa, and are co-creating connectedness from separateness. The request to take the floor and the turn taking is indirect and negotiated with a veiled apology. The next example also shows this perceived need to display supportiveness in the situation.


    Member of audience 2: Yes, and I would also like to add that it’s important that you do spend some time with them and that you don’t just form an opinion that early on that that is so. You’re not going to consider them because they may say something that’ll make you change your mind.
    Member of audience 1: Yeh, OK.

    Throughout the data, participants elaborate the topic development con-jointly, sharing experience and creating common ground. In example 15, the turn-taking is working at alignment and convergence.

    5.2.2 Humour: solidarity and personalization


    Audience together: Thanks Chris
    Trainer: Thank you everybody. I’m not sure if Peter is going to send out the contents.
    Audience member 1: It has been recorded.
    Trainer: That’s the first time I’ve ever been recorded. I feel very nervous.
    (Audience: sympathetic laughter)
    Audience member 2: That was great.
    Trainer: It’s going to end up on the Internet—on You Tube, I just know it.
    (Audience: laughter)
    Trainer: So if anyone needs anything please give me a call. If not, it was my pleasure to be invited in on this.

    The American in-house data is very marked by the use of humour, indexing the presumably well-established relational history of the participants. It serves a variety of purposes, (the above example shows the trainer debunking herself through jocular self-denigration), but it is used across the board by all, reflecting the group empathy, recognition and sharing which characterizes the encounter.

    Table 2 below summarizes the findings in the parallel sub-corpora described in detail in the previous sections. As stated in the research design in section 4, three functional stages were analysed for each series of learning-instructional interactions: these corresponded to the initial presentation phase of the content of learning, via power point slides; secondly, the creation and transformation of this information in the learning-instructional experience through oral presentations; and finally the creation of shared knowledge through dialogue and elaboration with the audience.

    What has emerged in the data is a marked difference in the linguistic and pragmatic resources at work for each of the situations: interactive and interpretative space is adjusted on a proximal-distal plane in response to perceived different communicative needs. The Malaysian events are characterized by indirect, distancing engagement techniques (in response to the special inter-relational dynamics described earlier in table 1). In contrast, the safer, less conflictual, American in-house training sessions are marked by pragmatic work on a proximal plane, building inclusive interpersonal relationships, reducing trainer-trainee authority distance, and employing the linguistic features which construe this communicative illocutionary upshot.

    The micro, meso, and macro-contextual factors at work in the American data are very different from those detailed for the Malaysian episode: participants are clearly engaging in solidarity and consensus building throughout the organizational ranks; knowledge management, which includes the upgrading of employee skills and competencies and the creation of participatory, empowered partner alliances, is seen to be a key organizational priority in response to the fast-changing needs and realities of globalizing business processes.


    Pragmatic framing/entailment

    Malaysian data
    US in-house data

    The slides:

    Stating the competence, what is to be learnt.

    Compound noun groups, clusters: reification, distal perspective.

    Imperative mood: direct, proximal perspective.

    The oral presentation:

    Displaying the competence: creating and transmitting the knowledge.

    Hedging devices, negativization, vague language. Argumentative Reservation: de-powering, qualifying the authority.

    Directive acts with display questions and narrative sequences: democratizing, distributing the authority.


    Sharing the competence: displaying solidarity, opening interpersonal and interpretative space.

    Indirect question routines, and pre-sequences: maintaining the: “self” and “the other” distinction and distance

    Infrequent occurrence of humour.

    Direct Q and A routines, informalization and personalization: the “self” and “the other” close fit and blending

    Frequent occurrence of humour.

    Table 2. Linguistic and pragmatic features in rapport management dynamics: separateness and connectedness

    6. Concluding remarks: salutary lessons

    In the analysis of a complex set of contrastive organizational, managerial data, we have seen how social-constructionist accounts of interculturality and face-identity construal can illuminate a discursive account of interpersonal interactions. Both conceptualizations of “Face Constituting Theory” and “interculturality in the making”, based on conjoint, co-constituting models of communication, have prompted the use of new methodological approaches, incorporating the development of the traditional tools of conversational analysis with stimulating innovative search paths.

    We have also shown how it is possible to track the linguistic and pragmatic indexicality which emerges in the two contrasting business instructional-learning series of events, how this is strictly related to the socio-cultural context of evolving relationships and interactional rapport, and consequently the part these play in the construction of varying corporate and professional identities, how they are shaped, maintained, defended and adapted. The exact nature of the cultural factors at work in these processes remains enigmatic, and rightly will remain so, when viewed within this particular descriptive framework. It is appropriate to finish, then, with the resonant words of the Malaysian sociolinguist and noted scholar of intercultural communication, NAIR-VENUGOPAL:

    The culture card continues to frame culture as disadvantageous to the interaction. […] We need less confined ways of analysing ICC and understanding what is basically communication between individuals or groups who may or may not occupy the same cultural spaces, or who may, or may not display cultural asymmetry, assume the same cultural roles and positions or participate in the same cultural practices. […] This approach roots communication firmly in social interaction. It takes into account and explains how a number of factors mediate the effects of the cultural principle and cultural variability, such as the role of language in constructing identity as multiple agencies, and reality as fluid potentialities, rather than as fixed options in the marketplaces of such encounters. (2003: 26)


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    This is clearly a broad generalization. The relative standing of “world languages” and their “linguistic value” in what has been termed a new “linguistic market capitalism” is exemplified in the creation of the “T-index” (a sort of global business equivalent of “the impact factor” for the academe), which ascribes each country in the world a potential rating for the demand-driven, online translation and use of its own language of business, according to a 2.0 web-compiled statistical index.

    Malaysia presents a highly complex linguistic and cultural picture, both historically speaking, and in its achievements to date in creating a functioning multi-ethnic, multicultural state. Any investigation of local and international discursive communicative practices in the region should bear this in mind, especially in the light of the fact that Malay is the official language, at present, yet English is the de facto language of corporate practices, resulting in linguistic plurality.

    “Social-Constructionism” is a sociological theory of knowledge which considers how social phenomena are dependent on contingent variables of our social selves rather than on any inherent quality that they possess intrinsically. It is typically positioned in opposition to “essentialism”, the social construction of reality being an ongoing dynamic process that must be continuously reproduced by people by acting on their interpretation and their knowledge of it. COUPLAND, SARANGI, CANDLIN (2001: 27-88) describe the relevance of social-constructionist theory to language description in detail.

    The compilation and use of this approximately 1,000,000 word corpus has been my contribution to several Italian PRIN projects (Research Projects of National Relevance) over a ten-year period (2003-2013), involving the University of Bergamo, The University of Florence, The University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, The University “Orientale” Naples, The University of Siena, and my own Research Unit, the “Sapienza” University of Rome, which has specialized mainly in institutional and organizational, business discourse analysis.

    To date, the corpus has been used to analyse a number of areas: the linguistic resources and pragmatic processes of description, evaluation and persuasion in corporate discourse, BOWKER 2009; interactive networks of organizational metaphor and corporate identity, BOWKER 2011; intercultural business encounters, BOWKER 2012; genre and register in multimodal, computer-mediated business communication and the nature of virtual professional “space”, BOWKER 2013.

    Interestingly, also the presenters are aware of the communicative effects of this format: one person said that, stylistically, they are being encouraged to use more verbs in their slides to convey more directness, personalization (through reference to agency) and a sense of situated immediacy.

    Although for the sake of thematic coherence, one topic is used here, the subjects of the nine hours’ training and development webinars are very varied, including practical task completion, professional skill development and personal professional growth.

    Per citare questo articolo:

    Janet Bowker, BELF (business English as a lingua franca) and intercultural issues: rapport management in consulting and training encounters in international and local settings, Repères DoRiF n. 4- Quel plurilinguisme pour quel environnement professionnel multilingue? - Quale plurilinguismo per quale ambito lavorativo multilingue?, DoRiF Università, Roma dcembre 2013,

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