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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

July 13, 2012

Dem's Fightng Words: More on pragmatics, strategic competence, and jerks

As some readers may know, I wrote an article addressing the 'micro-aggression' debate in my Indirectly Speaking column in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper on June 12th. There were a number of responses to the piece, mostly directed to my personal email address, but also a few which appeared in online forums. This blog entry will address some of the critical points raised by readers. A little later.

But first... let me relate a few real-life experiences that will hopefully enhance some of the points I want to make.

"It must be tough for you in Japan"

Let's go back to my wedding party held in rural Kyushu several years past. An older guest, a little bit worse for whiskey-wear, approaches me. "It must be tough for you in Japan," he begins (in Japanese, natch). Why? "Well, you don't really understand our country, our culture." I see where this might be going but, hey, he's a guest at my wedding party so I'll try to be gracious. "Actually, I'm not sure anyone really understands an entire country or culture," I respond. "But I feel quite comfortable with a lot of life in Japan". "But your understanding is chuto-hanpa," he spits out. "Hell, you don't even understand the word 'chuto hanpa' I bet!" "Sure, it means half-baked, lacking, like that," I reply. "Oh, so you read a dictionary! That still doesn't mean that you understand Japan!". He is literally in my face now, eyeball to eyeball. "Uh yeah. Fine. Whatever." I take my leave.

Micro-aggressive or pragmatic failure? Well, soon after the encounter, I asked my wife-- "Who is that guy?" "Oh him, he always gets obnoxious, especially after a few drinks. Just ignore him". Later I see him haranguing some young people at the party, scolding them about how young people today have no morals, guts, depth, etc. He is right in their faces.

So, again-- micro-aggressive or pragmatic failure? I say: neither of the above. The guy is outright aggressive. He's in your face and wants to be. He's violating social norms and doesn't care. He's a... let me try to find an appropriate academic term here... a jerk.

"Why did you marry a Japanese?"

OK. Let's try another one. "Why did you marry a Japanese?" I was asked this by two different people soon after the wedding party. Now, I should start off by stating that the questioners gave off no sense of challenge, the kind of paralinguistically pregnant jutting chins which imply the question really means something like, "Why are you taking one of OUR women?", or "What's the matter can't you find a woman in your own country?". These were innocent questions. Innocent but a little awkward.

I answered coyly, "I didn't marry a Japanese woman. I married (insert wife's name here)." In other words I hardly married her for her nationality or because I was clinging on to some outdated notion of alleged J female subservience. I'd married a person, not a nationality. I didn't force this response down their throats but I did try to set them straight on my marital motives.

Micro-aggressive, racially-charged question on their part or something else? I'd attribute it to a certain inter-cultural awkwardness. They'd been focused upon cultural motives when for me the decision to marry was obviously an individual one. (I recall that ex-US ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer was asked a similar question, believing that his interlocutors expected to hear something about the virtues of Japanese womanhood from him. Instead he answered, "Because I love her.")

"Will you be returning to Canada?"

Finally, one more item from the same event. My mother-in-law asks me, "Will you be returning to Canada?" Racially-charged indicator of expectation or legit neutral query? Obviously the latter. Many ex-pats return to their countries of origin and the mother wants to know if her daughter is likely to be spending her life abroad. In fact it would be strange if she didn't ask this question! Given who is asking the question, and when, it hardly takes a linguist to accurately peg this as a legitimate inquiry.

Now, it's true that the examples above don't always address raw pragmatics, which is generally a matter of indirect speech acts and subsequent uptake, but they're certainly in the same ballpark.

My own Japanese pragmatic failures: "Excuse me, I'll return"

And I can also certainly think of cases of my own incompetency using Japanese and not being fully cognizant of the uptake in Japanese society. A good example would be playing outside with my son when he was younger, along with a few other neighbourhood parents and their children. At 6:30 it's time to head inside for dinner so I announce to the other parents, "Sumimasen, kaerimasu" (Excuse me, I'll return).

More competent Japanese users will be aware that this sounds rather abrupt as though I'm pissed at something and am more or less walking off. If I had said "Mou sorosoro desu" (Well, it's about time) the uptake arising from this very indirect phrase would have been spot on. So yes, I have a lot of sympathy for those Japanese who have no ill intentions but mismanage the social formulae.

But this brings me right to some questions and doubts that readers had about the article (I should point out that the vast majority of responses were overwhelmingly supportive).

How is it an English-learning problem if it occurs mostly in Japanese?

A few readers correctly pointed out that since most of these infelicities occur in Japanese it can hardly ascribed to a lack of knowledge of English interpersonal strategies or pragmatics.

That's true. The problem in such cases is not an issue of second-language competency, but one of dealing appropriately with second-culture members. Suddenly, the social norms that mark the first culture, or most any culture for that matter, either go out the window or are, at some level, believed not to apply to C2. (This notion is particularly enhanced, IMO, by a longstanding emphasis upon explicating 'cultural differences' as the basis of culture learning).

The fact is that some people lose their interpersonal footholds when engaging other cultures. It's a bit like talking to extraordinarily attractive women/men or famous people, you can become a bit self-conscious and start sounding like a dumbass pretty quickly.

The other point I want to make here is that my column deals with English-teaching, as does of course my job, so the content had to be connected to English teaching. And indeed my English-learning students do manifest many of the problems that I addressed.

Aren't you admitting that pragmatic failure equals micro-aggression?

Another reader questioned my quoting of pragmatics stalwart George Yule, stating that pragmatic failures can certainly be seen as aggressive and generate ill-will. After all, doesn't this seem to support the original micro-aggression thesis that I'm doubting?

Missing the uptake, mismanaging pragmatic forms, or mis-conveying your intentions regularly lead to misunderstanding, confusion, friction-- true. No one doubts that such cases exist. For example, answering, "So?" when someone says, "I need some ice" as you are opening the fridge would be taken as a rebuff but is it always intended as such? Likewise, answering, "I see" and not actually bringing the ice (or by rendering the original request a bit too obliquely-- "This drink tastes good with ice") could also lead to friction, a sense that the other person is either trying to piss you off or is refusing to play the social game. But isn't it true that some people are simply not adept at these interactions or somehow misinterpret them without intended malice? So when we consider intercultural encounters in particular, we are hardly forced to take a tour down the interpretive path of racial micro-aggression.

Strategic competence and pragmatics: Any notable difference?

Another reader wondered if it was legit to separate strategic competence (our ability to manage interactions, particularly how to avoid or fix breakdowns) from pragmatics. The two are connected but shouldn't be conflated. When we offer hints about how to open, close, elaborate, negotiate or confirm utterances, we are focusing upon strategic competence-- and a failure in these areas can easily lead to what was misdiagnosed as micro-aggression.

Pragmatics, which is also a part of the wider field of socio-linguistics, is, as stated earlier, concerned with indirect speech acts, illocutions, implicature (how we understand the implications of a speech act), and uptake. These are connected to strategic competence, but are better separated in a discussion regarding the sources of alleged micro-aggression.

Yet another reader felt that I had implied that pragmatics was something that only highbrow, well-educated teachers were aware of but that in fact many teachers would have a working knowledge of pragmatics even if they were not conversant regarding its wider, egghead-y theory and applications. That's true-- and addresses an impression I did not intend to convey. Any competent, alert teacher will be in tune with socio-linguistics in some form-- academic or otherwise.

Where's the quote? And why not quote the source directly?

Another reader brought up the fact there was no direct reference to the original Japan Times article that I was referring to. He thought this detracted from the force and validity of my response. I agree. I had originally included the JT reference (date, page etc.), the online article URL, and the related blog URL. But the Daily Yomiuri editor told me that they have a policy of not making undue reference to the JT, as a 'rival' newspaper, so these references were removed. My copy editor disagreed with this policy, as do I. I duly relayed this reader's criticism to the DY editor.

The same reader also thought it unfair that I directly quoted George Yule, Jim Ronald, and an unnamed online source (who had agreed to be quoted, although the website where his quote was placed-- was soon thereafter closed by the website owner), but not the original JT writer and blogger of whom I was being critical.

The critic said, I had merely paraphrased the original writer and therefore could be interpreted as being deliberately misleading or strawman-izing. This is a legitimate point. There were certainly many quotable items from the original piece that would have been as self-damning as those used in my critique, and using them would have lent my argument more credibility.

"Why does this stuff only seem to happen to you English teachers?"

Finally, there appeared a critic who claimed that they almost never encountered these awkward or allegedly aggressive comments, that their relations with Japanese people were quite normal and strongly implied that there was something wrong with the whole English-teacher idiom if we had frequently experienced or were bothered by the phenomenon. In fact, this critic served me a healthy reminder that the vast majority of NJ-J interactions don't contain these infelicities, a fact that we should never lose sight of. But it is also true that if you are in the English-teaching field you will be more exposed to awkward interactions simply by virtue of the number of people you have to meet and interact with on a superficial level.

Also, this reader seemed to want to denigrate the English-teacher in Japan meme more roundly, but I'll address this in another blog entry.

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