IATEFL2015 | Chia Suan Chong: The pragmatics of successful business communication | Talk summary

Posted: April 16, 2015 in Conferences
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Chia Suan Chong (York Associates)

Abstract. Many Business English teachers often worry about their knowledge (or lack thereof) of the business world. But aren’t we already well-equipped as language practitioners to understand the delicate and ever-so-interesting nature of discourse in business and how it differs amongst different speech communities? This workshop explains how we can use these instincts to help our clients become more successful communicators.

The title says ‘pragmatics’. What is it? The way meaning of an utterance is negotiated by people in the context.

Terms: utterance (the words that were spoken); locutionary force (surface meaning of the utterance); illocutionary force / function (the intended/negotiated meaning of the utterance).


The function here is probably ‘advice’.

What are the functions here?
Emma: Can you find out if the train is running? (locutionary force: ability; illocutionary force: a request)
Tom: The internet is down. (illocutionary force: No)

How do you know that these two utterances are even connectedThe listeners make Tom’s answer relevant through making all kinds of references. But imagine the listener is from a country with no internet or no trains?

Another example:
Dawn: The phone is ringing. (= an order)
Jay: I’m in the bath. (= I can’t)

In coursebooks often we see

  • decontextualized utterances (which in fact could mean anything, given the right context);
  • exponents that aren’t synonymous but which are labeled under the same category. Some functions, at least on the surface, lend themselves to such categorization (e.g. with requests / commands). However, language is difficult to categorize – e.g. the examples below were presented in one coursebook together labeled as ‘praise’, But the intentions of people who use those exponents are probably very different.
    My manager speaks very highly of you //could be used to try to established good relationship
    I don’t mean to brag but..

    You have outdone yourself this time. //could be sarcastic
    …if I do say so myself

Another example: exponents for adding a point and contrast:
Adding a point
On top of that
Having said that,

On the other hand

(Adapted from Prof. Henry Widdowson).

However, what could they mean in context?
Jen: He was on social welfare but was not lazy. (‘but’ says a lot about what Jen thinks about people on social wellfare)
Casey: She wore flat shoes to the job interview. On top of that, she wore trousers.
Beth: We are totally underpaid, the offices are overcrowded, and the directors are completely out of touch with the staff. Having said that, I do love working here.
(implies ‘I’m just venting‘. Compare what happens if you substitute for ‘But then again?’ implies more equal weight).

Implications: the simple categories are not enough. There’s really meaning in everything.

Illocutionary forces. What do the following utterances really mean?

  • It’s stuffy in here, isn’t it? (probably: could you open the window?)
  • Will you be passing the supermarket on your way home? (probably: a request)
  • That curry smells really good. (probably:=I want some! How could this dialogue develop> Oh really? I’m cooking it for a fundraising even> Oh really? How good of you! = let’s pretend I never asked – because I never actually said that.) – so it’s a great face-saving device

In business every sentence also has meaning

  • Are your busy? (could you help me? can I talk to you?)
  • We need to get this proposal in by Friday. (you need to get it in)
  • I hear what you say (what’s going to follow is …but + disagreement or critism)
  • That is a very brave proposal (you’re mad).

Intercultural communication

The fact that there’s meaning in everything may create great difficulties in intercultural communication, when different people read different meaning into the same words / behaviour patterns / body language etc.

Example 1

What is the context? Who are Sarah and Aki? What does Aki really mean?
Sarah: We could inject another $50k for 15% of your business.
Aki: That’s interesting.

‘That’s interesting’ might mean ‘I need to think about that’ or ‘I need to discuss that with my boss‘. However, in Japanese ‘That’s interesting’ means no’ (and Chia Suan Chong has never heard the actual word ‘no’ in Japanese).

Example 2. Adjacency pairs

How would you reply to those greetings?

Hello! How are you? > Fine! Yourself?
Lovely weather today. > Gorgeous, isn’t it?
That is a gorgeous dress you have on! > Oh, this old thing? I’ve had it for ages!

How about these greetings?

  • How’s your wife and children?
  • Have you had lunch?
  • How’s business?

In some cultures they are standard greetings (and require standard responses). In China, you have to say: fine/yes to all of them (when used as greetings). E.g. if you reply ‘no’ to ‘Have you had lunch?’ I’m obliged to bring you up for lunch.

Implications: the need to attune to the culture of the other person.

Example 3. Formulaic responses that draw on cultural inferences. 

Deb: Is the meeting going to overrun again?
Rachel: Is the pope Catholic?

Sandy: What did you think of their new offices?
Josh: Well, the carpet was a nice colour.

Lucia: Did you understand his explanation?
Steve: It wasn’t exactly rocket science, was it?

Example 4. Interaction patterns. 

Allyson: You won’t believe what happened to me today!
Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.
Allyson: Right, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!
Jun Sook: Huh?

But Jun Sook

  • was just waiting – she didn’t recognize that she was supposed to show encouragement;
  • in her culture, it was impolite to interrupt.

Example 5. 


Students who received this notice were very offended because in their culture, this handout would be an accusation – it read like ‘you ARE going to smoke and take illegal drugs; you ARe going to tamper with electrical equipment, behave aggressively and fight’ etc.

Things to do in class

We’ve established the need to attune to the culture of the other person. But: you can’t accommodate what you don’t see.

Activity 1. 

Students work in pairs. Student B has a task and a secret emotion. They should talk with that emotion; Student A guesses the emotion.

Examples of tasks:
You’re an employee. Show a new employee around the office. (Emotion: e.g. jealousy)
You’re a sales representative. Promote a new course on intercultural communication. (Emotion: love/adoration)
Your partner is going to tell you that they’ve been promoted. (Emotion: disappointment)

This activity attunes learners to a range of cues:

  • Body language
  • Tone of voice
  • Words they used / eye contact
  • Repetition – agenda comes out again and again

Activity 2. Hot Seat + idiosyncratic behaviour.

Students work in groups. The student in hot seat has an idiosyncrasy (e.g. starts each question with So, ..?) Other need to

  • spot the idiosyncrasy
  • then imitate it

Trains s/s to become sensitive to idiosyncrasies and accommodate them.

Such activities help to ground real-life situations where things are not what they appear to be.

An incredibly useful session – I especially loved that it was so practical. Lots of examples that can be brought to class, and great activities. I teach in monolingual context so the first activity probably needs to be adapted – I think I’ll start collecting film scenes where characters project strong emotions, e.g. boredom with the conversation, envy, etc. I think activity 2 is also ideal for practicing interaction patterns that are different between L1 and L2 – e.g. for Ru/Eng that would be backchanneling, using expressions like ‘Well’ and ‘Right’ and so on. 


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

  1. Cleve says:

    Great write up, thanks for this and for the other summaries!

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