Is interrupting impolite? : some temporal aspects of turn-taking in Chinese-Western and other intercultural business encounters

J.M. Ulijn, X.L. Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)
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In intercultural communication, discourse convention differences have often been used to explain misunderstandings and negative stereotyping. What is polite in one culture is not in another. Brown and Levinson ‘s (1987) polite ness theory claims universalism: their analysis framework supports a concept of politeness that applies to any culture. If so, however, how can people then perceive a polite move in one culture as impolite in another? For instance, many silent periods (greater than ten seconds) by East Asians or Finns might be considered as a waste of time by Americans, whereas the Dutch might consider the numerous interruptions by Italians as impolite. A possible explanation might be that all cultures share the needfor politeness to accommodate a listener, but that different cultures have different (non)-verbal means to express this. This article focusses on datafrom two pilot studies about temporal aspects of turn-taking (speech overlap interruption behavior) during intercultural multimember party business negotiations: Chinese Finnish and Dutch Chinese. Chinese appeared to interrupt more and in a more marked way both within their culture and in their interaction with Finns and Dutch than the Finns and the Dutch did in both situations. All cultures preferred marked interruptions. These preliminary findings indicate that Chinese tend to interrupt as a matter of a convention of their language and culture, whereas Finns and Dutch try to ‘accommodate’ them by being more interruptive than they usually are. Further observations and analysis of the context might determine whether interrupting behavior is perceived as impolite and how business negotiators from ‘silent’ cultures should deal with excessive speech overlaps and the other way around. Our analysis suggests some first recommendations for international business practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)589-627
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1995


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