Intercultural communication (or Another reason to learn Italian)

Travel certainly increases one’s language awareness. In beautiful Aosta, an Italian town just over the border from France and Switzerland through the Mont Blanc tunnel, the locals are generally bilingual in French and Italian. Relatively few speak English, unlike their neighbours in nearby Chamonix, a French town only 50 kilometres away on the Swiss and Italian border where the tourist industry has made English a necessity for successful business. In Aosta, not only spoken interaction but also the written signs and tourist information on the Roman ruins and in the ancient churches are consistently in Italian and French. No English anywhere. English tourists are not the main source of income here. Language and economics are always intertwined, as sociolinguists point out.

Travel also increases awareness of language variation. In the United States the term “tramping” is a source of hilarity, while from a Kiwi perspective American euphemistic terms for toilets are equally humorous: you ask for the restroom in a restaurant but for the bathroom if you are in someone’s house, and the vault is what New Zealand trampers know as a long-drop.

Perhaps most interesting of all for the international traveller are the different ways of “doing things with words”, or speech acts. Most of us are aware that degrees of directness distinguish different cultures. Eastern Europeans are stereotypically more direct than speakers of British and New Zealand English who ask politely “I was wondering if you could possibly pass me the salt!” But on this trip what was most evident was the very distinctive Italian ways of negotiating for what you want.

At the bus stop, two bikers wanted to get their bikes taken up to the top of the St Bernard Pass so they could have the thrill of the ride down without the pain of the slog up. They waited till all the foot passengers were on board and it was clear there was sufficient space for the bikes. Then they began to discuss their request with the driver – who refused repeatedly. Undeterred they started to argue, pointing to the space and explaining that they would pay. Back and forth went the discussion with increases in the volume and gesturing until it was well past the time for the bus to leave. The driver was adamant but the bikers were irrepressible. Suddenly when I was sure they would come to blows, the driver capitulated, the bikers smiled, thanked the driver and profusely apologised for the inconvenience, the bikes were loaded and we were off.

This scenario was repeated a number of times in northern Italy with respect to issues as diverse as obtaining a table in a crowded restaurant and acceptance of a very large parcel for posting. Sometimes the powerful person refused to concede and the supplicant left defeated. But more often what seemed to me the altercation (which the participants clearly regarded as a negotiation) ended successfully, and both parties seemed happy with the outcome. So the components of this speech act seem to be as follows:

  1. X makes a request which is in the power of the addressee Y to grant, but is not part of “normal service”.
  2. Y refuses.
  3. Steps 1 and 2 are repeated as many times as those engaged have energy for, with increasing volume and number of gestures. EITHER

4A: X accedes

5A: Y effusively provides thanks and apologies


4B: X decisively finishes the exchange by leaving or turning to another client

5B: Y leaves

Discussion with locals indicated that use of local dialect and especially dialect insults gave speakers an advantage in such “negotiations”; and within the family the final stage often involves a hug. My proposed rules for the components of this complex speech act can be tested by others and I will be pleased to have feedback on my observations.

Travel is always a learning experience. And now I have another reason to learn more Italian.

Janet Holmes

Janet Holmes is Emeritus Professor in Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. She is Director of the Wellington Language in the Workplace project, an ongoing study of communication in the workplace which has described small talk, humour, management strategies, directives, and leadership in a wide range of New Zealand workplaces.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *