From: Fernanda Viegas <>
The Ethnography of Communication

In reading the assigned sections of Muriel Saville-Troike’s book, I could not help but identify myself with several of the members from the "speech communities" she mentions. Each one of the basic issues explored in this ethnographic overview reminded me of specific experiences I have had because of the way I use language (especially foreign languages). Thus, in this paper I will be analyzing a few of Saville-Troike’s points in terms of my personal experience.

The section on communicative competence was particularly significant to me because it is an issue with which I have to deal every day. The analysis about the "competence of incompetence" was somewhat of a pleasant surprise to come across since it is something that took me a long time to figure out on my own. I am an international student from Brazil and I have been living in the US for the past five years. Even though my native language is Portuguese, I was already fluent in English before moving to the US and I did not have the expected thick accent of a foreign person. This proved to be both an advantage and a disadvantage to me. During my very first month in the US as an undergraduate student; I got a part time job as a sales clerk at a specialized art supply store. One of my first customers wanted a special kind of paper that was sold by the sheet, so I proceeded to ask him how many sheets he needed. Accidentally, though, instead of pronouncing "sheets" || ò i: ts ||, I pronounced "shits" ||ò its||. The man was quite upset at me and he made a point of letting me know that was not funny. Even though I had not mispronounced the word "sheets" on purpose he had no way of really understanding that from our interaction. To him I had sounded and acted like a native speaker up to that point. Therefore, he expected me to continue acting like a native speaker in observing the norms of social conduct. Had I presented a thick foreign accent from the beginning of our interaction he might have realized that what had really happened was that I mispronounced a word out of incompetence in the language, not out of mockery.

This kind of incident is quite easy to analyze: the form used by one of the speakers was obviously wrong (one of the words was mispronounced). But how about situations where form and content are correct both from a grammatical as well as a lexical point of view but still the foreign speaker is interpreted in a different way than intended? Saville-Troike alludes to this issue when she says that "A foreign accent will often allow as yet imperfectly learned rules of etiquette to be excused as such, while a speaker who has mastered the phonology of a language is assumed to have also mastered all other aspects of its use." (26). These rules of etiquette are much subtler and, therefore, harder to grasp than phonetic rules. Moreover, because they deal with social and cultural issues more than language itself, it is quite difficult for a foreign speaker to fully understand the underlying implications of their speech.

Here again I turn to my personal experience in terms of adaptation to the cultural and social aspects of language usage: during my first year in the US I started noticing the way people asked questions and made requests. Native speakers were not nearly as direct as I was. One example happened at school where I thought that one of my teachers should have allowed the class more time for the completion of a particular project. I brought up the issue in what I thought was a respectful manner. It turns out I was a little too direct and the teacher immediately got defensive. When finally another student (a native person) spoke up and rephrased the class’s concerns, the teacher was much more friendly and open to debate even though the core of the message was exactly the same as before. At once I realized the need to change the way in which I was requesting things so as not to offend or upset other speakers. It took me some time to understand and appreciate the difference between constructions such as:

I was wondering if you’d be willing to help me out with my project?

Will you help me out with my project?

Or sentences such as:

I was under the impression that we were supposed to write the essay for next week.

We were told that the essay was due next week.

This last example can also be seen as a sort of euphemism pointed out by Saville-Troike to be a "common communication strategy for depersonalizing what is said and allowing more indirectness" (34). My feeling toward such constructions was, at first, that Americans use more words than necessary to express themselves. I also felt that they were going around in circles before getting to the point. It took me a while to I perceived this kind of language usage as something more than just a form issue but also as a social question. That was when I realized I should not analyze American’s speech in terms of my native Portuguese model.

My experience with other newly arrived foreign students is that the situation repeats itself; people are always trying to judge the new communicative environment in terms of their native ones. One of my Israeli friends, for instance, felt that Americans were never straight to the point for fear of being impolite. She felt this was a hypocritical use of the language. After spending more time in the US, however, the same person realized that the way Hebrew is spoken in Israel must seem extremely direct and even harsh to foreign people, even though Israelis themselves don’t see it that way. By shifting the axis of comparison between communicative communities (taking the foreign language as reference) this person was able perceive patterns in her native language which she had taken for granted before.