Ishii, Keiko, Reyes, Jose Albereto, & Kitayama, Shinobu,"Spontaneous Attention to Word Content versus Emotional Tone: Differences among Three Cultures", Psychological Science, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 2003), pp.39-46.
Reviewed by Kevin Stoda, Taiwan
As many American and Western businessmen working in East Asia have long noted, it is initially difficult to read both (1) non-verbal and (2) verbal signals of those locals whom they work with and negotiate with. When does "Yes" mean "yes" and when does it mean "no"? or "perhaps"? Likewise, there are certainly misunderstandings by East Asians--at least initially--when they arrive in Western nation states and the westerners fail to recognize their (culture's natural) verbal and non-verbal cues. I.e., they feel frustrated, misunderstood, and a bit screwed-around-with.
One study, by Ishii, Reyes, and Kitayama (2003), "Spontaneous Attention to Word Content versus Emotional Tone: Differences among Three Cultures", dealt with vocal tone because the authors wanted to compare two major cognitive language theories on how much culture affects one's attention to "vocal tone" and how it affects "word meaning." Moreover, they wanted to test the paradigm by many that word meaning matters more in some languages, so regardless of background culture, when the appropriate word is used it is necessary and sufficient to be understood by most others using that same language.
The pertinence of these questions may not be obvious to non-linguistic aficionados (or cross-cultural trainers, such as myself). The issue is this: Regardless of the language used, people from different cultures pay different levels of attention to vocal tone. This means in practice that "word meaning" can be misunderstood based on interference from misread or misperceived vocal tone and stress--especially by East Asians. Likewise, Americans and certain other Westerners focus on the meaning of the word --i.e. they are trying especially hard to ignore vocal tone signals presented by the other--that they misread the message conveyed by the vocal tone.
THE COMPARATIVE TESTING
In Ishii et. al. (2003) two groups were tested and compared. The authors suspicions were confirmed. The first test compared American and Japanese perceptions of vocal tone and word meaning stress. The second test was of bilingual Filipino speakers (English-Tagalog) and American speakers.
The findings of the first test were that (1) Japanese showed significantly more "difficulty in ignoring vocal tone than ignoring verbal content", i.e. there is a bias towards vocal tone. Likewise, (2) "Americans showed greater difficulty ignoring verbal content then ignoring verbal content than ignoring vocal tone (which reveals an attentional bias for verbal content)".