A degree of intersubjective understanding is the foundation of social life. It represents a link between conscious minds in distinct bodies and it is implicit in the achievement of coordinated social action. Language, our primary symbolic medium, is related with the accomplishment of understanding, and language in use is itself an exemplar of coordinated social action.
It is when we misunderstand each other, when we encounter “problems” in interaction or undesirable consequences of interactions that we analyze the process of understanding.
Misunderstanding notice an implicit ideology of communication: that to “understand” is normal, and to “misunderstand” represents a failure of something that is natural.
The positive value assigned to understanding veils the conflict in order to serve the interests of those who would portray the status quo as equitable and harmonious.
If the repair procedure are a typical phenomena in communication, misunderstandings are more persistent, confounding and linked to debilitated social relationships.
Analysis of inter–group misunderstanding provides a window onto the working of larger scale social processes and relationships. Notion of understanding are generally seen as social commonalty, common social identities, while misunderstanding is seen as both a cause and an emblem of social difference. Looking at misunderstandings in interaction across apparent social difference (ex: race and culture) we can see some of the ways in which power, culture, and social identities are negotiated through talk and social interaction.
The notion of understanding assume that conscious minds that exist in separate bodies can experience an intersubjective link. The question is: To what extent can two minds share a common perspective, idea, experience, or emotion? The notion of an intersubjective link can be difficult to reconcile with the individualist theories of person and mind typical in Western cultures. The individualist perspective privileges the privileges the privacy and inviolability of the individual’s mind, condition in contrast with the idea of intersubjective understandings.
Language is popularly conceptualized as a symbolic means of overcoming this isolation and linking individual minds and in many ways it serves this function.
The arbitrary nature of the relationship between a string of phoneme /kaet/ ‘cat’, and a mental representation of an entity in the world makes language an extremely compact, convenient and flexible semiotic system.
The referential power of language and our faculty for its use are not sufficient to ensure intersubjective understanding. What a person understands by the word “cat” for example, may be very different from what another person understands by it. A veterinary, a child keeping a cat as a pet and a pet shop owner may all have different understanding of word “cat”.
These differences in perspective on “cat” are a product of personal, subjective perception and structuring of the world. Husserl (1970) say that our mental words are not reflections of an independently existing reality but are constituted through our individual acts of consciousness.
Given individual and situational differences in subjective structuring and experiencing of the world, no two individuals share identical understanding of any subjectively constituted phenomenon, including linguistic signs.
Indeed, intersubjectivity as a ideal form of understanding is impossible. Even when participants in an interaction find no evidence of “misunderstanding”, the understandings that do occur are necessarily incomplete or partial.
Approaching intersubjectivity in terms of social activity helps to avoid the theoretical impasse posed by the theory of Husserl. From the point of view of ethnometodologist and conversation analysts, the scope of the research is to explore the means by which interlocutors coordinate the social actions of which intersubjectivity is a characteristic. Understanding is a dimension of coordinated social action itself. Reddy (1979) argue that understanding is not a state or condition in which mind have a common content but rather a contingent dimension of particular communicative activities and procedures. Conversation analysts ( Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson, 1974) identify turns as a fundamental unit of social interaction and coordinated social activity. Because everyday talk proceeds on a turn–by–turn basis, interactions are build up incrementally, sequentially and interactionally.
Building a conversation, like building a tower of blocks, is a incremental (turns by turns), sequential, interactional project, in which turns at talk are doubly contextual (Heritage 1984).
Each turn at talk depends for its interpretation on the context created by prior utterances, while at the same time each utterance creates a new context in which subsequent turns and social action will be understood. The orientation of turns to immediately prior ones is crucial to achieving a degree of intersubjectivity, because it is means for interlocutors to display incremental understandings of ongoing talk.
In the following example:
Mother: Yes dear
Child: I want a cloth to clean the windows.
The child’s second turn ( “ I want a cloth….”) treats the mother’s turn (Yes dear) as a satisfactory response to the child’s initial summons. It is through the step–by–step structure of turns that interlocutors negotiate and approximate common understandings of the activities in which they are engaged. The incremental and interactional structuring of conversation provides participants with regular opportunities to repair or head–off potential misunderstanding.
Repair includes a series of technique used by hearer and speaker.
In the following example, Louise uses her turn to draw attention to a potentially problematic aspect of Ken’s first turn, his use of the word “selling”. Ken then uses his subsequent turn to repair the problem to which Louise had alluded:
Ken: Hey, the first time they stopped me from selling cigarettes was the morning
Louise: From selling cigarettes?
Ken: or buying sicarettes.
This example also points to the sociocultural matrix of knowledge and practices of which social interaction is a part. Louise’s initiation of repair is based not on linguistic uses but on social knowledge. Even when a turn at talk is not explicitly problematic, interlocutors do repair–like work to display and confirm understandings of their ongoing talk. The task of achieving a degree of understanding is an omnipresent one, and interlocutors even in the absence of apparent errors or misunderstandings do regularly this work.
Because participants show their (mis)understandings of prior turns to each other on an ongoing, turn–by–turn basis, they have an opportunity at each turn to confirm or make problematic the understanding that has just been displayed. These mechanism in talk allow interlocutors to coordinate their talk and realize a degree of intersubjective understanding.
Paradoxically, the misunderstanding clearly illustrate the process in talk in order to achieve intersubjective understanding.
Communicative behavior is inherently polysemous and multi–functional, and speakers engage in multiple activities, at multiple level as they speak (Goodwin 1981).
Schutz suggests three levels at which understanding (and misunderstanding probably) take place.
The first level, “the sign itself” corresponds to the referential meaning of language; the second level, what “ a person means by using this sign”, is similar to the level of activity addressed by philosophers of language in speech act theory and related traditions; and the third level “ the significance of the fact that he is using the sign, here, now and in this particular context”, links understanding to a broader range of sociocultural meanings and sociohistorical relations among people. In this paper we focus in what a person are doing with words.
Such disjuncture between literal meanings of words or utterances and what the interlocutors are doing are not uncommon. Indirect requests, for example “Do you know what time it is?” but they are treated as requests for action (to tell the asker the time).
This discrepancy between propositional meanings and interactional behavior suggests the need for units of analysis other than words.
John Austin argued that when we speak, we are not just describing or reporting but we are also doing an activity. When we say for example “be careful”, we are not talking about a pre–existing word but doing something like warning a person.
Wittgenstein uses the metaphor of “language game”, emphasizing the social situatedness of the activities in which we engage when we speak. The metaphor of game captures the sense of social rules and roles and unconscious practices that we follow in everyday talk and interaction, just negotiating a field within a certain set of accepted rules or procedures.
An important example of framework comes to Gumpertz that argues we communicate through contextualization cues ( surface features of message form) are the ‘means by which speakers signal and listeners interpret what the activity is, how semantic content is to be understood and how each sentence relates to what precedes or follows’ (1982). These surface forms vary from prosody, to code and lexical choice, from formulaic expressions or sequencing choices, to visual and gestural phenomena.
When we analyses or try to explain inter–group interactions can be represented by A and B.
a) Microsocial behavior → Macrosocial constellations
Misunderstandings in face–to–face interaction
based on cultural and linguistic differences → Mutual, negative stereotypes created; inter–group boundaries reinforced
Behavior of individual social agents → sociohistorical conditions
Macrosocial constellations → Microsocial behavior
Social hierarchies → Perceived lack of common interests; use of language to express
Disaffiliation and highlight pre–existing boundaries and power differentials
Sociohistorical conditions → Communicative behavior of individual social agents
According with Gumperz (1982) cultural differences in contextualization conventions can undermine inter–group communication insidiously because individuals tend to be unconscious of this dimension of interaction. Gumperz report, for example, how intonation affected interactions between south Asian immigrant cafeteria workers and Anglo–British workers at a British airport.
When cafeteria workers asked employees if they wanted gravy, they said “Gravy” with a falling intonation contour rather than the rising one with Anglo–British question–asking. Because Anglo–British workers interpreted the falling intonation as contextualizing a statement, they found the utterance “Gravy” redundand and rude. Neither British or South Asian workers were able to articulate the role that intonation played in their problematic interactions until it was pointed out by outside researchers/trainers. When a person recognizes the failure to achieve a synchronous interaction with another is ready to explain an interlocutor’s behavior and when such problematic interactions come to be associated with inter–group interactions, those are explained in terms of his/her rudeness, insensitivity, selfishness ( result pejorative stereotyping of entire groups and the reinforcement of inter–group boundaries.
Following the tradition in intercultural studies between Athabaskans (Native American people) and Canadians/ Americans, Scollon and Scollon (1981) found that:
(a) While English speakers are relatively voluble in social situations with non–intimates, Athabaskans are relatively taciturn in such situation, becoming more voluble among intimates.
(b) While American English speakers expect supplicants such as job interviewees and students to highlight their best qualities and abilities and project future accomplishment, Athabaskans avoid these self–displays and find it inappropriate and bad luck to anticipate and describe favorable future events.
(c) Because of differences in the way topics are introduced and turns exchanged, non–Athabaskans are generally quicker to iniate topics and consider a turn finished after a relatively brief period of silence, non–Athabaskans generally control topics and dominate conversations.
During interaction between this speaker’s group, these differences contribute to negative stereotyping and outcomes that generally disfavor the Athabaskans.
This model of inter–group misunderstanding based on linguistic and cultural difference privileges the power of primary language socialization (Ochs and Schieffelin 1984) and associated (idealized) cultural beliefs and practices. Interlocutors are seen as reproducing cultural scripts for speech behavior and interpretation in inter–group encounters. In this interpretation, the ethnic/racial identity formation processes and power are backgrounded in this model.
In my analysis the difference between Italian and French speaker is a result of difference in discourse patterns because the language in use is our primary symbolic system for organizing and constituting the social world and it is primary locus for conflict and struggle over how the world is and how it should be represented (Gal 1989).
In particular, language practices are a primary means of marking and maintaining group social identity. Ways of speaking are commonly associated with group identities and may be experienced as extensions of those identities. Maintenance of distinctive ways of speaking in inter–group interaction can be seen as attestation of the validity and value of the associated identities.
Accomodation to ways of speaking associated with other groups can be seen as a relative devaluing of one’s own ways of speaking and relative valorization of the other’s (Labov 1972).
In such inter–group interactions, speakers may choose specific linguistic markers of social identity and for that cases the participants represent not a “misunderstanding” but rather effective difference: difference in experience, beliefs, perspectives and power.
We can say that the misunderstanding are a manner for humans to negotiate and constitute sociocultural words. Ochs argue that from a language socialization perspective, misunderstanding structure our life offering to us a form of social negotiations.
So understanding includes understanding not only utterances, but also sociocultural words.
As a linguistically marked form, misunderstanding suggests the failure of a process that is natural, but misunderstanding can be viewed more profitably as normal procedures of the negotiation of social and linguistic life. Our interactions and misunderstanding take place in cultural and sociohistorical contexts that are never neutral or natural, and they reflect a world with conflict, ambiguity and uncertainty.