Language Shock: Understanding The Culture Of Conversation


The key to communication, says linguistic anthropologist Michael Agar, is understanding the context and culture of conversation. In Language Shock, Agar reveals how deeply our language and cultural values intertwine to define who we are and how we relate to one another. From paying an electric bill in Austria to opening a bank account in Mexico to handling a parking ticket in the United States, he shows how routine tasks become lessons in the subtleties of conversation when we venture outside our cultural sphere....

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The key to communication, says linguistic anthropologist Michael Agar, is understanding the context and culture of conversation. In Language Shock, Agar reveals how deeply our language and cultural values intertwine to define who we are and how we relate to one another. From paying an electric bill in Austria to opening a bank account in Mexico to handling a parking ticket in the United States, he shows how routine tasks become lessons in the subtleties of conversation when we venture outside our cultural sphere. With humorous, insightful stories from his extensive travels, Agar engages us in a lively study of "languaculture" and enriches our view of the world.

This guide to understanding the culture of conversation is by one of America's foremost linguistic anthropologists. In a fascinating journey through the meaning of language--and the relationship of language to culture--Michael Agar sheds new light on the oceans of language, showing how to keep afloat even when faced with something that seems overwhelmingly foreign.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Agar, an anthropologist and ethnographer, wants Americans to break out of their cultural superiority complex and to join ``the growing global conversation'' embracing multicultural voices. Leaning on linguist Benjamin Whorf's theory that each language shapes its speakers' ways of seeing, acting, thinking and feeling, Agar relates personal encounters with language and cultural differences, drawing on his stay in Austria during the Kurt Waldheim Nazi scandal in 1986, his work as a public health official treating heroin addicts in Kentucky in 1968, travels in Mexico and Greece and village kinship systems in India. The informal, highly anecdotal narrative sketches a theory of ``languaculture,'' Agar's coinage emphasizing the inextricable links between language and culture and the way we build mental ``frames'' to organize our expectations. Agar, who teaches anthropology at the University of Maryland, serves a smorgasbord with tasty tidbits instead of a full meal. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688149499
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/28/1996
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 566,094
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Agar is the author of Ripping and Running and The Professional Stranger, among others. He is a professor emeritus in linguistic anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a consultant with Ethknoworks in Tacoma Park, Maryland.

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Read an Excerpt

Culture Blends

A few years ago I was talking to a Black colleague at the University of Maryland, a faculty member from another department. I was trying to jump-start a program, but to do so I had to tangle with the university bureaucracy, and universities are just as bad as governments and corporations. I complained because the various offices that were supposed to help start programs actually made it more difficult to do so.

My colleague looked at me, shook his head, and started talking: "The system is not your friend." He talked some more, with the "not your friend" chant repeated every so often. The irony is that his life was the mythic American success story. He'd worked his way up from poverty to a Ph.D., but, as far as he was concerned, he'd done it in spite of the walls American institutions had built rather than with their help.

His journey out of an Afro-American urban neighborhood had convinced him that institutions--the "system"--took care of themselves and nobody else. My journey out of a White small town had led me to expect institutions to do their job and help you out; if they didn't, you had a right to complain.

These different ways of looking at things had come to life in our common language, and they tied in with who we were, with our different social identities. The differences happened inside the same language, just as differences do between languages as distinct as Japanese and English.

One Friday afternoon, not long afterward, I went to a faculty reception. I met a colleague whom I'd corresponded and talked on the phone with but never met in person. She'd helped me out, a lot,by sending me some bibliographies and course outlines from her field. She'd handed me a shortcut into the way things of mutual interest looked from a different discipline's point of view.

When I finally met her, I thanked her and said something like "The least I can do is buy you a drink."

She snapped to attention and said, rather sharply, "I can pay for my own drink."

I explained that I'd have made the same offer to any colleague who'd helped me out, male or female or any other variation on the theme. I guess you could say that she just didn't understand. But, in this case, we both did. She'd read my invitation as a come-on, converting her from colleague to pickup; I'd meant it as thanks.

Something happened, in our common language, something that had to do with who we were. Something came up, jolted us with a difference, made us aware that the "natural" way of doing things wasn't "natural" at all. And, once again, it happened inside the same language, not between two different ones.

Differences like these--the sort of misunderstandings that we usually associate with a foreign language--happen inside a language all the time. It happens when a traveler stops in a small southern town during his drive from New York City to Atlanta and realizes that his impatience with slow service in a store is deeply rooted in how New Yorkers expect a customer to be treated.

It happens when a doctor sees that what a patient is trying to tell her won't fit the tried and true diagnostic categories, so if she wants to figure out the patient's illness, she's going to have to learn more about the patient's world.

It happens when a graduate of a Black university lands his first job in an all-White office, finds that some of his humor doesn't work, and sets out to learn what it is that people in the office think is funny.

Differences happen within languages as well as across them. The way of seeing I'm trying to bring to life in this book works inside your own language as well as when you learn a second language. In the course of the book, stories about American English will come up frequently. By the end of the book, the moral of these stories will have been brought into focus more sharply--learning a second language and learning more about your own language are, in principle, the same thing.

Usually when the subject of language differences comes up in the United States, images of ethnic groups come to mind. And usually the subject carries a message that the differences are a problem.

A while ago The Washington Post reported a riot in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood downtown. A police officer had shot a Hispanic man. Some said the latter had pulled a knife. Others said he was already in handcuffs.

At several points in the story the Post mentioned that communication had been a problem, that the officers didn't speak Spanish and many of the neighborhood residents didn't speak English. Suspicions of bad intentions, with no chance of communicating to the contrary, fueled both sides until the situation exploded like lighter fluid poured over smoldering wood.

The Post pointed out that Spanish-speaking officers are conspicuous by their absence on the D.C. police force. The Post mentioned the obvious solution-hire more Hispanic officers and teach the others Spanish. Another solution, not mentioned in the paper-provide free English instruction for all new immigrants.

The Post, and most everybody else, assumes that language instruction would solve the problem. The Post, and most everybody else, is wrong. The majority think that language is mostly grammar. Teach people the grammar, give them a dictionary, and they'll communicate. But anyone who's studied a second language in the classroom and then tried to use it in the real world knows better than that. A friend's main memory of his Spanish course was the sentence El oso ni baila ni canta--"The bear neither dances nor sings."

Language Shock. Copyright © by Michael Agar Phd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Preface 7
Culture Blends 13
The Circle 31
The Circle and the Field 49
Cultural Signifieds 61
Similarities and Differences 73
Situations 89
Culture 108
Speech Acts 140
Speech Act Lumber and Paint 164
Coherence 192
Variations on a Frame 211
Sailors and Immigrants 242
Notes 259
Index 273
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