Invitation or Sexual Harassment?

An Analysis of an Intercultural Communication Breakdown

How to Cite

Yunxia, Z., & Thompson, P. (2000). Invitation or Sexual Harassment? An Analysis of an Intercultural Communication Breakdown. M/C Journal, 3(4).
Vol. 3 No. 4 (2000): Chat
Published 2000-08-01

This article aims to analyse an intercultural telephone invitation given by a Chinese tutor to an Australian student, and highlight general principles of intercultural invitations. This anecdote is based on a true story that took place in a university in Australia, but the persons' names used here are fictitious for the sake of confidentiality. Below is the transcript of the actual conversation between the Chinese tutor Dr Lin Liang (L) and his student Catherine Jones (C):

  • C: Catherine speaking.
  • L: Hi, Catherine, this is Lin.
  • C: Hi, Teacher Lin.
  • L: I would like to invite you to our New Year's party to be held in my house this Saturday evening.
  • C: This Saturday? I am afraid I won't be able to make it because I am going to my best friend's birthday party.
  • L: You know this is the end of our school year. It would be so nice for all of our classmates to gather together.
  • C: But I have already promised my friend.
  • L: En... It is a pity...
  • C: Sorry about that, but --
  • L: Never mind. Enjoy your party then.
  • C: Thanks.
  • L: That's OK, bye.
  • C: Bye.

However, the story does not end here. About two hours later, Dr Lin rang Catherine a second time, asking if it was still possible for her to consider attending the Saturday party. Late in the evening around 9.00 pm, Dr Lin rang her yet again to invite her to the party, saying it would be OK even if she stayed just for a short while. The next day, Catherine lodged a complaint with the Dean, alleging that Dr. Lin's repeated calls constituted sexual harassment. Dr. Lin was highly distressed to learn of the complaint, and explained that he just wanted to indicate sincerity and warmth as required by an invitation, and had no other intentions.

This communication breakdown invites a number of questions:

  • What are the factors underlying Catherine's interpretation that Dr. Lin's repeated calls constituted sexual harassment?
  • What are the factors underlying Dr. Lin's contention that his actions were intended to emphasise his sincerity?
  • What factors would need to be recognised in order to facilitate culturally competent performances on both their parts?

In order to answer these questions, this article will adopt a holistic approach based on an analytic framework encompassing three theoretical dimensions. This framework is comprised as follows:

  1. Differences in intercultural exchange and politeness behaviour; Aristotle's distinction between the three orientations of persuasive/rhetorical appeal; ethos, pathos, and logos;
  2. Austin and Searle's theory of speech acts, as applied to politeness behaviour and felicity conditions in communicative interaction as applied to the act of inviting.

These approaches are conceptualised as three overlapping spheres, and their relatedness can be further illustrated:

Figure 1

First and foremost, the case study in question is related to an intercultural interaction between the Australian and Chinese culture, and some research findings in relevant areas may help highlight the differences in politeness behaviour between high-context and low-context cultures (Hall). According to Hall, high-context cultures such as Chinese tend to stress the use of internalised or implicit message while low-context cultures tend to emphasise the use of explicit messages. In other words, in Chinese culture, the message may have some shared implied meanings that may go beyond the linguistic forms used in the message. Kaplan's model on oriental circularity and western linearity seemed to in accordance with Hall's model. Young's exploration of the directness and indirectness of American and Chinese requests further substantiated this point.

In a similar way, differences may arise in determining the criteria for appropriate behaviour relating to the use of other directives across cultures. As Gao and Ting-Toomey suggest, Chinese culture seems to pay attention to qing (reciprocity and feelings of obligation) and guanxi (relationship building), while in low-context cultures such a stress tends to be missing. This difference may also help explain the differences in communicative patterns as discussed by Kaplan and Young. Zhu found that in making a sales offer, Chinese companies often try to establish a long-term relationship with their clients ("Structural Moves"). In contrast, Australian companies seem to mainly focus on promoting products. The stress on qing in Chinese culture may also be a crucial factor that contributes to the different criteria for a polite invitation as compared to the Australian culture. The following discussion will further explore the other two parameters (see Figure 1) the two cultures differ in when making an invitation, which may have finally led to the breakdown in communication between Dr. Lin and Catherine.

As shown in Figure 1, the argument underpinning this approach is that a given illocutionary act reflects culture-specific preferences for certain persuasive/rhetorical orientations, thereby affecting the socio-linguistic performance, i.e. parole as opposed to langue (Cullen) related to politeness principles. In short, the persuasive/rhetorical orientation varies between cultures, which means that the nature of ostensibly equivalent illocutionary acts also varies. Consequently, cross-cultural competence will be limited unless one is aware of the rhetorical and politeness codes implicit in the performance of certain communicative actions. Note that rhetorical orientation may also influence the politeness behaviour directly as a specification of that orientation. This in turn requires an awareness of cultural preferences toward certain persuasive/rhetorical orientations. The interconnections between them and the theoretical utility of this approach will be made explicit in the course of this discussion.

Austin and Searle conceptualise the speech acts as comprising of locution (langue) and illocution (parole). What is of vital importance is the illocutionary force of an utterance which is the performance of a speech act, such as an invitation. According to Searle, an invitation is a directive used to get the addressee to do something. Invitation can be understood as a particular form of persuasive speech act. It is generally intended to produce a particular response (i.e. acceptance). As an illocutionary action, an invitation seeks to establish a relationship of social expectations between the host and invitee. This requires certain felicity conditions to be met. In other words, for the speech act to be socially significant, it must create a shared sense of meaning in regard to some perceived change or modification to existing social relations. These are often so obvious that they require little explanation. However, felicity conditions in speech-acts are culture-specific and may include rhetorical and politeness devices that are not obvious to other cultures.

Politeness behaviour in invitations, related to using appropriate language forms, is an important element in competent illocutionary performance. Leech contends that polite illocutions are likely to be seen as minimising the addressee's cost and maximising his/her benefits, and the opposite is true for the addresser. Politeness behaviour can also be further explained in the light of Brown and Levinson's face-saving theory. Many actions we perform with words are potential face-threatening acts, such as requests and invitations (Brown and Levinson). The addresser is thus often confronted with negative face wants and has to address them by applying Leech's principles, in which maximising the addressee's benefits is the dominant strategy to gain politeness.

However, strategies to maximise the addressee's benefits can be culture-specific. This is further connected to the persuasive/rhetorical orientation. Based on Aristotle, the appeal from ethos emphasises the persuader's (host's) character and status or other social conventions which might oblige compliance. The appeal from pathos emphasises emotion/feelings (either positive or negative) in inducing the desired response. The appeal from logos emphasises reason and the logical consistency of the proposal with the ideas and motives of the persuadee (invitee). Moran and Stripp found that western cultures tend to have a logical orientation, while others such as Japanese and Chinese tend to be characterised by emotional or dogmatic orientations. In a similar manner, Chinese scholars seem to address ethos, logos and pathos at the same time, in particular the logos and pathos. These principles remain a well-accepted principle in Chinese writing theories. Li, for example, clearly explicates the persuasive principle in writing as qing li (the combination of the emotional and logical approaches). The explicitly preferred qing (feelings/emotions) can be seen as part of the Confucian values relating to harmony, consensus and relationship building as noted by Hofstede and Bond. The different rhetorical orientations are also further explored by Campbell.

This difference may suggest that the preferred rhetorical orientations are also a key aspect underpinning competent illocutionary performance. For example in Chinese invitations, a stress on the emotional approach may validate behaviours such as repeating the invitation even after initial refusal. However, a stress on the logical orientation, such as in western cultures, may negate the validity of these politeness conditions. This clearly points out the necessity of understanding the criteria for competent performance across cultures.

The felicity conditions of invitation in Euro-Australian culture require, first, that the potential host be in a legitimate position to offer hospitality, and second, that the potential guest be -- at least theoretically -- able and willing to accept. Thirdly, the locutionary form of politeness requires use of conventionally appropriate terms of address and wording. The illocutionary form requires that the host symbolically offer hospitality to the invitee without the imposition of charges or other demands. Furthermore, the implied benefit to the invitee would ideally be achieved though implied cost to the host (even if the invitee is addressed as if their presence constitutes the bestowal of a favour). Fourthly, depending on the nature of the relationship between the host and invitee, certain persuasive/rhetorical orientations are preferred over others (eg. an appeal to emotion may seem out of place in formal invitation).

The initial invitation meets these criteria. Dr. Lin offers and Catherine declines, citing a plausible and legitimate reason for being unavailable. From Catherine's perspective, the felicity conditions for invitation are now redundant. She has already declined in a manner which makes it clear that she is socially obliged to be elsewhere. From a persuasive/rhetorical perspective, the first invitation was primarily based on an appeal from logos/reason. i.e. Dr. Lin did not know that Catherine had already committed herself to other plans and it would be reasonable to suppose that she might appreciate being invited to a social occasion. This was backed up by a secondary appeal from pathos/emotion, whereby Dr. Lin pointed out that it would be nice for the whole class to get together. However, the priority of attending a best friend's birthday-party over-rides both these appeals. In Euro-Australian culture, close personal friends enjoy greater social priority than classmates or more distant associates.

For Dr. Lin, however, the politeness criteria for invitation were still applicable. From a Chinese cultural perspective, the illocutionary performance of invitation may require repetition of the offer, even if the initial approach has been declined. According to Zhu (Business Communication), in Chinese culture repeating invitations is an accepted ritual to indicate sincerity and hospitality. Thus in Dr. Lin's view the second approach is required to perform the illocutionary act competently. The persuasive appeal, however, has become oriented toward ethos, reflecting Chinese conventions pertaining to politeness behaviour. For Dr. Lin not to repeat the invitation might suggest that Catherine's presence was of merely casual concern. Therefore the sincerity of the invitation demanded the gesture of repetition, regardless of the logical grounds cited for the initial refusal.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lin and Catherine perceive the second invitation in very different ways based on the illocutionary performance criteria of their respective cultures. For Catherine, the logical basis for her initial refusal renders Dr. Lin's performance incompetent, and creates uncertainty about his apparent motives. In Euro-Australian culture, the repeated invitation makes no logical sense, since a perfectly legitimate reason for declining has already been provided. Therefore the communicative action cannot be interpreted as an invitation. If it is, then it is performed in a culturally incompetent fashion which could legitimately be construed as pestering. Repeating an invitation which has already been declined may appear to be an emotional appeal. While an illocutionary invitation based on pathos conceivably may be competent in Euro-Australian culture, the only circumstances that it would occur in is between relatively close friends. The power-relations between Catherine, as student, and Dr. Lin, as tutor, precludes felicity in this case. Thus the same locutionary action is interpreted as two quite different illocutionary actions. This depends on the interpreter's culturally specific understanding of the social significance of the locution. Since Catherine's cultural conventions would implicitly deny the validity of a repeated invitation, the communicative action must be construed as something else.

Catherine may have classified the repeated invitation as a minor issue of little consequence. However, when Dr. Lin called her up to invite her a third time, she interpreted the illocutionary act as harassment. From a contemporary Euro-Australian perspective, pestering may be irritating, but harassment is political in nature. Three factors lead Catherine to this conclusion. First, after two previous declinations, the third invitation could not fulfil the illocutionary performance criteria of a legitimate invitation. In particular, the persuasive/rhetorical orientation of the repeated appeals were not oriented toward logos, as befits the formality of the lecturer-student relation. Indeed, it was Dr. Lin's apparent attempt to approach Catherine in a non-formal manner (apparently oriented toward pathos rather than logos) which led her to this interpretation.

Second, the fact that Dr. Lin' social status is higher than Catherine's introduced the problem of the implicit power-relations in the discourse. For Catherine, the third invitation was intrusive and pushy, and it seemed that her explanations had been ignored. The evening call demanded that she re-engage in the discourse of day-time student-tutor power-relations. Since she is subordinate to Dr. Lin, other strategies through which she might have asserted her rights may have carried the risk of subsequent disfavour. However, she obviously resented what she perceived as an attempt to inappropriately use status to interfere with her personal affairs and sought out higher authority to rectify the situation, hence the complaint of harassment made to the Dean. Ironically, Dr. Lin's third invitation in the evening may well have been intended to reduce the social distance between himself and Catherine created by workplace space-time power-relations. For Dr. Lin, the first invitation expressed the illocutionary intent. The second call made sure that the invitee was made to feel assured of the sincerity of the invitation, and the third ring expressed the would-be host's appreciation. Establishing a host-guest relationship is a key illocutionary function in Chinese invitation. Note though, that there may also be a 'face' consideration here. Dr. Lin attempts to facilitate Catherine's attendance by pointing out that it would be acceptable to attend for a brief period. This suggests a re-emphasis on the orientation to logos, since it points out a compromise which allows Catherine to attend both parties. It also allowed Dr. Lin to save 'face' by not having his invitation totally disregarded. However, it failed as an illocutionary performance because the felicity conditions for polite invitation had already been violated as far as Catherine was concerned, even though they remained intact throughout for Dr. Lin.

In conclusion, it can be seen from the above analysis of the communication breakdown that persuasive orientations and politeness principles are interrelated and culturally sensitive. Euro-Australian culture stresses the logical orientation in illocutionary performance whereas Chinese culture seems to emphasise both the logical and emotional approaches. Without a recognition of this difference, specific politeness behaviours in intercultural invitations can lead to illocutionary incompetence. This has been exemplified by Catherine's misconstrual of Dr. Lin's intended invitation-performance as harassment. Therefore in intercultural communication, one ought not to judge a speech act such as an invitation based on one's own culture's felicity conditions. First and foremost, a basic understanding of persuasive orientations between cultures is essential. With appropriate understanding of these principles one can avoid misinterpreting the intent of the addresser, thus overcoming barriers in intercultural communication. Specifically, further appreciation of the interplay between rhetorical orientation, politeness codes and felicity conditions in illocutionary performances in different cultures is required for a fuller comprehension of potential cross-cultural incompetence. With this in mind, greater tolerance can be achieved, and intercultural competence enhanced.

Author Biographies

Zhu Yunxia


Peter Thompson