When Is An Argument Not An Argument?


It sounded like a huge argument. The room was full of people waving arms, with voices raised and everyone talking at once. No-one seemed to be listening to each other.

I didn't understand a word of it, but surely if this got any more heated I'd need to call for help? It went on a while, and then the laughter began. Phew, perhaps a confrontation avoided? As we left, I asked if everything was okay. Of course, came the reply. Why wouldn't it be? An argument? Not at all, just a regular conversation. My experience of conversations had never included anything like that!

So what was happening? Culture clues, of course. The conversation rules I learned when I was growing up, told me that it was rude to interrupt or to talk over another person. The only time I expected to see that was in an argument. Yet this culture appeared to converse like that much of the time. For them it was entirely usual. What I saw as challenging and disrespectful was, for them, affirming, encouraging and supporting each others' thoughts and opinions. This is a culture in which relationship building is primary, and the group is more important than the individual. Conversations in which everyone speaks at once are the norm, and anything else is seen as distant and cold.

Culture teaches us how to respond appropriately in different situations. From childhood we learn the markers which tell us when it's our turn to speak in a conversation. For example, most of my cultural compatriots are programmed to listen for the change in voice, or for the verbal punctuation which tells them when someone has finished speaking and it's their turn. These rules are so much a part of my being that I don't even notice them. That is, until someone breaks them, and then I just think they must be rude!

But what if the person you're speaking with has a different set of rules around conversation patterns? Most conversations fall into one if three patterns.

The first, my default, is often seen in Pakeha New Zealand, Australian, USA, Canadian and English cultures. Turns at speaking depend on listening for the vocal punctuation markers that show the speaker has finished and the next person can begin.

Another pattern which is common to Mediterranean, South American and Middle Eastern cultures has speakers overlapping, finishing sentences for each other. The conversation is often very animated and speakers may be quite loud in order to be heard.

A third pattern is much more reflective, with more space and silence. It is more evident in Maori and Asian cultures, with an often imperceptible silence between speakers. The conversation allows for the listener to fully appreciate the speaker's comments before responding.

Interestingly, we all may use each of these patterns in different situations. A group of close friends might talk all at once, over each other. I might speak more quietly and leave more reflective space if speaking to an older person or someone I respect deeply. The point is that we each know when it's appropriate to use them and when it's not. These cultural rules are subconscious and most challenging to learn in another culture. Human nature being as it is, when someone behaves in a way that we see as out of place, we are likely to judge them negatively.

So, next time you think you are hearing an argument in another language, check your assumptions and think again. They might just be having a chat.

Jenny Magee
Building diverse, inclusive workplaces



Trainer, coach and consultant, Jenny Magee (BEd, DipTchg, DipSLT) works with organizations to raise awareness of diversity in all its richness and has over 25 years experience as a champion of diverse workplaces and positive, productive partnerships.

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