PIXI - ‘macro’ nostalgia

Open letter to a band of old Pixies and their friends

By Jocelyne Vincent (formerly, Università di Napoli, L'Orientale, Italy)

©inTRAlinea & Jocelyne Vincent (2018).
"PIXI - ‘macro’ nostalgia Open letter to a band of old Pixies and their friends"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2327

My dearest friends, and friends of my friends,
writing this is both fun and difficult[1]. I’ve seldom felt such a ‘magone’, a nostalgia for ‘the way we were’, as now as I brainstorm again rummaging through our old workshop and meeting talks, notes, unpublished ms’s or early drafts, many on yellowed typing paper or continuous printouts from our daisy-wheel printers from the mid-80’s and others on rather nicer paper drafted or published post-Aston ed. 1988, Zorzi 1990, 1991, 1996 and Gavioli & Mansfield 1990, such as Brodine 1991, Ciliberti 1993,  Aston 1995, George 1995/97, Gavioli 1990, 1993a,b, 1995, and remembering our last get-together in 2011 at Portico di Romagna. Not only nostalgia for our wonderfully warm and stimulating times together, but also some for what I could have done but didn’t quite manage.  

As some of you know though, if that is not obvious from the above, I never throw things out, and somehow I don’t easily give up, or learn, you might say, so I think that I may just take this chance to leave at least a light (and formally slight) trace of what I would have liked to develop but somehow lost steam for along the way. I dare do this to also issue a little advice - nay, a warning to those of you curious enough to be reading this and who may be as obsessed as I once was.  What better occasion than this volume by - and addressed to - new researchers to honour our mega-super-PIXIs Guy, Daniela, and Anna, to try to see if the lessons I learnt might be worth passing on to the new generation of friends of PIXI, or perhaps even firing up some enthusiasm for some revisiting of the data and project.

In passing I will also tell a story which reminisces about the old days when, believe it or not, linguistics itself was sort of revolutionary, hardly recognized as a separate subject, let alone one on a par with literature or cultural studies (an upside down smiley emoji should be inserted here) - and that’s without even considering the sorts of leading-edge applied linguistics we were variously trying to do, if I may say so.

So let me start with a story. I first met Anna Ciliberti in York (where I was an undergraduate in the ‘new’ subject of Language and Linguistics) in 1970 when she was a young researcher and pioneer of applied linguistics in Italy and accompanying a group of students from the University of Rome (‘il Magistero’, as it was then called, now Roma3). We both moved in the overseas students’ circles there, and naturally bonded as ‘Italians’ (I was by then also a burgeoning ‘compagna’ to a ‘Roman’ member of the circle), also through recognizing the rarity and novelty of ‘our’ subject.  So when I ended up moving to Rome in the autumn of 1971 it was natural that I should follow her suggestion to look her up, and gravitate to work, teaching English, at the ‘Magistero’. In Rome Anna introduced me to other pioneers, such as Wanda D’Addio and Annarita Puglielli, but also the cognitive scientists at the CNR, Psychology, such as Domenico Parisi, Isabella Poggi and especially Cristiano Castelfranchi, with whom I also began to do research.  We continued to remain in touch, both personally and professionally, after my move to Naples in the mid 70’s: indeed, Anna herself also came, along with Wanda and Annarita, for a couple of years to bring the innovation of Linguistics to the English Language and Literature courses at the ‘Orientale’. I kept in touch with the emerging circle of ‘language’ people at the Magistero, and the Rome CNR [2],writing together with Anna an early 1978 memo on error analysis ‘Errori di condizionamento’ I also remember my first baby, Marco, at 6 months or so, rolling around on Anna (and Stefan’s) sofa in their Rome apartment during one of our very first, exploratory, what-was-to-become-PIXI meetings in 1982. The early A.I.A.[3] meetings of the late 70’s were another occasion to meet and naturally bond with other pioneers and minority language and linguistics ‘activists’ in Italy, who also happened to be great people - among others, notably Lavinia Merlini, Laurie Anderson, Gill Mansfield and Gordon Tucker, and of course, ‘our Guy’, our formidable Guy and later Chief Pixi and Hobgoblin: Guy Aston who was as authoritative and confident and wise then as now, and already a guiding light (alongside Lavinia) through the semantic and pragmatic intricacies of the often frustrating and mysterious language games of the A.I.A. general meetings. And, there was of course, also Sue George - my ‘comarella’ after we had already even more naturally become friends and ‘comrades’ in the language trenches at the Naples Orientale in the mid-70’s, already sharing and exploring our intercultural  ‘pragmatic failures’ and adventures.[4] I met the delightful Daniela Zorzi, with her verve and wonderful gravelly voice, and our lovely Laura Gavioli and Ruey Brodine later, at the first Bagni di Lucca workshop in 1986 - brought in, I believe, by Anna and Guy not only to reinforce the Italian / Italianists’ contingency (Laura and Daniela) but because they were ‘good’, proper scholars in Guy’s terminology, as evoked by Gordon (Tucker, this volume).

These are not just an old-girl’s ramblings (they are, but never mind): they hopefully also give an idea of what the group has meant to me, as well as an inkling of the battles that were needed even at the macro level of cultural politics, to give some sort of historical depth to unfortunately still pertinent ‘political’ issues, but also simply to wish all of you such a support group one day. That’s from the emotional, social networking and disciplinary politics points of view. On the intellectual plane, the Pixis represented a sort of life-line[5] to the outside world for me, within Italy and beyond. I cannot overstate this. The importance of working in a strongly cohesive, democratic, and diverse, group also cannot be over-stated. The project brought together researchers with a variety of approaches and a visionary but also a rightly severe task-master. The only thing that mattered was useful ideas and rigour in pursuing them. We knew we had to rise to rigour of method and of exposition and engage with new (at the time) cutting-edge methodologies and different, challenging perspectives. We were important sources of stimulation and learning for each other.

What I brought to the group was my over-riding, never-waning interest in - indeed obsession with - intercultural interaction and cross-cultural differences and similarities. That’s the X in our PIXI acronym. These interests had been with me since childhood, born as I was to French parents who’d come to settle in an already multilingual/multicultural immigrant neighbourhood of post-war ‘50s North London. This, I suspect, rather influencing my choice of going for a B.A. in linguistics at York University, where thankfully linguistics was being approached not only through the then dominant syntactic paradigm but also with then ground-breaking early psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, contact linguistics, ethno-linguistics, LePage, Firth, Malinowski, and, albeit timidly, through a nascent almost-pragmatics semantics, one that was already contemplating presuppositions and mutual knowledge, the importance of context, and cultural differences.  I remember very clearly the text we were set to read in the summer - that was in 1967 - before going up to York: Edward Sapir’s Language, and becoming a crypto-relativist after that, notwithstanding the orthodox universalist ethos of the times and of the syntacticians at York. My next clear flashback, is to mischievous, liberating seminars with George and Robin Lakoff at Berkeley in the summer and autumn of 1974, not to mention John Searle, Lotfi Zadeh and Paul Grice.[6]  But perhaps the most influential landmark event for me relevant here, is watching John Gumperz’s 1979 CrossTalk video on the BBC during a visit back home from Italy: suddenly I understood, in a melancholic but fascinated rush, what my parents had been and were unaware of experiencing as non-native speakers,  how limiting out-of-awareness it all was, and how wonderfully Gumperz had seen and explained misunderstandings and misperceptions and  could, potentially, offer a ‘cure’ for them through awareness raising[7]. I immediately sent away for the video and booklet and used it relentlessly - alongside the 1991 follow-up and my own video companion and workbook - until all of 2014 to raise among my students an initial awareness of cross-cultural and intercultural communication issues.  These works had lit a flame - or simply struck a chord with my own multilingual and intercultural experiences. That chord has continued to resonate ever since with all due adjustments and bibliographical updates: my initial enthusiasm and faith in the power of deep explanations to see through and cure intercultural misunderstandings is still essentially intact.

I’ve run through this personal story basically to show that this cross- and inter-cultural business has truly been the main concern in most of my own individual work[8], so it should come as no surprise that this is what I wanted to do most in PIXI, and was so obsessive about as to risk driving my fellows round the bend.

It is perhaps ironic that my only published contribution to PIXI[9] did not deal, at least centrally, with these issues.

PIXI became for me, as for the others I believe, much more than about publishing. It was about exchange of ideas (and friendship, as I have said), and it was during our workshops and meetings that this occurred, and where I was free to try out ideas, lay them out for inspection, and for severe but always fair and humane dissection.  And where I learnt to temper my rashness, if not my enthusiasm.

Now back to the intellectual biography and to the role in it played by the “Pixis”. Alongside  the early ‘illuminating’ experiences of Sapir and Gumperz, and those in Berkeley in the early 70’s, also worth re-evoking, not simply for their role in my own story, are Fathi Yousef’s “Communication Patterns: some aspects of non-verbal behaviour in intercultural communication” (1978),  Deborah Tannen’s “Pragmatics of Cross-Cultural Communication” (1984), Jenny Thomas’s “Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Failure” (1984), Anna Wierzbicka’s work, particularly her “Different languages, different cultures, different speech acts” (1985)[10]. In the meanwhile, in our daily and university lives in Naples, Sue George and I were endlessly discussing our procedural pragmatic incompetence and its mysteries. We essentially began to develop our cross-cultural pragmatics from there. It was Sue who first pointed me to Toennies’ Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft distinction, and it was Ruey who lent me E. T. Hall’s Beyond Culture, and might have even first mentioned his High Context/ Low Context Cultures and Communication Codes distinction to me. It’s all their fault really - I just started to try to take things further.[11]

While the other PIXIs were tirelessly working through the data (though we all took turns transcribing and I did some micro analyses too, as my 1988 paper on the functions of ‘laughing’ can testify), and then laying out their findings during meetings, I was seeing micro-macro links everywhere. I couldn’t help it. I was producing mind maps and long tabulated lists of micro data descriptions/findings, connecting them with sets and ‘webbed’ clusters of sets of the possible macro structures that I was continually finding as I looked more and more into the research literatures of cultural anthropologists, sociologists, cross-cultural psychologists, etc.  I was on a roll. And I was feeding parasitically off my fellows’ painstaking and meticulous analyses.

My rash speculations[12] were luckily mostly met with a healthy dose of perplexity, cynicism, resistance (yet always unthreateningly), saving me from plunging too naively - or too prematurely - into print.

The group had, of course, always aimed to find generalizable results that would enable interpretation and, eventually, pedagogic applications: we were driven not only by academic or methodological curiosity, but by a desire to help learners function in service encounters. Description mattered, but as a step towards explanation, and generalization, if not prediction. In her 1993 essay, for instance, while seriously confronting the methodological issue how to extrapolate the cultural from the individual in interaction style, Anna underlines the importance of linking language and culture by echoing Wierzbicka’s words:

[…] many linguists prefer to abandon the vital questions concerning links between language and culture altogether. (...) While preventing themselves from committing many errors and blunders they are also preventing themselves from discussing worthwhile questions and perhaps reaching worthwhile insights. They are, in other words, narrowing the horizons of linguistics and making it less exciting and less relevant to vital human concerns’ (Wierzbicka, 1991: 282, cit. in Ciliberti, 1993: 23)

So, it’s not as if you, my wise fellow Pixis, were refusing to go to the next step up, but that you were rightly being cautious about doing so - both because the analysis was still ongoing, and also because the constructs I was exploring in neighbouring disciplines like social and cultural anthropology or cross-cultural psychology were still so speculative. Your scepticism was surely not due to a lack of interdisciplinary spirit, but, rather, dictated by a cautious attitude towards the actual concepts and categories themselves. It may also have been dictated by a methodological non-adherence to what might have been seen as an essentialist, too relativist, causal, even deterministic view of the culture-language link – this was often lurking in earlier accounts, though hardly in my own, I should like to go on record here as saying. I was harbouring, yes, thoughts of Fishman’s (1982) “Whorfianism of the third kind”, but this was well in harmony with the critiques of essentialism and ethnocentric universalism by such as Rosaldo (1982), or indeed by Ochs (1976). Wariness would indeed have been warranted of a type of link[13] supposedly curbing individual agency and freedom of action, or of a view of culture as homogeneous (horizontally or vertically), in which the possible existence and influence of activity types or genres or context-specific frames was ignored, or of any culture as static, unchanging over time or unresponsive to individual or social pressures. Wariness may also derive from seeing the posited descriptions as not recognizing the constitutive, constructing nature of language, or, finally, also simply because the amount of data from which to extrapolate might be seen as too meagre for grand, macro, conclusions to be drawn from it. For all or any of these reasons it is always wise to tread cautiously.

There were and are, however, more sophisticated and explicitly multifaceted approaches to unpacking context and the presuppositions that guide and trigger our behaviours.  That such a lens has much to offer is testified to by recent work by Oyserman and Sorensen (2009), for example. These scholars propose viewing culture as a multi-faceted cluster of tendencies or ‘syndromes’ (the term is borrowed from Triandis 1996). In their view genre types and settings tend to cue one syndrome or another in a given setting, in a given moment. Cultural differences are, in short, reconceptualised as the more or less probable appearance of given syndromes in different societies at any one time[14]:

We assume that societies do not have a unitary culture or even a single cultural syndrome, but rather have access to a multiplicity of overlapping and potentially conflicting cultural syndromes that are differentially salient, depending on where one is in a society’s structure and what is relevant at the moment. This notion of multiplicity can be contrasted with the notion of culture as a single entity (e.g. individualism or collectivism): “Culture from our perspective, involves mind sets, practices, and styles of engaging […] the propensity for one or another to be cued differs across societies”; societies differ not whether a syndrome (e.g. collectivism) exists, but rather in how likely it is to be cued. (Oyserman and Sorensen, 2009: 28)

I still have many of my mind maps and ‘pixi-webs’ in which I tried to connect tables of data descriptions with various single and/or clusters of macro dimensions - what we could now individually call ‘syndromes’,  although I don’t much like the term. And so, without further ado I wish to outline a few of the micro-macro links and the clusters I postulated, so that readers can glimpse what might have been worth drawing out or, alternatively, decide that it is too foolhardy to even try, or that more and wider research and data is needed (the corpora are very conveniently still there, in Gavioli & Mansfield 1990, for any fresh, curious eyes to examine).

In hindsight, I believe that some of my fellow Pixis’ perplexity with my attempts to link micro and macro could also simply have stemmed from our essentially using the Low Context/High Context Cultures and Communication Styles distinction (posited by E.T. Hall) as shorthand for everything[15], even though - at least I think - I was careful to issue caveats as to the difficulties of univocal clustering.  It is, admittedly, easy or tempting to see this distinction (or even more the Individualism/Collectivism one I shall discuss below) as the regent, the one somehow governing all the others. Low Context/High Context is, however, only one - although usually the first listed - of several culturally varying dimensions that are postulated[16]. It attempts to capture the difference between the relative amount or depth of implicit utilisation or dependence on the assumed shared context when individuals interact together.  So-called Lower or Higher context communication styles are characterised as more or less explicit or implicit, more or less precise or vague and/or ambiguous in their use of language and in the way information is conveyed.

It is important to state straight away that this, like the other dimensions (or ‘syndromes’) postulated, is not meant by the original authors as a set of simple polar opposites but rather as a continuum, from lower to higher use of context in conveying and interpreting meaning, or, if we take a more constructivist view of things, in jointly negotiating it.[17] It is paradoxical, despite the careful contrastive design of the PIXI project, that the data do not furnish much evidence from which to make strongly convincing contrastive observations (presumably due to the specific type of setting and service goals). As we shall see, however, I believe that it is possible to do so: there are hints and they are strong enough for me.

The Low Context/High Context (LH/HC) distinction, as I have hinted, is only one of the many binary pairs (all continua in reality) postulated in the literatures, and usually for convenience sake clustered together as more or less intuitively correlated. Probably the most ubiquitous pair to be described in social anthropology is Individualism/Collectivism, or its various correlates, such as Idiocentric / Allocentric, Independent / Interdependent Self-construal, and  Self-directed / Alter-directed, usually connected in turn to Toennies’ Gesellschaft /Gemeinschaft i.e. (loose-knit) Society / (close-knit) Community, Low/Strong In-group vs  Outgroup distinction. These binaries are usually simply associated with the Low Context /High Context culture communication types, respectively. It does seem logical that there should be some strong link between Low Context and Independence, if not Individualism, and that High Context communication should be most appropriate and efficient in close knit communities: where people frequently interact together and know each other well, it seems intuitive that words can be economically used, utterances elliptical, shared contexts and presuppositions capable of disambiguating or ‘filling in’ intended meanings. There is no need to be explicit when a hint is enough to evoke a meaning or an intention. In some cases, being explicit may be seen as dispreferred, inappropriate, even insulting - as being ‘talked down to’.  

Viewed thus, it is clear that High Context communication occurs among any close-knit group of individuals and for many reasons, so it cannot be the exclusive province of one, homogeneous culture or nation. There may well be general tendencies, as the syndrome theory contemplates. But no strict, univocal parallel connection can be assumed, even between Low Context/High Context and Individualism/Collectivism.

Nevertheless, different cultures do convincingly appear to have, generally speaking, relatively more or less High Context Culture communication styles when viewed comparatively. It is one of my little regrets that for reasons of non-comparability it proved unfeasible to incorporate some rather substantial video data collected in Naples into the published corpus[18]. From simple observation of the data, and through ongoing participant observation, however, the presence of written notices seems to vary widely in the public domain, where the Written/Oral medium preference ‘syndrome’ is triggered differently in comparable settings in different cultures – the British and Italian, at any rate – and the presence/absence of explicitly offered information to the public seems to vary as well. These tendencies seem to correlate neatly with the LC/HC tendency: an impersonal/personal orientation, furthermore, coincides plausibly with the written/oral one. In the Independent, self-reliant, loose-knit type of society, which generally triggers putting as much free information out there as possible since otherwise non-in-group general public members would not know how to self-direct themselves, information is best provided in written form, on clear and up-to-date notices. Might this also not coincide with yet another ‘syndrome’ often mentioned, i.e. Speaker or Writer Responsibility vs Hearer or Reader Responsibility for the success of information transaction? At any rate, offering as much information as is deemed necessary before being asked personally shows an orientation towards ‘universal’ solidarity rather than towards restricted group solidarity. The latter can involve, instead, having to ask and disturb someone in order to be informed, appealing for help, probably orally and on an interpersonal level. Solidarity in the ‘universalistic’ but impersonal way is shown instead through the mutual presumption of both self-reliance and of personal individual freedom from imposition: alongside the mirage of choice, it involves also the imperative of self-direction, of non-dependence on others, of being able to look after oneself.  In short, Low Context communication is plausibly connected to the question of independence and choice. Explicitly providing information assumed to be relevant means not taking for granted that the other must or can already know all the pertinent and important information required to exercise freedom of choice and action in a non-familiar setting. It also means that one’s interlocutor will not be obliged to go to the effort of fishing around and asking for it, displaying ignorance, disturbing others, or - even worse - being left in the dark about potentially important information[19].

An orientation of this sort can plausibly be connected to Politeness types (e.g. the classic so-called Negative and Positive types of politeness of Brown and Levinson (1987), perhaps less misleadingly called Independence and Involvement politeness by Scollon and Scollon (1991: 37-39). Predominantly Low context, independent, self-reliant construal individuals, or others in settings triggering this cluster of syndromes, will prefer ‘negative’ or independence politeness: they will leave choices, not impose or restrict, not make others make unnecessary efforts – offer, in short, as much relevant information as they can. On the contrary, in a High-context, in-group collective setting, being too explicit could be considered distancing by assuming no sharing of knowing, no sharing of context. Implicit displays of solidarity which assume commonality, involvement, mutuality, will be preferred[20].

I remain convinced that these differences can be discerned even in public service encounters such as the PIXI corpus, even with my ‘home’ context of Naples out of the picture. In various interactions in the Italian corpus, collected in Northern Italy, if we focus on the customers’ requests, we can catch quite strong glimpses of an assumption on the customer’s part that one can take up an assistant’s time and effort by asking for their advice explicitly. Take ‘Vorrei un consiglio’, (Bof F-18)[21] in which the customer asks which grammar book to buy. This tactic works well for the (female) Customer since the (male) Assistant seems only too pleased to dish out advice at length, also very expertly, as if he were a language teaching methodologist.[22] The Italian corpus contains numerous other examples where Italian customers ask for specific books, apparently without having attempted to look for themselves or intending to look through shelved collections on their own.

On a related note, Laura (Gavioli 1992: 385ff) observes repeatedly that there are many examples in the Italian corpus in which requests are voiced as a Customer’s need, framed as appeals for advice rather than as requests mentioning a specific book or information on where to find a subject category.

The British customers, instead, seem to assume they must show that they can look after themselves to some degree and certainly signal that they have done as much as they can to narrow down the effort required of the assistant.  Overall, the Italian data certainly provides more examples of customers putting themselves in the hands of the assistant and appealing for their help, even expecting them to get the book physically for them, or taking them or directing them specifically to the shelf. Indeed, one customer shows surprise when he realizes he has to get the book himself (“cioè devo cercare io?” in Gavioli ms p. 11), although perhaps he is merely showing his relative unfamiliarity with a large open shelves self-service book store (in the mid-1980’s when the recording were made these were indeed just beginning to appear on the Italian scene)[23].  

Here’s my take on these different behaviours at the ‘same’ point in the ‘same’ type of encounter (alias PSE) but in different cultural contexts. Not being able to depend on in-group solidarity with strangers or in service encounters with a stranger, i.e. when not in their in-group, an individual in a more in-group centred society where people are generally more used to having to make more efforts to acquire ‘space’ or territoriality when dealing with strangers (as Sue George shows in her 1995 analysis[24]), will plausibly attempt to affiliate somehow through a personal appeal to the assistant. His/her uncertainty and insecurity as a non-in-group member will trigger the personal vs information/fact syndrome or indeed interactional, as opposed to, transactional speech[25].

This interpretation is also plausibly consistent with the fact that the Italian assistants, when a book is not present or available, typically don’t offer extra information unless the Customer presses for an explanation, and even then the answer may be vague, as if the Assistant wished not to be pinned down to an uncertain future, so “è in arrivo” is the best that can be said. The high context message being conveyed is that s/he doesn’t know or is pessimistic, and if pressed might even imply even more pessimistic information, perhaps spilling over into a cathartic joint troubles telling in which the blame is explicitly laid on the suppliers (external blame), rather than showing embarrassment as if they are somehow responsible for the shop’s failure to have the book in stock. The different roles assumed by service providers can also, fascinatingly, perhaps be explained in cultural terms. Unless an Italian assistant is the owner, he as a simple employee does not identify with the firm: Assistant and Customer are both victims, and can come together on that.  Anna Ciliberti (1995: 122) reports how assistants appeal to external factors, commenting (1995: 110) that they do not apologize for not being able to satisfy C’s request, but instead offer hope for possible satisfaction in the vague future, with answers such as “provi a vedere a fine settimana” (BofG-11), “Provi a vedere fra una settimana, dieci giorni” (Bof G-31); “A: è finito C: non c’è? A: no, è finito. Torna tra dieci quindici giorni” (Bof F-11). Such answers might also be evidence as well of what Hofstede (1991: 109-138) has termed a High Uncertainty Avoidance Index. The future is uncertain, and possibly - probably - difficult. You need to somehow deal with it; we must be hopeful, even by pretending to be[26].

Finally, how could I not at least mention the differences concerning interruptions noted by Daniela (see e.g. in Zorzi 1990: 82-105). They are perhaps all too easily connected to the Linearity vs Simultaneity ‘syndrome’ or even to (E.T. Hall’s) Monochronic vs Polychronic time preferences (see Hall, 1985). Yet certainly, when contemplating the different functions of interruptions extrapolated by Daniela, one sees such interruptions as indices and offers of participation and involvement rather than as territorial invasion and rudeness - perceptions in line with, respectively, more interdependent and independent cultural orientations. Even the functions of laughing that fascinated Laura or myself at different times (Gavioli 1995; Vincent Marrelli 1988) might align with some of the cultural dimensions or ‘syndromes’: more overt jollity and banter in the British data indexing Assistants’ ease and pride in their role, and also the self-reliant successful individual’s cultural imperative to be optimistic. The order and functions of laughter as pre-empting or remedying dispreferred requests or answers is another tantalising datum highlighted by Laura.

This is not the time and place to offer a more systematic outline of all the macro-hints I thought I had glimpsed.  I hope, however, that these comments may have served to make readers new to the PIXI data a little curious, though also wary. If you are curious to explore the possibilities of cultural differences along these or other parameters, to confirm or disconfirm regularities or ‘conspiracies’ of data, or to see if the notion of ‘cultural syndromes’ makes sense at all, and, if so, when and how they can be triggered, I will have accomplished one of my aims. If you do choose to embark on such a quest, be forewarned that you will be pursuing a moving target: cultures are not homogeneous nor static, especially in this fast and globalizing world, as Srikant Sarangi’s (1994) timely critique also points out[27].

As to my other set of readers – my fellow Pixis and, more broadly, applied linguists of my generation who are now in the process of passing on the baton – here is my envoi. I still believe some confirmation of different dominant cultural styles can be found even in such seemingly banal, simple self-service bookshop service encounter settings!  Systematic empirical micro analysis was essential to see this - CA tempered with discourse pragmatics. Careful analysis of empirical data is what validates any sort of observation: regularities are not simply impressionistic. At the same time, it is also important to point out possible culturally relevant patterns or, indeed, constraints. This is something you - we - could now possibly bequeath to a new generation or two. 

Anna, you argued in your fundamental work on Assistants’ interactive styles that “Similarities in the configuration of resources adopted by interactants belonging to the same culture may […] provide evidence of their (probable) cultural significance” (Ciliberti,1993: 6), while also being most concerned to stress that the cultural and individual cannot be divorced:  

language producers are limited by social and cultural constraints, but […] they still take part in interaction actively and capably, and are, by interacting with others – therefore able to produce unforeseen outcomes which are attributable to them as individuals. Individuals’ interactive styles are in fact constituted by a combination of characteristics learned by interacting with others – that is, of a socio-cultural nature (the inherent predispositions, the grammatical conspiracies of one’s language) – and of idiosyncratic traits. (Ciliberti 1993: 6-7)

The underlying conviction about the importance of a macro-micro link of some sort, while all the while also rightly stressing the need to clarify the relationship between the personal and the cultural, is perhaps even clearer in your abstract:

The present study aims at discovering culturally marked discursive styles in Italian bookshop encounters [….] The approach chosen for the analysis rests on two basic assumptions: (i) that verbal interaction is a mode of social action; and (ii) that micro verbal actions are a reproduction of macro social structures (Ciliberti 1993: 2)

A similar conviction, I would argue, animated the work of our dear departed Daniela, although more cautiously expressed. In her 1990 volume Parlare insieme we read:

l’analisi conversazionale ha l’ambizione di trovare regolarità comportamentali specifiche delle singole culture, che riflettono e insieme costituiscono l’ordine sociale. Banalmente parlando, ciò vuol dire che le linee di tendenza identificata non si intendono semplicemente descrittive degli incontri di servizio, ma si presumono generalizzabili ad altre interazioni. (Zorzi 1990: 112)

Finally, dear Guy, you must admit that, despite the empiricist scepticism that is your hallmark, you have also conceded now and then some space for the influence of “cultural ethos” (Aston 1995: 57):

Analysis of naturally-occurring data from English and Italian service encounters suggests that cross-cultural differences in closings may be as much due to differences in the preferred procedures of conversational management as to differences in perceptions of the overall situation or in cultural ethos, arguing for a greater attention to such procedures in contrastive pragmatics and in foreign language pedagogy. (Aston 1995: 57)

In short, my dear companions in arms to which this volume is dedicated, one legacy of the PIXI project is its invitation to future generations to not “abandon the vital questions concerning links between language and culture altogether” (Wierzbicka 1991: 282, cit. in Ciliberti, 1993: 23).

But, before I “salute” you my dears, let me also just list again some of the other many valuable things I learnt from you in one way or another - a further legacy for new researchers, and one for which I too am immensely grateful.

Intellectually, I learnt about the importance of data-based - if not actually data-driven - research to find out how interaction really works in real settings, within and across different language/cultures, about the use of authentic naturally occurring interaction data (not just armchair speculation from anecdotes of albeit extended ex-pat living, as was my own 1989 ‘Crosstalk’ paper, admittedly, or structured participant observation, questionnaires, role-plays, etc. as used in the CCSARP project). I also learned the importance of careful attention to the logistics of recording data without incurring in errors caused by the observer paradox, of the vital implications of the choice of transcription norms and annotation of interactions, of compiling corpora of strictly comparable data, as large as language processing technology and personal resources and forces can manage, and, naturally, of the importance of careful linguistic analysis using methodologically sound analytical instruments for the systematic analysis of the data, such as those developed in CA, CDA, and/or from different branches of pragmatics.  We saw together that different approaches may bring different insights, each illuminating the other or uncovering another facet of the data.

Emotionally and spiritually, I learned about community and love and kindness and loyalty and honesty among research companions and friends, and I am even more immensely grateful for those gifts.

As I leave, I just want to don my maestra’s robes again and exhort any young language or communication researchers (or any groups) out there – after having duly done the hard work of your own data collection and analysis – to not be too wary of taking a few flights of fancy. Try to make micro-macro links in your work; see this as the exciting part of research. Do so certainly with all due caution, but don’t miss opportunities to offer useful insights for both intercultural understanding and mediation and for second language/culture pedagogy. Your best chance for doing so is to seek out both collaboration with researchers within your discipline with different methodological approaches, possibly also from different cultures themselves, and from other neighbouring disciplines, thus engaging in interdisciplinary and intercultural interaction, each “culture” talking to and benefitting from the other.

I can only wish for you to find as macro, mega, grand research companions and friends as I have been fortunate and honoured to have.



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Vincent J. ( 2011b), Multimodal analysis and PIXI video data, Relazione Giornate di Studio. Paper read at the P.I.X.I. Reloaded 25 years on. ColloquiumUniversità di Forlì/Portico dela Romagna. 18-20 February, 2011.

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[1] Thanks to Laura and Sue for kick-starting me on it, knowing that ‘ci tenevo troppo’, though they should have known better that once I started I’d have trouble stopping, and to you, Laurie, for your boundless energy, generosity and ‘pignoleria’ in helping me stop, and then for kicking it into more readable shape.

[2] With Cristiano Castelfranchi, we worked on our first joint paper: “L’arte dell’inganno. ‘I am not what I am’”, 1978, followed up by our (Vincent & Castelfranchi) 1981 paper delivered at the 1st IPrA in Urbino (1979).

[3] Associazione Italiana di Anglistica.

[4] We also ‘bonded’ with many - most perhaps - of the other early language and linguistics activists and pioneers too, remaining friends to this day, but we could of course hardly all fit into PIXI, not necessarily sharing specific research interests, among other things.

[5] Without wishing to diminish in any way my immense good fortune to have also had continuing links with the cognitive psychologists of the CNR in Rome (Cristiano Castelfranchi, in particular)  and through my long part-time pursuance of a Linguistics D.Phil at Sussex, between 1978 and 1987 with the open-minded, yet precise, gentle, gentleman, John Lyons.

[6] I was, of course, unaware at the time of the privilege and good fortune of having early exposure to what were to prove to be some of the most seminal ideas in pragmatics. But I remember, most vividly, sitting cross-legged on the grass (those were the days), happily reading and re-reading, often still in mimeographed copies being handed out there, not only David Gordon and George Lakoff’s “Conversational postulates”, and of course Grice’s “Logic and Conversation” but with even more clarity the feeling of delighted epiphany/recognition when reading and discussing Robin Lakoff’s “Language in Context” and her ms “Contextual Change and Historical Change: the Translator as Time Machine”.

[7] He was, though, addressing the native speaker ‘hosts’ and gate-keepers, rather than the non-native speakers. The educational project was intelligently directed most urgently at those possessing the interactional power, where simple declarative knowledge and awareness could make a difference; it’s not so easy or automatic to convert declarative into procedural competence with non-native speakers, as we know.  See also Laurie’s insights (Anderson 1988) into procedural competence development.

[8] For example, the following are typical of my combined interest in cultural discourse styles or ideologies, cross-cultural perceptions and un/truthfulness, in/sincerity, as well as interdisciplinarity: (2004) Words in the way of truth: truthfulness, deception, lying across cultures and disciplines; (1997) “On The Cross-Cultural Perception Of (In)Sincerity”; (1994) “On Non-Serious Talk: Some Cross-Cultural Remarks on the Un/Importance Of (Not) Being Earnest”; as well as the more general:  (1990) “English for Cross-talk: Pidgin for Pentecost?”; and (1989) “On Cross-purposes in Cross-talk”.

[9] (1988) “Notes on Power and Solidarity in Bookshops: goals, roles and the functions of laughing”.

[10] Later also in her (1991) Cross-cultural pragmatics book.

[11]  With my 1989“On Cross-purposes in Cross-talk”; our paper “On funny aliens: some notes on cross-cultural humour” with Laurie (Anderson & Vincent 1990), not only testifies to an underlying shared ‘ethos’ among us but also that I was not alone in ‘spinning-off’ into more general cross-cultural and intercultural space.

[12]  For example, voiced during my talk “Spinning Pixi Webs: micro-macro links between culture and discourse in English and Italian” at the X Colloquium di Pragmatica Contrastiva, P.I.X.I, held in Florence, December 1991.

[13] Also as Gerstein (1987: 89) puts it: "The causal nature of micro-macro linkages should not be assumed to be known in advance or always and everywhere to be the same. Causal propositions about the direction of linkage are necessary to sharpen research investigation, but they are to be considered hypothetical and incomplete unless proven otherwise. Certainly one may theorize that causes are inherently micro and that macro levels are simply nominal, epiphenomenal or categorical glosses. Or the reverse view may be taken: that the macro is all determining and the micro simply represents locally visible manifestations of global underlying causes. These are micro-reductionist and macro-reductionist approaches [...] The most preferable course, in my view, is to assume that micro and macro have interactive potential, with the degree of linkage and the exact balance of causal priority shifting from time to time and under different conditions. This is a mediationist position; it gives license to diverging theoretical speculation but at the price of heavy empirical requirements".

[14] Oyserman and Sorensen begin by saying: “[…] culture is best understood as a multidimensional rather than a unitary construct. [...] societies socialize for and individuals have access to a diverse set of overlapping and contradictory processes and procedures for making sense of the world and […] the process and procedures that are cued in the moment influence the values, relationality, self-concept, well-being, and cognition that are salient in the moment. This interpretation contrasts with the more common discourse on culture as a single, unified, chronically accessible whole that is isomorphic with one’s country of origin. […] We also borrow the term syndrome from Triandis (1996) to describe culture. Cultural syndromes are networks of associated features, such that cuing one feature is likely […] to make other features salient.” (op. cit: 25)

[15] Among my papers I still have a letter dated 13.6.1989 from Laurie and another from Ruey dated 23.6.1991, where, among other points - in Laurie’s letter, for example, concerning the connection between types of politeness and the relevance of different sets of presuppositions (cultural, role-connected and contextual) - you essentially, albeit exquisitely kindly, both tell me that I need to show just how our data connects to the Low/High Context cultural presupposition distinction. My point here is that it is indeed the only cultural dimension either of you mention. I did not object to this.

[16] For example, by Hofstede (1984), and Hofstede (1991).

[17] It is also worth stressing again that everyone, even Hall, says that his constructs are to be seen only as tendencies (more or less probably emerging in different contexts/settings/situations), and that the pairs (low/high context culture/communication) are ends of a continuum /spectrum, and that in any culture either type may be triggered by a particular setting, the context indeed, and that all cultures use context to communicate - it’s Low-context not No-context, after all.  The ‘syndrome’, as others put it (Oyserman and Sorensen 2009), is triggered by context cues; whether one tends to adopt a more or less low or high context communicative style in other situations or settings may be connected to the frequency of being in, for example, more or less independent or interdependent situations.

[18] In 1986/1987 I had also carried out hours of recordings in a Naples bookshop similar (indeed part of the same national chain) to the one in Bologna. These were, however, video recordings, and I was hoping to transcribe them to be able to systematically contrast them with the Northern/Central Italian data we already had, feeling how different these were somehow in many respects, but also in general because of the need I felt to take account of the essential multimodality of face to face interaction, in particular the silent non-verbal aspects of the interaction in the bookshop or any other service encounter, where, for example, acknowledgment of request, of uptake, greetings and closings and thanks, might just be carried out silently by smiles and/or nods, or lip pouting, or whatever. I presented some early, non-systematic speculations at our 2nd Bagni di Lucca Colloquium, Oct. 1987), and then for old time’s sake at our PIXI reloaded 2011 meeting (Vincent 2011b). It was a daunting task to wish to take on, systematically, (as I came to see later even more clearly thanks to Adam Kendon with whom I shared many thesis candidates during his “visiting” at the Orientale in the nineties and early noughties), and the data would not have been comparable on the multimodal level with our other (audio) data, in any case. Furthermore, we had more than enough contrastive and comparable data for England and non-Southern Italy to not wish to complicate things with what is essentially a third, rather different culture, as many of my Italian readers would probably readily agree. The service encounter, in general, certainly in public sector offices, and even in large self-service-ish bookshops, is not truly a neutral, non-culturally sensitive setting throughout Italy.   I do, however, still believe that the service encounters the group examined reveal some culturally sensitive aspects of the setting and genre type in the way they are managed in London and Northern/Central Italy too. These were less to be expected perhaps than what some might stereotypically expect from Naples, so the findings are all the more interesting, I believe.

[19] I explore these issues more generally, again in cross-cultural perspective, in Vincent Marrelli (2004: 48-50; 345; 363, and 2006:9) with the help of the Kantian notion of Autonomy, a facet of his Categorical Imperative of truthfulness.

[20] Setting or context are key notions here. Any culture will have more or less low/high context settings, but there may be differences in distribution of degrees and frequency. By comparing similar settings one can see this emerge.

[21] See in Gavioli & Mansfield 1990:166-168.

[22] I do still find myself wondering whether this is also a ‘he’ showing off to a ‘her’, although we did not investigate possible gender issues.   Anna (Cilberti 1993: 8-15) also analyses this Assistant’s didactic ‘pedantry’ at length.

[23] Guy (Aston 1995), incidentally, does contemplate the physical layout as part of the contextual influences on the shape of interactions, as I had in 1988. When I see the sort of findings reported by Daniela (Zorzi ) and Laura (Gavioli) about the differences in giving advice vs simple directions, requests for specific books rather than for categories, I cannot but also wonder whether the slightly different lay-outs and sizes of the bookshops involved and the relative novelty of large self-service bookshops (self-service being an important clue) in Italy, - even in the North - at the time, may also have been relevant to the request types used.

[24] And this would be even more salient in Naples.

[25] I have Guy to thank again for bringing this paradigm into focus for me in his Learning Comity, 1988.

[26] Lavinia (Merlini 1988: 180-181), also contemplating cultural differences in the data, albeit in different terms from mine, says how in the Italian data “inability to comply with the customer requests is in some way hushed up. The response is centred on the assurance that the book is on order and due to arrive soon, rather than on its unavailability now. […] What is made salient is the ‘good news’, the ‘bad news’ being often only recoverable as an implication. This seems the Italian way of coping with dispreferedness in this type of actions.”

[27] I confess, again, I don’t see why identifying emerging patterns or syndromes necessarily implied that these are fixed, static, or essentialist, nor indeed deterministic; the context in High Context, is after all shared presuppositions in different specific different contexts, mutual expectations, knowledge of what is relevant, or expected, appropriate, in a situation, e.g. assumptions concerning how something can be polite or impolite in different contexts (see R. Lakoff 1973: 909), and how genres guide “the interactants’ expectations about what is to be said (and done)” (Guenthner and Luckman 2001: 61). As  Guy (in his marvellous “Ah!” paper, Aston, 1987) shows, “Ah!” can reveal presupposed frames. Finding marked or dispreferred responses (through A’s or C’s surprised or perplexed reactions, or pauses perhaps) can reveal underlying presuppositions of what is expected, or normal, the default (see also Lavinia Merlini 1988: 175; and Tannen 1979 cit. in Merlini: 179 on  the power of expectation underlying such notions as frames, scripts, schemata). 

About the author(s)

Jocelyne Vincent (D.Phil., Linguistics, Sussex; BA Hons Language and Education, York, UK) was Professor of English Language and Linguistics, until retiring in 2014, at the University of Naples, “L’Orientale”, Italy, where she was also Head of the Department of American, Cultural and Linguistic Studies (2005 - 2011). Her research interests lie mainly in cross cultural pragmatics and semantics, and the language-culture link, with attention to theoretical issues concerning definitions and perceptions of truthfulness and deception, as well as applied issues concerning intercultural interaction education and EIL, translation issues, English as a ‘Lingua Franca’, and the danger of linguistic/cultural imperialism or
‘rhetorical cleansing’ through the diffusion of purportedly ‘universally valid’ discourse styles. Among her publications (sometimes as Jocelyne Vincent Marrelli): “Filumena e le voci di ‘fuori’. Discorso in due atti sulla traduzione testuale e scenica inglese di Filumena Marturano e sulla sua ricezione interculturale” (2015); “Netiquette rules, OK! … OK?: Speculating on Rhetorical Cleansing and English Linguistic and Cultural imperialism through Email Netiquette Style Guides” (2008); “Truthfulness” (in Handbook of Pragmatics 2006); Words in the way of truth: truthfulness, deception, lying across cultures and disciplines, Napoli: E.S.I. (2004); “On the cross cultural perception of (in)sincerity” (1997); “On Non-Serious Talk: Some Cross-Cultural Remarks On The Un/Importance Of (Not) Being Earnest” (1994).

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©inTRAlinea & Jocelyne Vincent (2018).
"PIXI - ‘macro’ nostalgia Open letter to a band of old Pixies and their friends"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
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