Part 1: introduction rationale

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1. Rationale

It goes without saying that language plays an important part not only in recording and understanding culture but also in communication among people who share or do not share the same nationality, social or ethnic origin, gender, age, occupation. What is more, “language is closely related to the way we think and to the way we behave and influence the behavior of others” (Karmic 1998:79). Hence, culture can be well-understood or grasped with the help of language and culture exchanges (i.e. cross-cultural or intercultural communication). To support this point of view, Durant (1997: 332) claims that “to have a culture means to have communication and to have communication means to have access to a language.”

Although well aware of the ultimate objective of learning a foreign language toward successful communication, many Vietnamese learners of English hold that a good command of a foreign language or success in foreign language learning lies only in mastering grammar rules and accumulating as much vocabulary as possible. As a result, even possibly producing grammatically well-formed utterances, they may experience unwanted culture shock, and communication breakdown when running into a real and particular context of situation. This unexpected incidence occurs due to their insufficient knowledge and awareness of social norms and values, roles and relationships between individuals, especially those from the target culture.

It is worth noting that different languages and cultures have different expressions of behavior and different realizations of speech acts by language users. This has suggested a considerable number of researchers, both local and foreign to conduct their studies on cross-cultural pragmatics and/ or communication such as thanking, requesting, complementing, etc. However, little attention has been paid to the speech act of giving bad news using hedges. In daily life, no one likes to give their relatives or friends bad news because rarely does he/ she find it easy to reduce listeners’ feeling of sadness, to lessen the hurt, but sometimes even the best, brightest and most talented, the informers are left with no choice. Nevertheless, to convey bad news such as informing the death of the husband in an accident to his wife if the speaker goes straight to the point with:

“Your husband died in the accident.”

he/ she may cause such a sudden shock to the wife (the hearer) that she can hardly stand it. Conversely, the wife in the above case will feel less painful if the news is given this way:

As you know, among 212 passengers, only two survived. And I regret to inform you that your husband is not among the lucky two”
Needless to say, hedges such as “as you know”, “I regret to inform” have been resorted to for the effect of minimizing the shock. Hedging is used in a certain context for specific communicative intent such as: one strategy of politeness, vagueness, and mitigation. Therefore, a desire to have a further insight into major similarities and differences in using hedges before giving bad news by native speakers of VNSs and ENSs has inspired the writer to develop her research entitled “A Vietnamese-English cross-cultural study of the use of hedging before giving bad news” . It is hoped that this study can provide the increase of some socio-cultural knowledge and awareness needed for better cross-cultural communication and foreign language learning and teaching in Vietnam.
The significance of the study is two-fold: First, giving bad news is one of highly sensitive acts since this type of acts happens in everyday social interaction, and is obviously face threatening. Second, how to employ hedges/ hedging appropriately in order not to hurt the other in the act of giving bad news is essential to achieve successful communication. As there is a culture gap between Vietnamese and English, inappropriate language use may cause misinterpretation, miscommunication and communication breakdown among cross-cultural communicators.

2. Scope of the study

- Although natural communication always comes with paralinguistic (speed, tone, loudness, pitch...) and extra-linguistic factors (facial expressions, eye contact, postures, orientation, proximity, movement, clothing, artifacts...), the study is confined to the verbal aspects of the act of giving bad news with the use of politeness and hedging. In addition, adjacency pairs are beyond the scope of this paper.

- The study strictly pertains to the perspective of pragmatics though the author realizes that syntactic theory and semantics apparently do explain the meaning of the spoken word.

- The Northern Vietnamese dialect and the English spoken by Anglophone community of England, America, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, are chosen for contrastive analysis.

- The data are collected by conducting survey questionnaires to examine the ways VNSs and ENSs use hedges in conveying bad news.

3. Aims of the study

- To find out the similarities and differences in the way VNSs and ENSs give bad news using hedges as a politeness strategy.

4. Research questions

.What are the major similarities and differences in the ways VNSs and ENSs use hedges in conveying bad news?

5. Methodology

- Quantitative method in the form of survey questionnaires is much resorted to. To collect data for analysis, both Metapragmatic Questionnaire (MPQ) and Discourse Completion Task (DCT) are designed. The collected data will be analyzed in comparing and contrasting techniques to find out the similarities and differences in the ways VNSs and ENSs perform the act of giving bad news using hedges as a politeness strategy.

- The questionnaires were delivered to English-speaking people mostly living in Vietnam (working for Apollo, Language Links, British council) and some abroad (mostly in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong). Based on English-speaking informants’ status parameters, the researcher looked for the Vietnamese subjects of similar parameters in order to have a symmetrical distribution of informants and data for the study.

- Besides, discussion with the supervisor, colleagues, personal observations, recording from mass media and data collection from newspapers and magazines are also significant to the study.

6. Design of the study

The study is composed of three parts. They are:

Part 1 (Introduction) presents the rationale, scope, aims, research questions, and methodology of the study

Part 2 (Development) consists of three chapters:

Chapter 1 (Theoretical lead-in): discusses the notions of language-culture relationship, speech act theory, directness-indirectness, face, politeness, and politeness strategies.

Chapter 2 (Hedging before giving bad news): explores different conceptualizations of hedging and gives hedging strategies, based on speech act and politeness theories

Chapter 3 (Data analysis and findings) analyses collected data to find out major cross-cultural similarities and differences in the choice of hedging strategies in given situations

Part 3 (Conclusion): summarizes the main findings of the study, provides some implications for TEFL, and offers suggestions for further research.


When two or more strangers from different cultures communicate or exchange their information and attitude, they are doing intercultural or cross-cultural communication, trying to show or let the other(s) learn about their cultural values, norms, and beliefs. Since intercultural communication and cross-cultural communication are not very much different and are used interchangeably (Scollon in Hinkel 1999: 183), we therefore would like to adopt the view of intercultural communication as the exchange of information between individuals who are unalike culturally (Rogers and Steinfatt, 1999: 103). What is more, such communication is much influenced by different factors, notably the binary system of competence-performance (what one knows vs. what one does) and context (which sets the scene and shapes the meaning that will attributed to what is said).
Cross-cultural or intercultural communication is simply defined as “the exchange of information between individuals who are unalike culturally” (Roger and Steifatt 1999: 103) or “whenever a message producer is a member of one culture and a message receiver is a member of another” (Porter and Samovar, 1985: 39). In cross-cultural communication, people from different cultures may not understand each other or get in trouble if they bring their cultural values and norms into mutual exchanges. One of the typical examples of cultural misunderstanding is that they transfer what is accepted in their culture to new situation of communicating with others from a different culture. This leads to not only serious misunderstanding, but also communication breakdowns or fatal consequences. For instance, people from the Anglophone cultures feel normal when saying “thank you” when offered a compliment on the work. Nevertheless, it is not the common way for many VNSs to do the same job. Therefore, when contacting each other, a Vietnamese and his Anglophone counterpart may have unexpectedly negative comments on each other about the same act. According to Thomas (1995) and Cutting (2003) one of the reasons for communication failure is that interlocutors may not have a good acquisition of the common language used in cross-cultural communication.
All the above disruption can be said to be culture shock, which can lead to the feelings of estrangement, confusion, anger, hostility, indecision, frustration, etc. That is why one is advised to know how far one can go as individuals and learn about the culture one is exposed to.
1.1. Speech Acts

The inference the hearer makes and takes himself to be intended to make is based not just on what the speaker says but also mutual contextual beliefs.”

(Bach, 1979: 5)

Naturally, sociolinguistics confirms that the study of language has to go beyond the sentences that are the principle focuses of descriptive and linguistics. It must bring in social context. It must deal with the real contexts that make up human communication and social situations in which they are used. From this viewpoint, Austin discovers that:

The business of a statement can only be to describe some state of affairs or to state some fact, which must do either falsely or truly”

(Cf Nguyen Hoa, 2000: 69)

Some sentences, as he realizes, are not intended to do as such, but rather, are to evince emotion or to prescribe conduct, or to influence it in special ways. In uttering the sentence, the S is often performing some non-linguistic act such as: daring, promising, resigning, requesting, and warning and so on. Hence, the theory of speech act originated in Austin’s observation (1962) in which it is said that sentences are used to report states of affairs and utterance of some sentences can be treated as performance of an act. Richards defines speech acts as an utterance or a functional unit in communication. Similarly, Hymes (1972) defines them as the acts we perform when we speak. When we say “Hello” or “How are you” that is, we have just performed an act of greeting, “Please open the window” – an act of requesting and so forth. It is argued that speech acts are culture-specific and the manner of performing them is governed by social norms which differ from one speech community to another. Indeed, Hudson believes that the concepts used in classifying speech acts are typical of cultural concepts.
Following is how illocutionary acts are classified:



Bach and Harnish


Assertives/ Representatives















1.2. Directness and indirectness

1.2.1. Directness and indirectness

“I love you. Please marry me!” (A direct way)

“I’ll buy a house but I would be very lonely when living there without you” (an indirect way to ask a special person to marry) – Sunflower, 1997
Similarly, in many Vietnamese folk poems, indirect ways of love declaration are found abundant. For example:

“Bây giờ mận mới hỏi đào

Vườn hồng có lối ai vào hay chưa?”
In daily life, the utterance is not always unambiguous and clear. Not only direct but also indirect ways are resorted to for verbal expressions. Thus, directness and indirectness are the two basic forms of expression that are linguistically and culturally universal. It is impossible to say that one language uses only straightforward or direct ways of expression while the other employs just roundabout or indirect expressions. The ways of language is employed to depend largely on what is termed “culture thought patterns” that appear, to various degrees, different in different cultures.
In the study of 700 essays of international students in the United States, Kaplan (1972: 31) proposes four discourse structures (otherwise referred to as “cultural thought patterns”) that contrast with English linearity (figure a). He mainly concentrates on writing and restricts his study to paragraphs.
Parallel constructions, with the first idea completed in the second part (figure b)

Circularly, with the topic looked at from different tangents (figure c)

Freedom to digress and to introduce “extraneous” material (figure d)

With different lengths and parenthetical amplifications of subordinate elements (figure e)
They are respectively illustrated by the following diagrams:

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)

Kaplan’s diagrams

Each diagram represents a certain language or a group of languages. He identifies his discourse types with genetic language types, respectively:

Figure a with English

Figure b with Semitic

Figure c with Oriental

Figure d with Romance

Figure e with Russian

According to the diagrams, English people often use roundabout and direct patterns whole the Oriental people in general and the Vietnamese in particular seem to prefer roundabout and indirect patterns. In the Anglophone main stream culture, the ideal form of communication includes being direct rather than indirect. Many expressions exemplify this tendency such as Don’t beat about the bush! Let’s get down to business; Get to the point! etc. All indicate the importance of dealing directly with issues rather than avoiding them. Let’s look at the following example:

Host: Would you like some more dessert?

Guest: No, thanks. It’s delicious but I really had enough.

Host: Ok, why don’t we leave the table and sit in the living room?

The host does not repeat the offer because he is sure that the guest really means what he says. In such a situation, if the guest is still hungry, he will directly say Yes, I’d like some more. Thank you.

In the same situation, the Vietnamese, when invited, to take some more tend to refuse to be socially accepted as “polite” and expect that the offer will be extended the second or third time before he accepts it.
For example:

Host: Chẳng mấy khi bác đến chơi nhà, mời bác ở lại dùng bữa với chúng em

(You rarely come to visit us, we invite you to stay and have dinner with us)

Guest: Ôi thôi, cảm ơn cô chú. Tôi chỉ ghé qua thăm cô chú và gia đình thôi.

(Oh, no, thank you. I only pay a short visit to you and your family)

Host: Bác cứ nói thế, chả mấy khi ……..

(You say so, rarely …..)

Guest: Phiền cô chú quá, cứ mỗi lần đến chơi cô chú lại bày vẽ ……

(I trouble you, whenever I visit you; you go to unnecessary lengths to …..)

Finally, the guest agrees to stay and have dinner with the host

Directness and indirectness in English and Vietnamese can also be found in what Nguyen Quang call “by-the-way phenomenon”. For such “safe” topics as good news, congratulations, weather. This phenomenon happens less frequently. But for the “subtle” and “unsafe” topics (bad news, borrowing money, sex, religions, etc) this phenomenon appears much more frequently.
It has been found that, in English, the purpose of interaction seems to be made overt at the beginning, but in Vietnamese, things seem to go the other way round. In many cases, if someone puts the purpose of his talk upfront, he may be considered rude. According to Nguyen Quang (1998), if time permits and relationship allows, interactants will have small talk or discussion of unrelated issues.

He proposes the following diagrams first:

By the way


Small talk


By the way

Small talk


(American English)

1.2.2. Factors affecting directness and indirectness

There are many socio-cultural factors affecting the degrees of directness and indirectness in communication. Nguyen Quang (1998: 5) proposes twelve factors that, in his argument, may affect the choice of directness and indirectness in communication.

  1. Age: the old tend to be more indirect than the young

  2. Sex: the female prefer indirect expression

  3. Residence: the rural population tend to use more indirectness than the urban one

  4. Mood: While angry, people tend to use more indirectness

  5. Occupation: Those who do social sciences tend to be more indirect than those who do natural sciences

  6. Personality: The extroverted tend to use more directness than the introverted

  7. Topics: While referring to a subtle topic, a taboo …., people are more inclined to indirectness

  8. Place: When at home, people tend to use more directness than when they stay elsewhere.

  9. Communication environment/ setting: When in an informal climate, people tend to express themselves in a more direct way.

  10. Social distance: Those who are closer tend to talk in a more direct way.

  11. Time pressure: When in a hurry, people are likely to use more directness

  12. Relative powers: When in a superior position, people tend to be more direct to their inferiors.

(English version by Ngo Huu Hoang, 1998:14)
1.3. Face, politeness, and politeness strategies

Politeness is basic to the production of social order and a precondition of human cooperation, so that any theory which provides an understanding of this phenomenon at the same time goes to the foundation of human social life.”

(Brown and Levinson 1987: 54)

1.3.1. What face?

Face is a technical term used in psychology and sociology to refer to the status and esteem of individuals within social interactions (Thompson 2003: 32). Since face, understood as every individual’s feelings of self-image (Thomas 1995: 169), can be damaged, maintained or enhanced through interaction with others, a person often claims for him/ herself through interaction. That is why in everyday interchange, we usually avoid embarrassing the other person, or making him feel uncomfortable simply because we bear in mind that everybody has basic face needs or wants which refers to the respect that individual has for him or herself. According to Brown and Levinson (1987: 61-62), face is “the public self image that all rational adult members of society possess” and “something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained or enhanced and must be constantly attended to in interaction with others. Once face is damaged or threatened, there seems to be a risk of communication breakdown. Therefore, maintaining or partially satisfying each other’s face seems to be the major and apparently the only motivation to be polite in communication (Watts 2003, Holmes 1995). To many scholars, face consists of two opposing face wants: Positive and negative face. Positive face

Normally, people are typically caught between the wants to achieve their own goals and the desire to avoid infringing their partners’ face (both positive and negative face). Positive face, as Brown and Levinson (1987: 61) observe, is “the positive consistent self-image or personality (crucially including the desire that this self-image be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants”. In other words, positive face is seen as the desire that others like, admire, value, or approve of one’s wants (material or non-material) or the need to be accepted and liked by others, treated as a member of the group, and to know one’s wants are shared by others. Negative face

Negative face, according to Brown and Levinson is “the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction, i.e. to freedom of action and freedom of imposition”. In other words, “negative face is reflected in the desire not to be impeded or put upon, to have the freedom to act as one chooses” (Thomas 1995: 169), or “the wants that one’s action be unimpeded by others” (Eelen 2001: 3), and “the need to be independent, to have freedom of action, and not to be imposed on by others” (Yule 1996: 61) Face threatening acts (FTAs)

According to Brown and Levinson (1987), certain illocutionary acts are liable to damage or threaten another person’s face; such acts are known as “face threatening acts” (FTAs) by, for instance, representing a threat to or damaging the H’s positive face (insulting the addressee or expressing disapproval of what the H holds valuable or does something) or his/ her negative face (impinging upon H’s freedom of action in the case when H likes gossiping). They define FTAs as “those acts that by their nature run contrary to the face wants of the addressee and/ or of the speaker” (Brown and Levinson 1987: 65). Along the line, Yule (1996) observes that an FTA occurs when a speaker says something that represents a threat to another individual’s expectation regarding self-image.

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