Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spontaneous Attention to Word Content versus Emotional Tone: Differences among Three Cultures

Ishii, Keiko, Reyes, Jose Alberto, & Kitayama, Shinobu,“Spontaneous Attention to Word Content versus Emotional Tone: Differences among Three Cultures”, Psychological Science, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 2003), pp.39-46.

Reviewed by Kevin Stoda, Taiwan

As many American and Western businessmen working in East Asia have long noted, it is initially difficult to read both (1) non-verbal and (2) verbal signals of those locals whom they work with and negotiate with. When does “Yes” mean “yes” and when does it mean “no”? or “perhaps”? Likewise, there are certainly misunderstandings by East Asians—at least initially--when they arrive in Western nation states and the westerners fail to recognize their (culture’s natural) verbal and non-verbal cues. I.e., they feel frustrated, misunderstood, and a bit screwed-around-with.

One study, by Ishii, Reyes, and Kitayama (2003), “Spontaneous Attention to Word Content versus Emotional Tone: Differences among Three Cultures”, dealt with vocal tone because the authors wanted to compare two major cognitive language theories on how much culture affects one’s attention to “vocal tone” and how it affects “word meaning.” Moreover, they wanted to test the paradigm by many that word meaning matters more in some languages, so regardless of background culture, when the appropriate word is used it is necessary and sufficient to be understood by most others using that same language.

The pertinence of these questions may not be obvious to non-linguistic aficionados (or cross-cultural trainers, such as myself). The issue is this: Regardless of the language used, people from different cultures pay different levels of attention to vocal tone. This means in practice that “word meaning” can be misunderstood based on interference from misread or misperceived vocal tone and stress—especially by East Asians. Likewise, Americans and certain other Westerners focus on the meaning of the word –i.e. they are trying especially hard to ignore vocal tone signals presented by the other—that they misread the message conveyed by the vocal tone.


In Ishii et. al. (2003) two groups were tested and compared. The authors suspicions were confirmed. The first test compared American and Japanese perceptions of vocal tone and word meaning stress. The second test was of bilingual Filipino speakers (English-Tagalog) and American speakers.

The findings of the first test were that (1) Japanese showed significantly more “difficulty in ignoring vocal tone than ignoring verbal content”, i.e. there is a bias towards vocal tone. Likewise, (2) “Americans showed greater difficulty ignoring verbal content then ignoring verbal content than ignoring vocal tone (which reveals an attentional bias for verbal content)”.

Meanwhile, in the second test, a much more bilingual nation in Southeast Asia, namely the Philippines was looked at and compared with American student tendencies in communication. The Philippines has two official national languages--Tagalog and English. Strongly bilingual speakers were selected from a Filipino student population and compared to an American student population. The findings were that (3) in the Philippines, Tagalog-English bilinguals still showed a significant bias towards listening for vocal tone over focusing on the spoken word’s meaning. This bias was true regardless as to whether the Filipino participant was speaking in English or Tagalog. In other words, cultural preference distracted from spoken word meaning.

The reason for this becomes a bit obvious if one accepts E.T. Halls (1976) explanation that Eastern Asians are high context cultures while many western nations are low context cultures. According to Hall and his adherents, those peoples from high context cultures will depend more on cultural rituals and cultural cues—including non-verbal communication, social status, social context, and vocal tone—to interpret meaning and language. Meanwhile, lower context oriented cultures, like many in Western Europe and many peoples in English-speaking countries around the globe (which have been originally populated by Europeans), have an attention bias towards the verbal or spoken word’s --or spoken idiomatic expression.

As a whole, this means that Westerners working in the East have to be attuned to the spoken tone used. In contrast, Eastern and Southeastern Asians need to be aware of vocal tone—and the fact that it is often ignored or used differently by many Western speakers. Moreover, they will have to put more weight on the meaning of the spoken word than on the tone or context in which it might be used.


I, as a lifelong English teacher, i.e. someone who has been very cognizant of the importance of the spoken word, married a Filipino in 2008. Since that time, she has become quite aware of how anal-retentive Westerners can be about the precise spoken word.

It is frustrating for her. Moreover, since I have been a teacher of English for over 25 years, I may be more extremely hyper-focused on the spoken word than the average American. Because of Ishii et Ishii,’s research, I can now say that I more clearly understand and accept some of these cultural differences. That is, even if both my spouse and I are speaking English, she is culturally oriented to the tone of voice while I am biased to the spoken word’s meaning.

Likewise, I hope my spouse can appreciate—rather than be only frustrated by—the American hyper-focusedness on the spoken word. She and my Filipino-born daughter may need to simply accept these differences, but they can also take the bull-by-the-horn and share with Americans how and why the spoken word is used--and or ignored--in lieu of various non-verbal forms of communication. On the other hand, this Filipino emphasis on other contexts than the spoken word is important for Americans to acquire because more-than-ever, Americans need to come to understand, negotiate with, and work with Asians as they are and will continue to be our major trading partners in this particular Pacific Century.

Finally, I have taught previously in the Middle East and in Japan. Now, I teach in Taiwan. Surprisingly, I have noted that all three of these distinct countries are, nevertheless, part of Asia (just as the Philippines is). Despite the diversity of the continent--and the diversity among Asian cultures—my personal observations reveal more communicative-context similarities to each other than most Americans and Western Europeans would otherwise expect. This is because from a Western perspective, all Asian countries should or must be understood to be high-context ones. Further, comparative research on vocal tone’s role in(and on non-verbal) communication used by Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries might benefit the cross-cultural relationships between the peoples of the West (, the Middle,) and the East in coming years and decades.

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