What Is Your Conversational Style: Bowling, Rugby or Basketball?

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: What students coming to study in the U.S. can do to avoid culture shock in the classroom.

RS: We asked Susan Iannuzzi. She's an international consultant in English language teaching who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

SUSAN IANNUZZI: "One of the things that we did at the University of Pittsburgh was we used the sports analogy, which, you know, is not something we came up with. It's the three conversational styles of, say, bowling, rugby and basketball.

"So, for example, the bowling style. That would be considered something perhaps high-considerate, which means that people from those countries would use a style where they would take turns and they would, you know, hold back if they're a junior person and allow the older person or the more senior person to speak first. And then when they're acknowledged or asked for their opinion they would jump in."

AA: "Just like you would take turns in bowling, in a bowling alley."

Susan Iannuzzi

SUSAN IANNUZZI: "Exactly. You go and roll and I'll wait for you, and now it's my turn, and everybody knows that there are going to be turns."

AA: "So that's the high-considerate model."

SUSAN IANNUZZI: "Yes. Then there's, you know, the rugby style, which might be the other end. And this is high-involvement. And in this style you're expected to interrupt other people and the other people are fine with that, they expect to be interrupted.

"So there's a sort of rapid-fire changing of topic, changing of speakers and overlapping of speech. This is a style that's common in southern Europe, in African cultures, in cultures of Latin America, many voices happening at one time. It's also a style in Russia and Greece."

AA: "And then the basketball model?"

SUSAN IANNUZZI: "Well, the basketball model is a little bit closer to what we have here. So think about it as if you're playing basketball. You're dribbling the conversation, you're just going along. And when you hesitate, other people see that as an opportunity to jump in and steal the ball, to steal the conversation away. Not in a bad way, but just as 'Oh, it's my turn now.'"

RS: "So what would you recommend, what practical things would you recommend for someone who's coming into this country who really knows nothing about these styles that you're talking about?"

SUSAN IANNUZZI: "Well, you know, if they're in an English language learning situation, I think it's really helpful for them to realize that the other people that are there learning with them may come from different styles, so not to make judgments about them, you know, as, 'Oh, you're rude' or 'You're inconsiderate' or 'You're just very quiet and you never say anything.' Because these things may not be someone's true personality. They may just be the conversation style that they're accustomed to. So, first of all, awareness, I think, is the number one thing.

"It also helps if the instructors point these things out to people, because it's not something that most of us are going to reflect on in our own lives, think about, well, how do I interact in a conversation? I don't know what I do, I just do it."

AA: "You're saying that the basketball model tends to be maybe more the traditional style in the U.S. classroom. But is that always the case?"

SUSAN IANNUZZI: "You know, the dynamic of each class is different. I know that in, for example, the MBA schools, the students are expected to do a lot of project work, so the professors may not be as involved in directing classroom interaction. There may be a lot of times when the students are working amongst themselves.

"I would imagine in teacher-led classes that this dynamic is much more apparent. I personally remember an instructor, I can't remember where this professor was from, but the topic of the class just seemed to change constantly, as if, you know, 'And now we're going to talk about something completely different.' It made for, you know, a challenging time in taking notes."

RS: And then there are the challenges of everyday language. Even a common way that Americans avoid confusion when spelling a name out loud can be confusing if you're not familiar with it.

SUSAN IANNUZZI: "I remember a physician who had, you know, very good written English. He was used to writing papers and he could even present very well because he had presented at international conferences. But when he went to set up phone service, and he was telling them 'My last name [starts with] T' and they would say 'T like table?' he said 'No, I'm not a table. I don't need a table. It's T.' And he didn't understand that they were using this strategy, this device of associating, you know, first letter of your name with a common object so that we make sure that we write a T instead of a D."

AA: Susan Iannuzzi is a consultant on English language teaching who also writes textbooks. And that's WORDMASTER for this week.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.