American and Arab Perceptions of an Arabic Turn-Taking Cue

Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Volume 41 (2), pp 270-275. 2010.

Nigel G. Ward, Yaffa Al Bayyari
Department of Computer Science, University of Texas at El Paso

Abstract: Languages differ in the way that speakers coordinate their interaction moment-by-moment, and this can cause intercultural misunderstandings. We explore this in the domain of listening behavior. One way that listeners show interest and attention is by producing back-channel feedback (short utterances such as okay and hmm) at appropriate times, and these times are determined, in part, by the interlocutor, who signals when such feedback is welcome with various cues. In Arabic these cues include a prosodic feature in the form of a steep continuous drop in pitch. This paper shows that English speakers tend to misinterpret this, perceiving it as an expression of negative affect, and that this tendency is substantially alleviated by about 25 minutes of training.

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