Language and Social Interaction in the Southern Chinese Marketplace

Talk by Xuehua Xiang, University of Illinois at Chicago

Photo for Language and Social Interaction in...
Thursday, March 1, 2018
4:00 PM - 5:30 PM
Bunche Hall 10383

Image for Calendar ButtonImage for Calendar Button

Based on fieldwork and naturalistic data, this talk presents a multimodal discourse analysis of language and social interaction in the marketplace setting in Southern China. Previous research on the marketplace interactions in Southern China depicts a task-oriented communicative style where socializing talk, such as politeness rituals, is kept to a minimum (e.g., Orr, 2007; Pan, 2000). Researchers correlate this terse communicative style with the Chinese cultural norm of differentiating one’s “in-group” from “out-group” (Hofstede, 1980). Buyers and sellers view each other as outgroup members, necessitating no talk beyond accomplishing the immediate transactional goal.

My research partially confirms this pragmatic style. What I offer as new insight is that marketplace encounters unfold through multimodal processes where speech intertwines with posture, movement, gaze, hand gestures as well as handing of material objects. For instance, a seller's hand gestures not only provide an expert viewing the product in focus, but also may supplant the customer's declaration of intent to purchase. Such nuanced maneuvers on the part of the seller may be counteracted by the buyer's non-reciprocation (such as the torqued body posture and disengaged gaze, Goodwin, 2002; Kendon, 1990; Schegloff, 1998).

Different spatial arrangements in the market also foster as well as inhibit certain types of interaction. Purchases where the seller and buyer's respective spatial territories are not clearly demarcated and access to goods is not restricted, buyers could engage in extensive handling of the goods (smelling, licking, examining color and texture); in these situations, social talk (such as politeness rituals, face-strategies) emerges from, rather than codified as an integral component of, the transaction. In contexts where access to material evidence is restricted (such as in enclosed spaces), speech exerts more power over the trajectory of the purchase event.

Ultimately, I argue that language is a transaction cost in the marketplace (a concept borrowed from economics literature, Coase, 1937). Language (such as code choice) and interaction (such as politeness rituals and face strategies) incur cost for the transactions and is weighed and balanced by participants, contributing to particular patterns of language use and interaction. As such, the study provides concrete evidence and resources for understanding social interactions as universally practiced, locally conditioned and intricately intertwined with current and evolving social structures.


Xuehua Xiang is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and affiliated faculty member in Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research examines language in context focusing on the interplay of social structures, communication and language. On the micro level, she has researched on pragmatic markers, question particles, classifiers, and pronouns in Mandarin, English and Lingao based on naturally occurring data. On the macro level, primarily from cross-linguistic and cross-cultural perspectives, she has examined conversational narratives, branding and naming practices, television and radio interviews as well as second language learning phenomena. Her research, while diverse in focus, centralizes on her conviction of the importance of naturalistic data for linguistic theorizing and viewing language as a meaning-making system situated in multimodal systems and in social environments. Her works have appeared in journals such as Journal of Pragmatics, Text & Talk, Lingua, Written Communication, Chinese Language and Discourse, Language Sciences, Names, Discourse, Context & Media, and in edited volumes on Chinese heritage language education and Chinese discourse studies. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, "Grammar, Meaning, and Concepts: A discourse-based approach to English grammar" (Strauss, Feiz & Xiang 2018).




Sponsor(s): Center for Chinese Studies