The Clash of Communicative Strategies in Australia

A War of Words in Australia

Source: own picture

Source: own picture

Since the first settlement of the ‘balanda’ (white humans) in Australia, the new culture has clashed with the Aboriginal culture, resulting in racial discrimination, fighting for property rights and last but no least in a “war of words” (Trudgen 67) that continues until the present day. In contemporary Australia the majority of the people speak varieties based on Standard Australian English (SAE). The Aboriginal minority also speaks English based on SAE, however, their communicative strategies differ to such an extent from SAE speakers that misunderstandings arise in daily conversations. Such misunderstandings can develop to have serious consequences for either party of speakers in medical or legal environments, as well as in class rooms and business meetings. Due to these communicative differences, these speakers are called Aboriginal English (AbE) speakers.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO), a misunderstanding is “the failure to understand something correctly”. The misunderstandings that are considered in this article, do not include misunderstandings that result from not knowing the language or the meaning of a word. They rather refer to a misinterpretation of an utterance based on the ignorance of different communicative strategies. Mey states that language is “determined by the conditions of society” (6, italics removed), i.e., language underlies social norms, values and regulations.

Although the Australian Aboriginal culture has its own set of rules, norms and values, it is not an isolated system, neither is the white Australian society. In everyday interaction, cross-cultural communication can cause misunderstandings. Those are often not based on a failure to understand the meaning of words, but to understand the intention behind the words . Misunderstandings between different varieties of the same language arise when two interlocutors do not share the same socio-cultural background and thus, the same communicative strategies.

Aboriginal Communicative Strategies

“The label ‘Aboriginal English’ usually refers to a range of varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal Australians, which are not identical either with Standard Australian English or a creole” (Kaldor and Malcolm 67). Aboriginal English differs from Standard Australian English in several aspects that include grammatical, phonological and lexical features. Kaldor and Malcom refer to Aboriginal English as a “range of non-standard varieties of English” (71). The most significant difference for this paper however, are the communicative strategies of Aboriginal English speakers.

To understand why Aborigines use different communicative strategies, it is crucial to elaborate on the social context, in which these strategies are used. Contrary to Western civilization where the individual’s fulfillment plays a major role and certain anonymity among people is practiced, Aboriginal culture is oriented around “kin-based networks sharing social life, responsibilities and rights, and a common history, culture, experience of racism and ethnic consciousness” (Eades, “Communicative Strategies” 85). It is of highest priority to maintain social relations, which puts the clan in a more important position than the individual. Thus, “Aboriginal social life is very public” (86). To protect personal privacy, Aborigines have developed communicative strategies that are based on indirectness.

Eades (Eades, “Communicative Strategies”) discusses four major strategies in her article: seeking information, making and refusing requests, seeking and giving reasons and expressing opinions.  When seeking information, it is the goal not to impose on someone through direct questions. Even though direct questions are used to gather ‘orientation information’, i.e. background information “about people especially, but also about the time, place and setting of some situated or narrated event” (87), questions are often replaced by all-purpose and ambiguous statements using information the speaker already has about the topic in question. This is thus, a way of “seeking information by presenting information” (87). This enables both the speaker and addressee to ask/answer the indirect question without being exposed. Through the use of indirect questions, the addressee has no obligation to answer. Often such a statement-question is followed by silence, which is also part of Aboriginal communication, unlike in the Australian context where long pauses and silence seem awkward. A pause may even be as long as several days until a response is given. Anonymity is then provided not through personal space but through cautious use of language and indirectness (Eades, “Communicative Strategies”).

To make or refuse requests, the same multifunctional statements and questions are used. According to Eades, “a typical Aboriginal way of asking for a ride is to ask a car owner an orientation question, such as ‘You going to town?’ or ‘What time are you leaving?’” (Eades, “Communicative Strategies” 88). This way the request can be understood as an orientation question or as an inquiry to get a ride in town. Again, the addressee’s personal privacy is protected through an ambiguous question. If (s)he does not want to offer the speaker a ride, the question can simply be understood and answered as an orientation inquiry. “In this way Aboriginal people can negotiate requests and refusals without directly exposing their motives” (88). The same structure is applied when seeking and giving reason. The use of the question ‘why’ would be too direct and is thus, often omitted.

Eades (Eades, “Communicative Strategies”) states further, that Aborigines only cautiously express and share their opinions with others. This is connected to their notion of ‘shame’, which is a combination of shyness and embarrassment occurring in ‘situations where a person has been singled out for any purpose, scolding of praise or simply attention, where he/she loses the security and anonymity provided by the group’ (Kaldor and Malcolm, “The Language of the school” 429; Eades, “Communicative Strategies” 89)

The cautious expression of opinions is also linked to indirectness, since Aboriginal people do not chose to impose their opinion on someone; they also tend to “understate their own views” (Eades, “Communicative Strategies” 89). All the mentioned strategies have in common that speakers must rely on their socio-cultural context to interpret the intention behind the words.

In his work Why Warriors Lie Down And Die, Trudgen (78–80) describes the major communication differences between the Yolngu, located in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia, and the dominant Australian culture; summarized here in table 1. This comparison illustrates how indirectness not only concerns actual speech, but also the listening and thinking process and body language.

To accommodate to the communication style of Standard Australian English speakers when involved in cross-cultural communication, Aborigines have developed coping techniques. According to Eades (“Communicative Strategies”), Aborigines use code-switching “from the indirect style to a vociferous, confrontational style which Aboriginal people perceive as appropriate to interactions with Whites“ (92). This can result in Aboriginal people being “more direct and confrontational than the White participants” (92). A further strategy involves comprisal for both Aboriginal English speakers and Standard Australian English speakers. This technique however, is based on awareness of the differences in language use of both sides. It is eventually, a goal to have conversation participants comprising more often, especially in situations that are at risk of misunderstandings, but this awareness must still be raised and taught.

The third technique is called ‘gratuitous concurrence’ and was coined by Liberman who has done extensive research in the area of courtroom interaction in Australia.

Aborigines have found that the easiest method to deal with White people is to agree with whatever it is that the Anglo- Australians want and then to continue on with their own business. Frequently one will find Aboriginal people agreeing with Anglo-Australians even when they do not comprehend what it is they are agreeing with […]. (Liberman 249)

The last sentence of this quote points out a major problem that arises with the use of gratuitous concurrence. Agreeing to something that the speaker does not understand can have severe consequences, caused by misunderstandings.

The Clash of Communicative Strategies

Areas in which such misunderstandings can have serious effects include courts of law, medical consultations, business meetings and classrooms. The following extract from a court trial (taken from Liberman 249–250) illustrates the use of gratuitous concurrence in a court of law and the resulting misunderstanding:

  1. Magistrate: Can you read and write?
  2. Aboriginal Defendant: Yes.
  3. Sergeant: Can you sign your name?
  4. A: Yes.
  5. M: Did you say you cannot read?
  6. A: Hm.
  7. M: Can you read or not!?
  8. A: No.

In Line 2 the Aboriginal Defendant confirms that he can read and write. In line 8 however, he denies his ability to read and write. In both cases the Aboriginal defendant answers in the way he believes will satisfy the enquirer. In a court of law, it is possible for an Aboriginal defendant to confess unintentionally to a crime he did not commit, based on such misunderstandings.
In the following video, Munya Andrews, an indigenous lawyer in Australia, explains in more detail and with examples taken from court transcriptions what effects misunderstandings can have in a court of law:

Trudgen states that the Yolngu fight a “war of words” (67) with the “dominant Australian culture” (67). This war of words refers to the communication problems and misunderstandings also described by Eades ( “Communicative Strategies”; Sociolinguistics). A situation described by Trudgen shows the difficulties of cross-cultural business meetings:

In 1997 a community council chairman commented to me in Yolngu Matha: ‘We Yolngu sit in meetings all the time, listening to English, but we don’t understand it. Sometimes we can hear most of the words but the whole sentence just doesn’t make sense. We are too ashamed to say we don’t understand what the Balanda [White humans] are talking about, so we sit there saying nothing and asking no questions. Sometimes we just say, ‘Yo, yo (yes, yes)’ to anything. When we can’t understand what the Balanda are talking about we think maybe they’re talking about nothing, so it doesn’t matter if we don’t understand it anyway. (Trudgen 68)

Several problems are described in this quote. On the one hand, the manner of talking used by the Balanda is confusing to the Yolngu, on the other hand they won’t interrupt to clarify the situation because interruption is highly impolite in their context. Moreover, Trudgen describes how the Yolngu confirm anything said in the business meeting (gratuitous concurrence) because the situation is too overwhelming. This then might cause the Balanda participants to misunderstand the Yolngu; a vicious cycle evolves.

Linguists as Mediators in the ‘War of Words’

Linguists can play an important part in resolving this vicious cycle of miscommunication. Since the development of pragmatic linguistic study, linguistic research has shifted its focus on language use. As Liberman, Eades (“Communicative Strategies”) and Trudgen have done in the past, a close analysis of how language is used by Aboriginal speakers of English and Standard Australian speakers of English is necessary. The main concern in the Aboriginal context should be on discourse features based on socio-cultural background. This includes asking for the reason why miscommunication occurs and which areas of everyday life are affected.

Based on such close analyses, practical solutions to these communication problems can be searched. One example of such a practical solution is Aboriginal English in the Courts: A Handbook that was produced in collaboration with Eades and the Queensland Department of Justice and the Attorney General in 2000.

Besides producing straightforward practical tools to deal with miscommunication in Australia, it is also necessary to raise awareness for such issues in general. The challenge of this approach is its long-term objective to have both the Aboriginal and Australian society incorporate the implicitness of language varieties and their equality. This also includes equality of varieties in relation to a standard.

Eventually, it is the goal to prevent discrimination of people based on their language variety. The combination of raising awareness of miscommunication issues and practical tools to solve them will help both Aboriginal and Standard Australian speakers of English to overcome the clash of communicative strategies.



  1. Eades, Diana. “Communicative Strategies in Aboriginal English”. In Suzanne Romaine (ed.), Language in Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 85–93.
  2. Eades, Diana. Sociolinguistics and the Legal Process. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. 2010
  3. Eades, Diana, and Queensland. Department of Justice and Attorney-General. Aboriginal English in the courts: a handbook. [Brisbane] : Dept. of Justice and Attorney General. 2000.
  4. Jucker, Andreas H. “Pragmatics in the history of linguistic thought”. In Keith Allan and Kasia M. Jaszczolt (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Pragmatics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 495–512.
  5. Kaldor, Susan and Ian G. Malcolm. “Communicative strategies in Aboriginal English”. In Suzanne Romaine (ed.), Language in Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 67–83.
  6. Kaldor, Susan and Ian G. Malcolm. “The Language of the school and the language of the Western Australian Aboriginal school child – implications for education”. In Ronald M. and Catherine H. Bernt (eds.), Aborigines of the West: Their Past and Their Present. Nedlands:  University of Western Australia Press, 1979. 406-437.
  7. Liberman, Kenneth. “Understanding Aborigines in Australian courts of law”. Human Organization 40(3) (1981): 247–254.
  8. Mey, Jacob. Pragmatics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell. 2001.
  9. Oxford Dictionaries Online. Oxford University Press. 2012. Web. 14 September 2012.
  10. Thomas, Jenny.  Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics. London: Longman, 1995.
  11. Trudgen, Richard. Why Warriors Lie Down & Die: Towards an Understanding of Why the Aboriginal People of Arnhem Land Face the Greatest Crisis in Health and Education Since European Contact: Djambatj Mala. Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Incorporated. 2000.


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