Lesson 1: Terms and Scope

Sociocultural Norms

Sociocultural norms, such as how to express politeness in a given context, guide pragmatic expression. For example, if someone asked you why we should say "Please" after making a request, what would you say? Your answer would be based on the sociocultural rules you are familiar with in Western societies and cultures.

Role plays are an effective way to illustrate sociocultural norms. In the video below, we see two students who were asked to respond to the following scenario in which one student was Person A, and the other was B. Each student saw only his/her part in the hypothetical scenario, and both were given a few minutes to plan what they would say before beginning.

Role Play

Person A: You have just invited your friend to a special dinner given by your company and you want to say very gently that he/she must act more formally than normal (not use so much foul language).

Person B: Your dear friend is somewhat of a "stuffed shirt" who always worries about others' opinions. You want to go to this dinner and make him/her relax and adopt a more colorful and casual outlook on life.


A role play to illustrate sociocultural norms.

Duration: 02:15

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What problems of communication did you observe in the interaction between the two students?

Instructor's commentary on the role play.

Duration: 01:11


This was a role play task that usually yields some interesting results, especially if the learners are from different cultural backgrounds. So here I happened to pick an American guy TJ, to my left and a mainland Chinese woman Yue, to my right, for the sake of sheer convenience. The problem, however, was mainly that there were words in the instructions like "stuffed shirt" and "colorful language." Yue did not seem to understand these terms nor the whole idea of role playing, at least at first. It may also have been the case that such a situation would never be mentioned in the Chinese culture. When Han took over she sort of skirted the issue as well, but the point was to create a face-threatening act here and to see how the two cultures would handle it. As it turned out, Han made it a sort of "in your face" response, sort of like "Take me as I am," while TJ sort of backed off as if to say, "So be it." So was the speech act as conceived successful? Yes, I think so. By negotiating how far they could take this without insulting each other, we see some lines drawn, and see how the two cultures seem to have different lines.

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What kinds of sociocultural norms do you think might have been operating in the role play you just viewed?


A discussion on norms, politeness, and appropriateness.

Duration: 01:24

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