Sociolinguistic Relativity: Alive and Well in the Workplace in South Africa

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In South Africa, research commissioned by the Scientific Advisory Council in the 1980s confirmed that the country was indeed a divided society. The Human Sciences Research Council consequently undertook a project to analyse communication problems in industry. Reagan, an American research fellow invited to head this project, ruled that mutual ignorance, and not racism per se, was at the heart of the problem. To test Reagan’s mutual ignorance hypothesis interviews were conducted with a wide representation of the labour force: managers of organisations or factories, training managers, human resources managers, supervisors as well as with employees themselves. First-hand opinions on possible causes of friction were established. Transgression of boundaries of familiarity (when greeting, sitting down without being asked to do so, and asking to sell personal belongings) were mentioned as well as loud speech and irritation with contra-punctual speech. The use of the left hand when handing something, obligation to greet first, grinning instead of greeting and different notions of respect were documented. Grievances established by means of interviews were pilot-tested and then examined in industrial settings. In an industrial site near Johannesburg 50 structured interviews were conducted on the work floor. By chance it was possible to include one sociolinguistic item (“How do you want to be called?”) in another major project that sought to establish the educational aspirations of three mining communities on the Rand (representing 152 000 people). Since the initial research was undertaken a democratically elected government has come to power and the racial composition of middle management in the workforce has changed. To establish whether these societal changes have spilt over into an awareness of cultural practices of “the other” in the new democratic era in South Africa, the most glaring instance of mutual ignorance identified was tested again in 2007.


Keywords: Intercultural Communication, Misinterpretation of Speaker Intent, Sociolinguistic Relativity, Stereotyping, Non-verbal Communication
Stream: Nations, Nationalism, Communities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. Rita Ribbens

Senior Lecturer, Department of Linguistics, University of South Africa (Unisa)
Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa

I have many years teaching experience, both at secondary and tertiary level. For the past number of years I have been a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and have taught English at two other universities in South Africa (Potchefstroom and Medunsa, the latter being a medical university). My interests are all aspect of language acquisition (also with a cultural dimension), reading instruction and sociolinguistics. The greater part of the research reported on here was conducted when I worked as a Chief Researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council for six years.

Ref: D08P0106