Author: Diana Eades
Source: adapted from Eades, D. (1991) ‘Communicative strategies in Aboriginal English’ in Romaine, S. (ed.) Language in Australia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 84–93.

Sociocultural context of Aboriginal English
Varieties of Aboriginal English are spoken as the first language of Aboriginal people living in most areas of Australia, primarily in urban and rural parts of ‘settled’ Australia (as opposed to remote Australia). The majority of speakers of Aboriginal English are of mixed descent, and many are undeniably biculturally competent, increasingly participating in mainstream Australian institutions, such as education and employment.

Irrespective of the language spoken, Aboriginal people throughout Australia today belong to overlapping kin-based networks sharing social life, responsibilities and rights, and a common history, culture, experience of racism and ethnic consciousness. Social relations are characterised by on-going family commitments within groups, and the highest priority is placed on the maintenance and development of these commitments (rather than, for example, on financial security, employment, or individual fulfilment). Moreover, Aboriginal social life is very public.

In towns and cities the openness of traditional Aboriginal camp life has been replaced by the openness of frequently overcrowded housing and vehicles. Much of the business of day-to-day living occurs in open outside areas, for example, in parks and other public places, on the main streets of towns, and on verandahs of houses. Because people have on-going commitments to a wide network of kin (far beyond the nuclear family) virtually every aspect of their lives is shared in some way with a number of relatives.

While Aboriginal societies place a high priority on constantly maintaining and developing social relations, there is also provision for considerable personal privacy. This personal privacy is ensured not in terms of physical privacy as it is, for example, in mainstream Australian society, where walls, an indoor lifestyle and a strong prohibition on directly observing many of the actions of others, are all essential factors in the maintenance of personal privacy. It is through their indirect style of verbal interaction that Aboriginal people experience much personal privacy […].

Seeking information
While questions are frequently used in Aboriginal English in certain contexts and functions, there are constraints on their use which protect individual privacy […] Direct questions are […] used to elicit orientation information, for example in a typical greeting such as ‘Where you been?’ Frequently, however, the orientation question takes the form of a statement uttered with rising intonation, e.g. ‘You been to town?’ Rather than asking directly, the speaker presents known or supposed information for confirmation or denial.

This strategy of seeking information by presenting information is also seen clearly in the ways in which English is used by Aboriginal speakers to seek substantial information, such as important personal details, a full account of an event, or the explanation of some event or situation. In these situations questions are not used, but the person seeking information contributes some of their own knowledge on the topic, followed often by silence. This strategy serves as an invitation (or hint) for another participant to impart information on this topic. There is no obligation on the knowledgeable person to respond, and, further, it is rare for silences to be negatively valued in Aboriginal conversations. Important aspects of substantial information seeking are the two-way exchange of information, the positive, non-awkward use of silence, and the often considerable time delays (frequently of several days) between the initiation of substantial information seeking and the imparting of such information.

Making and refusing requests
Aboriginal people rarely make direct requests. A question frequently serves to make an indirect request, as well as to seek orientation information. For example, a typical Aboriginal way of asking for a ride is to ask a car owner a question, such as ‘You going to town?’ or ‘What time are you leaving?’ Such questions can be interpreted as information seeking of a kind common in Aboriginal conversations, but they can also be interpreted as a request for a ride, depending on the relationship between speakers. Even if speakers understand questions such as these as requests for a ride, the ambiguity enables a person to refuse a request in a similar indirect fashion, for example, ‘Might be later’, ‘Not sure’. In this way Aboriginal people can negotiate requests and refusals without directly exposing their motives (see Eades, 1988).

Seeking and giving reasons
Research with Aboriginal speakers of English in south-east Queensland reveals that the questioning of a person’s motives or reasons for action is always carried out indirectly through the use of multifunctional linguistic forms (Eades, 1983).

Thus, for example, an orientation question such as ‘You went to town yesterday?’ would be used to seek information concerning a person’s movements, but this answer might also provide evidence of the reasons behind some of their actions. The use of multifunctional forms makes the requests for reasons indirect and ambiguous, and it gives people considerable privacy; they are never confronted with an inescapable request for a reason (e.g. ‘Why didn’tyou visitusyesterday?’).

Just as the seeking of reasons relies on the use of multifunctional forms, so too does the expression of reason. There is frequently no unambiguous linguistic marker of reasons (cf. Standard Australian English because, in order to, so). Speakers rely on the non-linguistic context for their interpretation of a statement as a reason. Specifically, it is shared experiences and knowledge which provide the evidence that a multifunctional statement is intended as a reason. […]

Expressing opinions
A number of studies of Aboriginal communicative strategies provide evidence that it is important for Aboriginal people to present opinions cautiously and with a degree of circumspection. Von Sturmer first discussed the use of disclaimers as a strategy of ‘not presenting oneself too forcefully and not linking oneself too closely with one’s own ideas’. Examples of such disclaimers are ‘might be I right or wrong’ (Von Sturmer, 1981, p. 29), and ‘this is just what I think’ (Eades, 1988) […] Many Aboriginal people in south-east Queensland do not express a firm or biased opinion, even if they hold one. A common strategy involves general discussions on a topic, while speakers gauge each other’sviews gradually, before a definite presentation. When speakers realise a difference between their views and those of others, they tend to understate their own views. This style of gradually and indirectly expressing an opinion is a significant factor in cross-cultural miscommunication, and will be discussed below.

Also relevant here is the widespread Aboriginal 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 or praise or simply attention, where he/she loses the security and anonymity provided by the group’ (Kaldor and Malcolm, 1979, p. 429).

Aboriginal communicative strategies in cross-cultural communication
Aboriginal people have developed a number of ways of accommodating the directions of non-Aboriginal interactions but some of these ways of accommodating can actually lead to further misunderstanding. For instance, one way in which they respond to the much more direct communication style of [W]hite speakers is through the use of ‘gratuitous concurrence’ (Liberman, 1981, 1982, 1985), where Aboriginal speakers say ‘yes’ not necessarily to signal agreement with a statement or proposition, but to facilitate the on-going interaction, or to hasten its conclusion. Occasionally, Aboriginal people switch to a vociferous, confrontational style which they perceive as appropriate to interactions with Whites. In some situations the Aboriginal participants are, in fact, more direct and confrontational than the White participants.

Aboriginal speakers’ use of gratuitous concurrence has serious implications for all cross-cultural situations in Australia where direct questioning is used, in particular in police interviews, law courts, employment interviews, medical consultations, classrooms at all levels, and government consultations. Differences in degrees of directness lead to misunderstandings in many settings. In meetings, for example, Aboriginal people are often offended and feel dominated by the White participants, who express forceful opinions, often in direct opposition to those expressed by a previous speaker. On the other hand, White people often mistakenly assume Aboriginal agreement with a particular viewpoint after listening to the initial statements of an Aboriginal speaker, and not allowing time for the expression of a different opinion. If asked directly whether they agree with a particular issue Aboriginal speakers may frequently respond with the ‘yes’ of gratuitous concurrence. The indirect and roundabout Aboriginal style requires a non-linear meeting organisation and a much longer time span than is typical of White meetings, before participants can express important contradictory viewpoints. Thus, in meetings of Aboriginal organisations, for example, the lengthy discussion of issues often causes non-Aboriginal participants to become frustrated with the seeming lack of organisation and inability to make decisions.

My current research with Queensland Aboriginal students at University and College indicates that the bicultural competence of many, but not all, of these students includes the ability to participate successfully in the mainstream strategies of information seeking, which are so central to the western education system. For some Aboriginal students, however, the direct interrogative style used in tutorials is quite unsuccessful in involving them in discussion, and in assessing the extent of their knowledge of a topic. These students are often uncomfortable and annoyed about views expressed by non-Aboriginal students, and the forceful manner of their expression, but are unable to respond in the same manner. Without the Aboriginal students’ feedback, non-Aboriginal students continue in the direct expression of opinions upsetting to Aboriginal students, who in their turn become more resentful of the non-Aboriginal students.

Such situations of miscommunication, potentially disastrous in a cross cultural setting, are being constructively approached by discussions between Aboriginal students, fellow students and staff (some of whom are Aboriginal and some of whom are non-Aboriginal, with some bi-cultural competence). The resulting processes of in-group discussion and analysis, and particularly the support and responsibility assumed by the successfully bicultural Aboriginal students, is an important factor in the on-going positive resolution of such challenges.