Cultural expectations

In an era of increased written communication mediums, (i.e., email, text, instant message) oral communication seems to be dwindling. Indeed, this notion has been reinforced by both Erik Qualman in his book Socialnomics, and by Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together. Barry Thatcher, in his essay Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures in the book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communicaiton sheds light on the fact that this argument is less true in what he defines as collective cultures (i.e., Mexico) as opposed with individualistic cultures (i.e., USA). In essence, people of certain geographical locations may have different expectations regarding the need to develop personal relationships through face-to-face meetings and conversation prior to utilizing mediums such as email as a communication tool.

Thatcher notes, “Orality, though, seems to have a much weaker role in individualist cultures, perhaps relegated to expressing personal opinions and beliefs, but certainly not the backbone of society, as orality can be in many collective cultures” (180). By retaining the expectation of oral communication, collective cultures seem to have a more personal, and less objective tone compared with the very objective tone of individualist cultures. In many cases, I have never met the people I email in a face to face setting, nor do I know these people on a personal level. Thus, the communicaitons we share are, by default, solely professional in nature.

In every technical writing class or journalism class that I have ever taken, I have been taught separate out personal information and include only objective information crucial for the reader to understand the message. As a result, the communication pattern is typically serious and impersonal. This practice of objective writing is also true for the workplace writing tasks I am involved with. Other than indicating how I am involved with the project being discussed, I share no other information about myself, and I do not expect my readers to share any of their personal information.

Thatcher stated, “Instead of a dumbed-down readership level, collective communicators tend to complicate their interpersonal dependence as a way of stating the purpose of the communication and their involvement; this creates writer – friendly document design patterns” (176).

An additional difference between the individual and collecitve cultures is that the colelctive culture has an expectation of stating authoritative relationships as part of the personal style whereas the inndividual culture does not. Thatcher notes, “As exemplified in the two EPA emails, the U.S. email demonstrates strong individualism focusing on one reader and that person’s reading needs and processes, while the Mexican email is much more collective, focusing on interpersonal relationships, and especially on authority” (176). As a technical writing student, I make efforts to consider my audience. However, it seems that despite the best use of audience analysis techniques, there will always be cultural differences that cannot be accounted for. And, in certain cases, technical writers, perhaps even in the future, may need to participate in real-time conversations to maintain cross cultural client relationships and successfully transfer information.

Posted on November 11, 2012, in Literacy, Society. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Nice points about audience here. Lately I feel that even just proofreading can be a major strategy these days. I can’t tell you how many intelligent people send me quick messages full of errors. I have been resisting the urge to correct them, but not sure how long I can keep doing that!

    • Ooh! You brought up grammar and spelling – two of my favorite things! In cross-cultural communication (specifically, where the cultures have different languages), wouldn’t it be even more important that written communications contain correct grammar and spelling? Inter-language communication is difficult enough, but it seems that spelling and grammar errors could really throw things off, especially where a complicated language like English is concerned.

  2. What if we just continue to create our content in a neutral manner and then use social media to establish the relationships that people in Particularist cultures require? Now it makes sense. With social media every customer will be able to have the kind of interaction they require. The content is only half the story.

  3. Paul, you make such a valid point in your last sentence, about “that technical writers may need to participate in real-time conversations to maintain cross cultural client relationships and successfully transfer information”. In my job working for Americans, I always find the interaction easier when face-to-face. Since my writing and verbal skills are not as good – yet – it always helps to connect on a non-verbal level. Fortunately for me, Americans are very patient and helpful.
    We learned about all the differences in how different cultures use different media tools. Another aspect is that people also organize information differently – depending on their culture. Additionally, they use different approaches to reach their audience. At least, that’s what I experience when thinking back how we did it in Germany and how we think here in the U.S.

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