Culture Clash: Being Everything to Everyone

Once you have fully investigated your audience and considered their various cultural needs and preferences, you can fully comprehend how screwed you are and how utterly futile your attempts to please them will be.  Given that most if not all technical information is delivered via the internet now, you just can’t presume to know where your audience is coming from–literally or figuratively (Blakeslee, p. 2o1).   And, even if you could narrow down the geographic location, your quest could be further hampered by differences in gender or the device used to retrieve your content, as Kenichi Ishii describes in his article, Implications of Mobility: The uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life.

All the authors that we read this week–Blakeslee, Ishii, and Thatcher–talk about how important it is it understand the differences between your audience segments, but unless you have a lot of time or a lot of writers, you have to make compromises.  In fact, unless you know for sure that your audience is from a Particularist or a Universalist culture (Thatcher, p. 177) you are going to make some people unhappy.

According to Thatcher, a universalist approach, “. . . the default approach is to establish rule that define what is good and right regardless of the social standing of the individual” (p. 176).  While in a particularist approach, “. . . the default approach is to apply rule and decisions depending on relations and context” (p. 177).  So, as a technical communicator I can either choose an approach that treats everyone with respect regardless of their standing in society or a company, or I can try to write 12 versions of the content to reflect where each individual sits in the pecking order.  Thank you very much, but I’m writing it once.

I like the idea of respecting cultural differences, but the internet is dominated by the universalist, western cultures that created it.  The world understand the voice of the internet and has come to accept it.  I would even venture to guess that that universalist voice has started to change the cultures of the people that use it.  Perhaps that is why some governments (China, Iran, (formerly) Egypt) fear it so much and seek to control it.  Maybe people that are addressed with respect regardless of their standing start to demand that from others within their society.

Here’s another problem I have with the idea of bending our writing style to suit the expected audience:

  • We don’t often know the audience for certain.
  • The audience often exists in many countries.
  • What if we add another customer later that comes from another culture?
  • If we use different styles for what we write, how do we reuse content to single-source new deliverables?

It surprises me that some of the articles mention that more and more content is delivered on the internet which means that we have no idea how or where it will be used, but they still advocate spending a lot of time investigating the audience.  How are we supposed to do this exactly?  The internet may not be a culture in and of itself, but it does have a voice and set expectations.  How about we just go with that and spend more time creating better content.

I liked how Blakeslee described looking at the roles the audience members play to ensure that content meets the needs of that  ROLE.  I am 100% behind performing task analysis to create role-based content.  I think that makes way more sense than trying to figure out how you should write a procedure differently for someone in Mexico as opposed to someone in Germany.  If we can’t understand the user, we should focus on the use.

Posted on November 11, 2012, in Literacy, Society, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Highlighting “role” and “use” here is great!

  2. Well the humor drew me in and the last paragraph sold me – well written for the use and user in this case!

  3. In a previous class, we spent a lot of time studying how a writer might study an audience. It all sounded very complex and time-consuming. I’ve often wondered just how much time or resources are typically allowed for studying an audience prior to writing content for them. Can I assume the actual amount is “not much”?

    • I can’t speak for other companies, but you are correct in assuming that we don’t spend a lot of time where I am analyzing audience. Now, that could be in part that my company sells really technical products to a very specific set of users, so the requirements for these roles is well understood, though we spend pretty much zero time thinking about demographic differences (ethnicity, gender, age). We have profiles for each of the key users that broadly describe their typical skills, education level, and work environment.

      If I could see a clear benefit to doing this research, I would, but really how does understanding the cultural background of an engineer affect how I write a procedure for adding a user to a database?

  4. In general I think some audience consideration is necessary. However, I do agree that the internet makes audience analysis less useful–since the audeince is indeed so large. Further, since most companies do not have a large number of writers–the time is well spent writing rather than researching audience. I think all of this varies greatly on the topic/content of the message.

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