Beyond methodology: Looking at the cultural foundations of technology use
I have long known the great necessity for technical communicators to understand their audience. Blakeslee’s ideas that we need to focus in on a specific audience is hardly news. I even had an understanding that communication has to be adapted across cultural lines so that people from different cultures can easily understand. In order to communicate with a broader audience, you may have to adapt your methods. When I think of adapting communication for a cross-cultural audience, I think of IKEA assembly instructions. They are an excellent example, because they rely fully on pictures and remove the necessity for translation in order to be used in different countries. Apparently some people think that IKEA instructions are difficult to follow, but I think that those people would likely be even more confused by written instructions in Swedish.
However, while I know that communications methods have to be adapted in order to communicate across cultural lines, I never really put any thought into the idea that the very way that technology is used can vary between cultures. I liked the way Baron explained the phenomena in Always On by comparing how we use technology to how people in China and India eat rice differently and how English and German people drive differently, not because of how the item is intrinsically different, but because the culture is different (pp.130-131).
It is the deeper issue, the foundation, that will matter. If we don’t understand how a culture uses a technology, any communication with members of that culture is going to fail to some degree if we don’t question the assumptions that are guiding our decisions. In Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Thatcher gives the example of the differences in website construction between collective and individualistic cultures. While it makes sense that there would be differences in content, it is really interesting that the standards for an effective website are different to the point that the entire site may not be put together as a cohesive whole, but that different departments would be completely unique.
I do wonder though, how much variation there may be within a culture. For example, Thatcher showed examples of how the same information would be formatted differently for two different cultures. I actually thought that the American version of the letter was too abrupt, and preferred the version intended for the Mexican audience as it seemed more gracious.
Or even considering cell phone usage, I feel like everyone I know uses their phones differently. I know people whose whole lives are contained in their phone and they use it for everything. I know people who only have a landline, and people who are avid texters. I know people who are phone talkers and phone avoiders (that is me). And that is just among some of my closest friends. How do you define a culture’s use of technology when it can vary so severely from person to person? And how can you communicate effectively with a culture, if there is such variability in technology usage? Are basic cultural trends good enough to base a communication strategy off of?