Cultural Differences in Communication
This week’s readings provide some great insight into how technical communication (and communication in general) can have very different characteristics across cultures. Prior to reading Barry Thatcher’s chapter in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I hadn’t really thought about this as an issue; I had assumed that intuitive ways of providing instruction and organizing information didn’t vary among cultures. Thatcher’s example of his environmental project with the U.S. and Mexico border illustrates that this was not a valid assumption (although I don’t feel quite so bad because Thatcher admittedly made the same incorrect assumption while teaching technical communication at an Ecuadorian University).
Thatcher presents a framework upon which we can identify the areas of communication that are evident in all cultures: I/Other, Norms/Rules, and Public/Private. He summarizes how different cultures deal with these areas differently, and the implication is that different treatment of these areas requires the use of appropriate communication methods. To communicate effectively within a culture, we need to understand these three areas within the culture and adjust our communication methods accordingly. Even so, Thatcher believes that it is possible and desirable to adapt digital communications to be relevant cross-culturally.
Kenichi Ishii’s article, “Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life,” provides another perspective on cultural differences in communication. Ishii makes various points about mobile media in Japan that differ from my understanding of mobile media in the United States. I am wondering whether the differences are because things have changed since 2006 when the article was published, because of cultural differences in how people use mobile media in Japan versus the United States, or a mixture of both.
Ishii (2006) uses the term “mobile mail” to describe both SMS and email messages “via mobile phones because in Japan, SMS and e-mail have almost converged into one service (mail) and users usually cannot clearly distinguish between these two services” (p. 346-347). In my experience, this is very different from in the U.S. Here, SMS messages (text messages) are primarily used as short form communication between two or more well-acquainted mobile phone users, and they travel from one mobile phone number to another. Emails tend to be slightly more formal, email addresses are significantly less private than mobile phone numbers, email messages travel from one email address to another (even if the email is viewed on a mobile phone), and emails can be much longer than text messages.
References to the portable radio, Walkman, and pager also made me wonder whether Japan is at a different point in adoption of mobile technologies or whether the article is simply out of date. In the U.S., portable radios and the Walkman (a portable CD player) have largely been replaced by MP3 players (like the iPod) or by mobile phones that can play music. Pagers have also lost ground to mobile phones. In understanding an article about the implications of mobility on everyday life in Japan, it would be helpful to know whether the differences I noticed are a result of a 7 year old article or cultural differences between Japan and the United States.
I found it very interesting that in Japan users make the most calls using their mobile phones from home, second most from work, and fewest when they are out and about. I wonder if this is true for the United States too. Despite the fact that I have landlines both at home and at work, this is probably true for me as well. I think this is mostly because my mobile phone also acts as a PDA, and I can access my entire phone book in one place and simply press a button to call rather than having to look up and dial a phone number on a landline phone.
Ishii (2006) posits that Japanese youth use text messages as a way to feel connected while avoiding conflict and demanding relationships (p. 349). This is definitely a parallel phenomenon to the U.S. trend Sherry Turkle references in Alone Together. While both Japanese and U.S. youth apparently replace face to face communication with mobile communication at least to some extent, Ishii does point out a study in which about 50% more U.S. adolescents than Japanese adolescents felt that they could initiate a conversation with someone they don’t know. In any case, it seems that understanding cultural differences in communication will help technical communicators to communicate effectively both within different cultures and across cultures.