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.


Posted on November 10, 2013, in mobile, Society and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. You bring up a lot of good points! One thing I wanted to comment on was the differentiation (or non-differentiation) of SMS/text and emails. You’re right – how can you not tell the difference? One is a short message sent to your phone number; the other is a typically a longer message sent to an email address. I decided to do a little Googling and found an interesting discussion board where someone said, in Japan, a very common trend is setting up “phone emails.” This isn’t a hotmail, gmail or yahoo account. It’s an email set up specifically for use on your phone. Could this be one of the reasons why the Japanese consider everything to be converged into one service?

    You also talked about a reference to portable radios and Walkmans (oh, how this takes me back!). Well, it sounds like Walkmans are still around, but they are essentially an MP3 player.

    However, I don’t think this is what Ishii was referring to. It sounds like the Japanese, although advanced in the technology they create, still lag behind in the technology that they use. According to the article below, a lot of Japanese still preferred to use flip phones in 2010, not smartphones.

    It seems the issue in Japan is not their innovation but how they market and monetize those innovations. There are issues with phone carriers, software providers and manufacturers that prevent them from having global (or even national) adoption of their products.

  2. Jessica, I will keep looking for more recent international data [I bet journals like New Media & Society and Convergence have some on mobile device usage in Asia], but for the most recent American report on Cell Phone Internet usage from Pew Internet, see

  3. Lots of good observations! I didn’t even pick up on the outdated (to us) use of walkman’s, etc..

    I did find that discussion of Japanese and U.S. youth interesting, especially the notion of Japanese youth feeling like they could more easily communicate via text. I sort of related it to Thatcher’s point that people in diffuse cultures might find it harder to make “casual” friends because those relationships carry over to all aspects of life and tend to require more committment. So, in the U.S., a student might make a casual friend in class who remains a casual friend, with no carry over in the other aspects of life, but this is not the case in diffuse cultures.

  4. I’m kind of surprised the SMS count is so much lower than email in your example above. But I guess when I think about it, I send more emails than SMS messages. I think at work I send a lot of email…and personally I don’t really send any. I communicate with my friends via text or phone. I do communicate with some people at work via text, but for the most part it’s email and phone.

    I think it’s an interesting point that Lori made that in Japan they may consider any type of email/SMS the same because of “phone emails”. It makes me wonder if we have too many options to communicate with each other. Do we really need both text and email? Can’t you accomplish the purpose of a text in an email?

  5. Great post, Jessica. You brought up a lot of the same questions I had while reading this article. I put it off to being an old article but based on what Lori found, it sounds like it is both cultural and article time frame.

  6. I would also like to see Kenichi Ishii’s study repeated and conducted using other cultures as well. That would provide updated information and also a cross cultural comparison.

    I only have a mobile phone, so all of my calls outside of work are made using it. Most of my non-work emails are also answered with it, although those are very few and far between.

    I actually purchased a discman a few weeks ago. I had an audio book that I wanted to listen to at work, but the CD drive on my work computer no longer recognizes CDs. I had one several years ago, but I got rid of it because I never used it. We play CD’s in the DVD player at home, so there wasn’t even a portable option I could bring into work. It really is funny how things change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.