Audiences all the way down…

As technical communicators practicing or in training, I’m sure most of us understand the importance of audience in our work. We are taught to anticipate the audience and any secondary (tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary…) audiences. Who are they? Why are they using our documentation? What do they need? How will they use it?

Chapters 7 and 8 of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication both consider audiences. In Chapter 7, “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher develops a framework and lexicon for communicating with audiences from other cultures. In Chapter 8, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” Ann M. Blakeslee considers traditional audience analysis and discusses what may need to change as technical communicators’ products become increasingly digital.

Communicating Across Cultures

In Chapter 7, Thatcher recounts the challenges he has had working with teams in South and Central America. While ordinarily one would assume challenges across borders would be due to language barriers, Thatcher’s problems went more deeply than that. Although communications and instruction were in the correct language, they were not written with the target cultures in mind.

As a result of this experience, he has created a framework of cultural traits and communication recommendations (oral, writing, e-mail, or hypertext) that can be used to effectively communicate with other cultures. These traits are:

  • individual (p. 176)
  • collectivist (p. 176)
  • universal (p. 176)
  • particular (p. 177)
  • diffuse (p. 177)
  • specific (p. 178)

I have worked on international teams before, with members in Europe, South America, or India. Language and time zone were issues, but there were other problems (especially with the South American and Indian teams) that I just could not figure out what was going on. Thatcher’s observations rang true with my experiences working with these other cultures, and his recommendations for communicating make sense in retrospect.

Most recently, I worked on a project with team members in India, as well as locally based team members from India.  The problems mostly came from e-mail miscommunication and their struggle in understanding our expectations for their product. Thatcher asserts that Asian and Middle Eastern/Arab cultures tend toward collectivism, with particular and diffuse characteristics – so I am assuming these traits for India.

E-mail: Thatcher observes that e-mail can be too ambiguous for a collective target audience and too nonverbal for a diffuse audience (p. 185). Often I would send an e-mail that seemed, to me, perfectly clear – only to receive responses (in the case of offshore teams) that didn’t seem to match my email, or simply confusion from the recipient. The local teams would almost never respond to my e-mail; they preferred, instead, to come to my desk and talk to me in person, where we would hash out any confusion.

Work product: One of the biggest frustrations I had working with this team was that no matter how much guidance we gave (style guide, examples, templates, etc.) for how we wanted their finished product to look, feel, and sound, they struggled to meet our expectations. I chalked it up to the fact that English was a second language for the offshore team and most of the local team. However, in retrospect, I realize it may have been more cultural than linguistic. Thatcher’s observations illuminate two critical cultural differences that may have cause these issues.

First, particular cultures are much less likely to use signposting, templates, linearity, uniformity, and consistency – which are traits that technical communicators value in our writing (p. 188). While cultural important to an American audience, it was less so to the offshore team who produced the documents – they didn’t realize their importance and didn’t emphasize those traits.

Second, writing style was a huge issue. We wanted “plain language,” but we ended up with meandering sentences with too much jargon and context. Of course, this is partially due to nonfluency in English, but I think a large part of it was cultural. According  to Thatcher,  Americans (individual, universal, and specific) emphasize writing that is “reader friendly” (p. 176) and targets the “lowest common reading style” (p. 109). Meanwhile collective cultures prefer “writer-friendly writing patterns” (p. 176); particular cultures prefer writing that is more based on social relationships as context and uniqueness (p. 177); and diffuse cultures prefer more indirect and holistic writing (p. 189).

In short, the cultural expectations driving their output were completely different from the cultural expectations driving our requirements. It wasn’t simply a communication barrier; it was cultural as well. I still work with teams from India and the Middle East, as well as teams from Asia (particularly China). Moving forward, I’m sure I will refer to Thatchers wisdom again when attempting to communicate with other cultures.

Posted on October 9, 2016, in Society, Workplace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thank you for sharing your work experiences here. They dovetail perfectly with the assigned reading. If you do rely on the Thatcher perspectives, that could make for an interesting final paper! True theory put into practice!

  2. This is a great post. I read a book about communication differences and how cultural values can have devastating effects if we don’t understand them. The example was about an airplane pilot running dangerously low on fuel. He radioed the air traffic controller and asked to land. The controller didn’t understand that there was a problem with the fuel and denied the request, assigning the pilot to continue to circle. The pilot was from a country whose culture is to not question, argue, or speak out since it is a form of disrespect. Ultimately, he crashed. In our culture, if we don’t get what we want, we make a lot of noise and respect comes second. I was shocked that even in the face of death, this pilot would not be aggressive in his need to land.

  3. I hear you there about global teams not working well with expectations. Do you ever wonder if the teams are trying to understand and work with you and accommodate for you? I have heard of international teams trying to accommodate for their counterparts in the United States and likewise teams in the United States trying to accommodate for their counterparts in other parts of the world. Is there some kind of discussion at work where they are discussing how they are working with the cultural differences, but not expressing that across either team?

    Aside from cultural differences, would it even be possible to have some kind of kick-off meeting ahead of time to stem these issues before they begin to impact deadlines and work quality? Or have you tried that and it doesn’t seem to make a difference?

    I’m curious if there is a way to figure out how to work together on the same team besides getting a paycheck from the same worldwide company. I am curious how multi-national companies in Europe function when working on the same project but they may speak different languages. An interesting example are the folks who run CERN: they have several member states working together on highly technical projects.

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