Culture + Communication + Humans + Design

Technology can go only so far as to connecting us together in a virtual way. Thanks to technology, we are separated further and further away from other humans. When was the last time that you spent more time talking with a person instead of communicating through a device? Bernadette Longo says that “[p]eople value human relations. We want to feel connected to other people” (Longo, p. 156). Yet it’s funny that more and more recently, we are interacting through electronic devices instead of face-to-face.

I love the idea of using technology to communicate quickly and easily. I admit that I spend more time making plans via text message with my friends instead of calling someone up or talking to them in person. As we speak, my friends and I are discussing travel plans for next weekend. Questions arise from: “Are we staying at an Airbnb?” to “Should we rent a car or use Uber?” It used to be we’d sit together and get everything planned out. These days, it’s a group text. What will it be in the future?

I think we’ve been sold on a bad bill of communication goods because, despite the way technology has made our entire world more and more connected and easier to reach. According to Barry Thatcher, “[e]mail seems to have the distance and isolation of individualistic cultures” because it can’t even substitute for the personal interactions between people occupying the same physical space (Thatcher, p. 181). Nothing compares to it and yet somehow technology substitutes parts of that communication but not entirely everything.

In a sense, we are developing a virtual world that mimics the real one that we’ve created for physical items. Take for instance the iconography within digital environments. I have to refer to a well-known graphic artist: Susan Kare. She “helped establish the paradigm of icons as a navigational tool in graphical user interfaces.” “Her icons are metaphors” (Hurst, 2013). It’s interesting how we use metaphors for objects in a digital environment and sometimes they work really well and are accepted. However, sometimes there’s a metaphor which causes issues like the confused and misunderstood hamburger button.

On Culture

I’m really interested in how much thought goes into culture and rhetoric. Longo points out that we “technical communicators can learn about cultural contexts by studying language and the social relationships embedded in how people use it” (Longo p. 149). My favorite examples come from color symbolism.

What Colors Mean in Different Cultures

Infographic from Visually.

Living in the western world, I believe we forget that “our cultural values and beliefs are ‘normal’ and we notice what is different about other cultures” (Longo, p. 149). I think there is nothing wrong that ideas, feelings, symbols, and communication is different in other cultures but if we were aware of these cultural contexts, we would be better technical communicators. I’m pretty thankful that I have family in South America and that helps me understand a bit better how others function in different countries. I theorize with my mom about the technology shifts and how Colombia may skip steps in technology that the United States has first experienced.

The world works differently elsewhere and I’m okay with that. We technical communicators (as well as all humans) need to recognize the environment we enter when working in a cross-cultural setting. What may be culturally acceptable will not work well elsewhere. Barry Thatcher learned that difficulty while working as a technical communication teacher in Ecuador. I even learned that difficulty trying to talk with my cousins in Colombia because of the way they prefer communication over what I preferred. Thatcher says that “digital media simply do not fit all communicative and cultural traditions the same way.” It’s true in my experience, in Thatcher’s words, I “assumed that another culture will simply use digital media the same way” as we would like (Thatcher, p. 170). For me to communicate with my cousins, I had to find another digital technology that worked for them as well as for me. After years of struggling to find a perfect communication system, we finally nailed it down to WhatsApp. Now I can communicate with them quickly and I’m not as disconnected in their daily lives either. Even the phone calls are free.

Going along with technological advances, I’m not okay that the technology have-nots may get stuck behind. I understand that Rheingold’s model of an “inclusive community relies on economic and cultural gatekeepers” (Longo, p. 151) but technology creeps everywhere. Also, I want to point out that prisoners who have not been released for decades can fall behind on technology too.

Lastly, here’s a question for the ages

What’s our ethical use of our line of work? Can we find ways to communicate ethically as technical communicators? It was interesting to find a reference to Nazi Germany and technical communication. Katz (1992) found the “ethos of expediency” in a well-written memo, I want to counter that technical communication was also considered by the Allied Powers. I wrote in my own blog that “during WWII, Winston Churchill wrote a memo which asked for simpler language when communicating within his team. He wanted short and crisp messages, include headers, and remove ‘wolly’ phrases because he felt it was merely padding. Why? He didn’t want his staff to waste time reading long reports when there is a war going on” (Renteria, 2016).

I understand that we “technical communicators attend only to the utility and expediency of our work, we risk falling into the ethical trap of rational inhumanity in the same of creating universal good,” (Longo, 155) but we don’t have to think that everything we do for the sake of quickness and efficiency will be for used for evil. We do have the right to question how our work will be used and I would hope what we create in any kind of media will be used for the greater good.


References

Hurst, N. (2013, April 24). Meet the woman who launched a billion clicks. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2013/04/susan-kare/

Longo, B. (2010). Human+Machine Culture. In Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp. 147-168). Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.

Renteria (2016, March 20). Writing for the Web – Simplify Your Words! WriteTechie. Retrieved from https://writetechie.com/2016/03/20/writing-web-simplify-words/

Thatcher, B. (2010). Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures. In Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp. 169-198). Taylor & Francis. New York, NY.

About Roger Renteria

Professional Life: I am a technical communicator, writer, and presenter. Hobby Life: I'm a blues dancer, hiker, and foodie.

Posted on October 9, 2016, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I struggled with the Longo chapter (chapter 6). It felt somewhat alarmist to me and I am pretty troubled by the broad strokes the author paints. For example, that virtual communities are not only weak imitations of “real” communities, but that they are artificial communities that only exist because we somehow find “real” communities lacking and are looking to the Internet to fill this need. Further, the author seems to strongly mistrust virtual communities.

    A community is a community, and relationships are relationships, regardless of medium. Some of my best friendships developed in these so-called artificial communities–in fact, the Best Man at our wedding was somebody we originally met in an online game. The following year, we served as witnesses for his daughter’s wedding. How is this artificial?

    I am part of another community–this one focused on developing a frugal and efficient lifestyle–and the amount of support, advice, and resources people give each other is amazing. People in this community are networking–some find free furniture or advice while others find jobs or employees. A local sub-community is having a big meetup later this month, and I plan to be there.

    A third major community I am in centers around a popular blog. Somehow, it has become a safe space for thousands of likeminded people who follow that blog. Mostly people share cat photos and craft advice, but other people use it as a place where they can share and discuss things they are not comfortable doing so in real life. Crippling anxiety, “invisible” disabilities, stress about spouses and kids, etc. It is an outlet and a way to seek support or advice semi-anonymously–somehow it is miraculously judgment free and there are never flame wars. Recently, people were offering to share their homes with those–complete strangers–who had evacuated due to Hurricane Matthew. It is beautiful, and not something that would be possible without this virtual community. How can anyone call that “artificial” and be threatened by it?

    Both you and the authors of this week’s readings argue that e-mail and other digital communication tools cannot replace in-person interaction. You compare texting to speaking on the phone–that is not a fair comparison because one is synchronous while the other is not. I think the “loss” in virtual communication has more to do with synchronicity than with whether or not it is virtual or in person.

    Skype allows synchronous communication with anyone in the world like never before–with our without video. Facebook, Hangouts, and other chat programs, offer synchronous text chat that has little in common with group text messages. Further, as digital literacy increases and social mores (such as using smilies and emoticons to substitute for tone of voice) around the use of synchronous text chat become solidified, the gap between in-person communication and synchronous digital communication comes ever closer to disappearing.

    • For clarification and perhaps additional context, the first community I mentioned sprouted up from an online game. The second is a forum/bulletin board. The third is a Facebook group.

  2. P.S. I love that color chart. Could you direct link to a full-size version?

    • I updated my post to directly link to the graphic, but here it is: http://visual.ly/what-colors-mean-different-cultures

      I still have to say, you do need that in-person communication mode. It makes sense that technology can break down barriers that otherwise would be there in an in-person setting, but is that really enough to get what you want out of someone?

      Sometimes I find difficulty using synchronous communication like Skype or texting because how I’m communicating is not conveying the right message that I intend. Emoticons can give some sense of feeling, but it’s not the same as sitting right in front of the person and talking with them.

  3. You definitely raise a lot of good points here, about communication, cultural awareness, and technological have nots. To take it beat by beat:

    I find the world of online community fascinating. There is so much rhetoric around about the distance created by technology and how the generations growing up now are somehow lacking because they’re as likely to send a text or chat as meet in person. I simply find that ridiculous. Yes, there is value to be found in face-to-face communication but I cannot see it as a bad thing that humans have expanded our ideas about what it means to connect to people. I am excited about where we’re headed: virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence, and everything after that. Limiting ourselves to the old ways without any sense of potential breakthrough does not work. Online community works to bring together people. Period.

    Your color chart is incredible I find it so fascinating how unaware people think they can be of other cultures and identities when they’re creating content. We do not live in a vacuum and anyone who creates anything needs to be fully aware of that. It’s great that you have family in South America. I also find it great that other countries may skip step the U.S. has taken on its technological journey. Due to the power, influence, and general status as the premiere global power, there are definitely ways to grease the wheels and attract the talent needed to expedite things.

    Price, availability, and location will always be a major deterrent in creating and sustaining progress. Realizing that all of the progress in the world does not happen without innovation and experimentation. which requires at the least basic tools, equipment, and support. Laptops, mobile devices, WiFi, basic needs like food, shelter,and medical care do not exist for millions of people.

    What’s our ethical duty? To produce the most authentic and informative content we can while also supporting future practitioners and academic moving forward.

  4. Wow! Great conversation here and interesting points to consider. I really enjoyed Longo’s article and Sherry Turkle provides more thought provoking observations about people being disconnected from communities, groups and each other due to technology. Although I love my smartphone and the internet, I still believe we are further from creating relationships and knowing how to converse with each other in person. For example, my son in his mid-20s says he considers the people he plays online games with as friends even though he never sees them in person. I believe he’s missing out on important social and emotional cues that you cannot get from a virtual friend.

    While technology is good for some community involvement, shared ideas, communication and keeping in touch with remote teams, it’s also distancing us from human connections that we all need to survive and thrive.

    • Yes, I agree that your son may be missing out on important social and emotional cues by communicating in a virtual/digital environment. I think I also missed out that those cues as well in high school. I did grow up in an environment where my social crowd was entirely online and through a computer screen. I’ve only met a couple of people from that online community in person. However, the experience was different because we were used to sending each other messages and now we’re having another element of in-person communication which neither of us experience together.

      I know that technology is great for the work environment, but I struggled at one job which was a remote job which I worked on a team which lived in various parts of the country. I found it was nice not having to leave the confines of my house every day, but whenever I needed to talk to someone I couldn’t immediately leave my desk and pop over to the office next door. I had to call a person if I needed an immediate answer or I’d have to wait for an email response. If I were to go back to a remote job like that, I would prefer working with more responsive folks.

  5. This was a great blog post. I especially appreciate your discussion about culture and being cognizant of other people’s’ ways of life. I’ve always been fascinated by that. I’ve never understood why people are so unappreciative or how easily people misunderstand other cultures and how people lead their lives. Americans have the reputation of being ethnocentric. Unfortunately, I think a lot of times there is evidence that we aren’t moving forward as progressively as we should in that regard. America is such a melting pot–no person is “one thing” or the other. We all come from somewhere else. Sure, we’re American. But in my opinion, only Native Americans are truly American and unfortunately their culture is grossly misunderstood. Everyone else (or somewhere along their family line) immigrated.

    I met someone once who expressed to me that he would never under any circumstances travel to Europe. He simply had no desire. He wasn’t interested in their culture, the people, the food, or anything. Now, to each their own, but I find that crazy! As someone who loves to travel, I can’t image not wanting to experience another culture. If I had all the money in the world, you’d never see me. I’d be traveling everywhere all the time. But, then again, that’s me being ignorant to this man’s thoughts and feelings just like I think he’s being ignorant in his perspective.

    When I was 18 I went to the German speaking countries in Europe–Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and spent a little time in France. I remember my teacher pointing out how it was a big deal that people in Berlin had German flags on display. She explained to us that in American culture, it’s very common to fly the American flag to communicate patriotism or nationalism. Being “Proud to be an American” is just part of our everyday lives. But Germany has worn a very deep scar for the last hundred years in the wake of two World Wars and especially so since the second. Germans, even those who weren’t Nazis and were not involved in war activities, were so embarrassed to be German that they didn’t feel right having pride in their heritage or country. I was so upset to learn that young people in Germany were ashamed of their nationality when the crimes committed by Hitler and the Nazis had nothing to do with them. I’m glad to know that the younger generations are finally feeling proud enough to be German to fly the flag again.

    • I wonder how your friend might do in a place that is familiar to the US but in Europe. I recently went to Ireland and somehow I completely forgot I was in a different country. I converted quite quickly. Besides using Euros and driving on the left side, I fit in just fine over there. In a sense, it’s as close to the US and I could get without getting confused in the culture and customs.

      It’s interesting that you bring up Germany. I know two people who lived in Germany: one lived through WWII and one lived after WWII. They have a different view of their country. The older one keeps up with the customs of traditional Germany and the other simply wants people to know that Germans are actually good people caught up in a mess they vow to never happen again. The older German has a granddaughter who lives in the states and the granddaughter is proud of her heritage. (Related side-note: they are both in Germany visiting family and I’ve been following their adventure on Facebook).

  6. Isn’t it funny how technology makes the world smaller – yet pushes us further from each other? We can order products direct from other countries, or have Skype discussions with people from other countries – yet our devices have replaced person to person conversations. My husband and I went out with some friends a few weeks ago. We were surprised to see that everywhere we went, social establishments, there were very few people out. It was so obvious we actually talked about it. We wondered how people meet new people. We decided it was a result of online dating, social media, and possible stiff drunk driving laws.

    As far as you question for the ages, understanding cultural differences is definitely important in technical communication, yet I think it’s important on behalf of the writer and the user. In other words, just as American technical writers must know their audience, I think foreign readers also know the source. I love to learn about new cultures. I’m fascinated by cultural differences. I think, after a hundred years of establishing cultural differences and developing universal communication, we’ll meld our cultural differences right out of the world, exchanging it for same-ness. I know that cultural knowledge and cultural sensitivity is important. But I also think that maintaining cultural identity and differences is important. I’m not sure if this makes sense because I realize that understanding differences in order to better communicate isn’t necessarily changing a culture. Yet, when all cultures work hard to work together (as they should) over time, we lose some “uniqueness.” This is just a thought – I’m not sure if there’s anything to it, or any problem to be resolved.

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