Am I an Important Cultural Worker?

In Ch. 6 “Human + Machine Culture” by Bernadette Longo in Spilka’s text Digital Literacy, the definition of culture is easily broken into acts that include and exclude (p. 148). In order to feel part of a culture, whether that’s a college campus, a church, an ethnicity, or a city, one must draw borders and agree upon the boundaries of that community. This seemingly innocuous task is exclusionary. While it’s pleasant to believe in the democratizing force of the internet, we have learned in previous readings that the barriers to inclusion still exist, for rural areas, low-income areas, elderly populations, etc. From these last chapters of Spilka’s book we’ve also learned that cultural differences can exacerbate communication problems. Yet, we connect online despite these boundaries, contradictions, and limitations. Longo asks, “Can virtual social connections established within a human + machine culture satisfy our human need to connect with other people?” (p. 148). The answer seems to be no, not entirely, but they can alleviate some of those exclusionary tensions and we can work to draw a wider net around our culture(s).


Cultural Communication Differences, courtesy of meetus@US


Longo also makes clear that as technical communicators or anyone who works with language, we have the “power to invite people in” because we are “important cultural workers” (p. 151-52). Because Longo deconstructs the idea that the online culture is universal or homogenous, she forces us to question how to make the communication tools we produce accessible to all in order to extend the cultural boundaries. As producers, we have the privilege and responsibility of deciding whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and historically we have erred on the side of science and logic do the effect of decimating other histories and cultures (p. 153). We prioritize the rational, the technique while subverting the imagination, nature, art, and pathos (p. 158). I went into the liberal arts because of those subversions, but I’ve immersed myself in logic, technique, and intent. Just as our society has evolved to prize the extrovert, the loudest, and most gregarious, it doesn’t mean that those people always have the best ideas. Does the same mentality apply to technical communication? Do we fall into the fallacy of doing things the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done them? I buck against the notion of free-flowing and “flowery’ help design menus but I’m basing that mostly on my own cultural training and preferences.


Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous, courtesy of

I know I have been guilty of the worker (or user) as victim trope when designing technical documents in my early years (p. 159), but Longo illustrates that try as we might users will figure out their own ways to use our documentation, oftentimes not in the way we intended. People are ingenious and impatient. Doesn’t it behoove us to give them the benefit of the doubt, ask for their input, and design with their usability in mind rather than assume we know better than they do because we know more about the product than they (presumably) do? As usual, I will apply this to my current position as an educator. When I started teaching, I was terrified that students would ask me a question that I didn’t know the answer to and that I would have to admit that I didn’t know. I shake my head at how naive and pompous that now feels. Of course I don’t know everything, and my students’ experiences enable them to see content from entirely different perspectives than my own. Isn’t that richer? The more I’ve let myself stop being the primary keeper-of-knowledge and made my classroom collaborative and interactive, the more engaging it has become for all of us in the room.


What it feels like during many mandatory professional development meetings (sitting and getting), courtesy of



Control freaks unit!, courtesy of Psychology Today

I’m a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to know what’s coming and I like to steer, but sometimes I learn more (and my students learn more) when we put the planner down and see where we end up. In Chapter 7: “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” author Barry Thatcher asks technical communicators to return to the tenets of purpose, audience, and information needs, but also to organizational strategies and style preferences (p. 190). Perhaps that means that we have multiple forms of the same content but tailored to the audience. Maybe that means audiences can design the best content solution to fit their needs (though I don’t know how that’s engineered or executed well)? I am very much for examining our own cultural biases and ethnocentrism, but I acknowledge that it’s hard, dirty work. Just as jurors can never be completely objective (nor can any human being), it’s hard to set aside our own inherent cultural upbringing and fully understand or appreciate that another culture does it completely differently. Even as a I read the case study of the US vs. Mexican communication differences, I found myself automatically preferring the Western style. To me, it just made more sense.

Perhaps we start there. We stop to analyze why and to realize that people from other cultures feel equally justified in finding their way the “right way.” If communicating effectively came easy, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching ourselves how to do it. It doesn’t. Human beings are complex. Digital audiences are complex (p. 221). Blakeslee (Ch. 8) recommends we keep researching and applying what we learn, and we keep asking ourselves the hard, uncomfortable questions. That’s where the growth lies. As one of my favorite poets and late-great songwriters wrote,

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

Posted on November 11, 2018, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Society, Teaching, Technology, Trust, Workplace and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’ve considered teaching as a career path and honestly, I stop because I am afraid of exactly what you discussed in this week’s blog. What if I don’t have all the answers and actually have to admit to it? But your insight and perspective made me see that a different way. I am a control freak and a perfectionist, but it isn’t about me and being perfect. Each human has their own perspective based upon their culture, upbringing, and experiences and who am I to insist my perspective and only my answers (or lack their of) are the only right ones? As much as we hold tight to our perspectives and drive their “truth” through all our communications both physically and digitally, they really are only perspectives. What’s right to me, could be wrong to you…Then, who’s right and who’s wrong? Our cultural differences didn’t transcend our digital space and now we need to figure out our differences virtually, when we hadn’t even done that in the physical world. Even not as technical communicators, it seems in the digital world, we all become cultural workers.

    • Hi JJ,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, that was one of the initial things that stopped me from considering education, too. I had a lofty notion that I needed to know everything about the field, as if any one person could ever read and know ALL THE BOOKS. Even today people seem disappointed when I haven’t read a certain author. “I thought you were an English teacher?” Yes, I am, but with limited time and particular preferences.

      It’s hard to answer who’s right and who’s wrong because we’ve been indoctrinated to think in those black-and-white binaries. One component of education that is deeply unsettling is that there are mostly gray areas everywhere. Students want to know “the answer” and “if it’ll be on the test” but when it comes to the really hard questions in life, it’s not a matter of filing out a yes-no survey. The answer is almost always, “It depends.”

  2. Wow–interesting use of a red hat opposite a graduation cap in that thesaurus image!

    And that actually leads into a point I was going to make about how much more culturally sensitive [on a variety of fronts] I think we have gotten, or at least aware, in the past year or so. These questions are everywhere and might lead to some speakers to not say anything at all. But the points you make at the end of the post ring true–continue researching and thinking about things.

    Finally, your Cohen quote reminded me of a Confucius one:

    • Isn’t it an interesting depiction in the Thesaurus image? Plus the glasses to show the pigeon is extra smart?

      One good/bad thing about digital communication is that it gives a voice to those who might otherwise be afraid to state their opinion in person. Bad (trolls) and good (introverts). I think by nature we carry our social norms into the online world, but the lack of physical context makes it easier for those communications to escalate more quickly.

  3. Amery, I really liked your post this week. I am not an educator, but my sister is and she has expressed many of the same attitudes you have towards teaching when I”ve spoke with her. When you said, “Perhaps we start there. We stop to analyze why and to realize that people from other cultures feel equally justified in finding their way the “right way.” If communicating effectively came easy, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching ourselves how to do it.” As I’m completing my degree in the MSTPC program, I have found this one of the biggest takeaways. I think that we’ve come a long way since my undergraduate career in evaluating and understanding how other cultures communicate and considering that in our creation of materials, but there is so much more to understand. And even further, understanding how these cultural differences are influencing the digital landscape is even more of a challenge. As the digital world connects people across cultures and across the world so much easier than say, sailing to a new country, it’s critical that we understand these differences in effective communication to be able to communicate as best as we can in the digital space.

    • Thanks for your comment. Your post reminds me of that Mark Twain quote about travel and how it’s the surest way to fight bigotry and ignorance. I’ll paste it to the end of this reply.

      It is nice to see the evolution of awareness that has emerged in this industry, and really, nationally. While we seem to be in dark days as far as an us vs. them mentality, sometimes it helps me to try to step back and look at the longer history. I marvel that my grandmother lived through World War II, the Civil Rights movement, the fall of communism in Russia, and part of the Depression/Dust Bowl. That’s a lot to absorb in any one life. Change often comes in a one-step-forward, two-steps back pace. When we as practitioners realize how we can help effect change, we are eager to get to work, but part of that work must involve getting others on board, too.

      Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

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