Culture Affects How We Think, and Writing Reflects Our Thinking
Cultural impacts on logic and rhetoric can help us to better navigate intercultural settings.
At its core, the study of intercultural communication is the study of how different people perceive, interpret, and engage with the world around them.
This process reveals itself through several forms of communication such as language, relationships, habits, or customs. It is revealed when we smile at someone or when we arrive late to a meeting. Nearly all of our interactions have a basis in cultural wiring.
There is the same type of impact on writing. Writing, perhaps more than any other form of communication, forces us to grapple with what we are communicating and how we are communicating it. Unlike verbal communication, where words and thoughts are being formed in real time, or behaviors, which are largely conditioned and unconscious, writing offers the luxury of time.
We can write our thoughts and edit them repeatedly. Until we publish or send a single word we have written, we can change it. And we often do. Whether writing a text to a friend or a doctoral dissertation, writers will review their words and make changes.
Like all forms of communication, though, the effectiveness of writing is partially dependent on the recipient. The reader brings to the text their own ideas—ideas influenced and shaped by culture.
As always with the study of intercultural communication, we spend time researching the other in order to ultimately understand ourselves. In doing so, we can be nimble to a situation. We can adjust our communication styles to mirror or reflect back what we are receiving in order to achieve our goals.
In 1966 Robert B. Kaplan published a study that explored how culture influenced the ways in which people wrote, especially for persuasive purposes.
Kaplan noted that in language teaching, cultural variation to that point had focused on grammar, vocabulary, and structure. His paper sought to explore logic itself, and by extension, rhetoric, as a cultural phenomenon:
“Logic (in the popular, rather than the logician’s sense of the word) which is the basis of rhetoric, is evolved out of culture. It is not universal. Rhetoric, then, is not universal either, but varies from culture to culture and even from time to time within a given culture. It is affected by canons of taste within a given culture at a given time.”
Kaplan continues in this vein to suggest that writing styles are deeply influenced by cultural differences. The paper focuses on illuminating some of these differences to support English-as-a-second-language programs and teachers. By limiting teaching and grading of essays to expectations for a native English speaker, programs and teachers might be stifling creativity or growth. Gaining an understanding of different writing styles might instead help to set expectations and give a non-native student “a form within which he may operate, a form acceptable in this time and in this place.”
The intercultural communication practitioner can benefit significantly from studying this information. It can help us to gain a perspective on logical differences that exist among individuals.
Kaplan introduced five style types, three of which are adapted here to reflect cultural thought patterns. These patterns include linear, parallel, and indirect.
In the linear style, the writer issues a statement followed by supporting points. For anyone who learned to write in English, the style will be familiar. A paragraph contains a single idea, and everything within the paragraph ties back to the main idea. Paragraphs in total then ladder up to an overarching idea.
This style is contrasted against a parallel structure in which conflicting or opposite ideas are reflected against each other to make a point. Kaplan notes that this style is common in Arabic and Semitic writing, and uses a statement from the Bible to provide an example in English:
For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: But the way of the wicked shall perish. — Psalm 1:6
Here, the first part of statement, a focus on the riteous, is accentuated by a focus on the opposite, the wicked. In a linear style, a writer might have continued with an in-depth explanation of what it means to be righteous, or how the Lord knows it. Instead, the core idea is immediately followed by a counterpoint idea.
The third style originates largely from Asian culture and features an indirect presentation of an idea. In this style, “things are developed in terms of what they are not, rather than in terms of what they are.”
In modern communication theory, this style reflects a concept known as high-context communication.
In high-context communication, the words are not as important as the contextual clues that come along with what is spoken or written. In high-context cultures, a shared understanding among both the communicator and the receiver is important.
Conversely, in low-context communication, the words that are spoken carry the weight of what a person is conveying. There is little left to the imagination, and additional context is not necessary for a person to understand the meaning. Low-context communication relies on excessive, pointed, and detailed explanation.
In the United States, a low-context culture, presenters are usually given this piece of advice: Tell the audience what you are going to tell them. Tell them. And then tell them what you have told them.
This is an extraordinarily low-context approach. And in high-context cultures this approach would be considered completely unnecessary and odd.
Take, for example, a salad advertisement from Japan, a high-context culture.The advertisement does not show a salad but instead shows two sets of electrical poles. In the top image, two poles are needed to carry the line in the foreground, and a single pole is shown deep in the background. In the bottom image, the single pole has been brought to the focus.
The message? Only one pole is needed to carry the line. One can cut the support in half and still achieve the same goal. Or in the case of a salad, you can cut the number of calories and fat in half and still enjoy the same taste.
How a person writes reflects how a person thinks. From a cultural perspective, it is important to suspend judgment about what we might consider right or wrong so that we can focus on understanding.
Within business writing, one largely expects a linear style. This could be due to the tendency for management principles, theory, and standards to originate from higher education institutions in the United States.
And while this style will feel natural to some, it does not reflect a universal normal.
By exploring these writing styles, and even experimenting with them ourselves, we can continue to become flexible within intercultural settings and better attuned to how we communicate.
For writing opens a window to the mind, and in the mind we connect.
Kaplan, R.B. (1966). Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-cultural Education. Language Learning, 16: 11-25.
Bai, H. A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Advertisements from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures. (2016)