How Culture Influences Our Writing
Approaches vary from writer-responsible styles to reader-responsible ones.
PRINCETON—This week I led a workshop on the impact of intercultural communication on the writing process.
It is a challenging topic for me.
Much of the research related to intercultural communication focuses on what we say, how we say it, and our body language.
Writing is distinct. Above all, it is the one form of communication that does not happen in real time. When we communicate by words and by actions, we do so spontaneously, in the moment. Others, too, are reacting in that moment, and by and large without thinking. Writing takes time; we produce a piece of writing at a different time than when a reader engages with it.
With its multiple stages of free-form idea generation, review, and editing (and editing and editing and editing), writing is a controlled activity.
At its core, though, our writing often reflects how we think.
Cultural thought patterns
Robert B. Kaplan explored how cultural differences influence logic and rhetoric in the form of student essays. He argues that teachers should take these differences into account when grading papers written by non-native speakers.
A fallacy of some repute and some duration is the one which assumes that because a student can write an adequate essay in his native language, he can easily write an adequate essay in a second language … the foreign-student papers is out of focus because the foreign student is employing a rhetoric and a sequence of thought which violate the expectations of the native reader.
Kaplan goes on to define five style types. I will group a few together here into direct and indirect styles.
The direct writing style will be familiar to anyone educated in the United States. In essays, the writer introduces a main theme in the introduction and then proceeds to support the main theme in subsequent paragraphs. The final paragraph essentially repeats the main theme. The structure of the essay is linear. It progresses from point A to point B to point C.
This style also puts the onus on the writer to make sure the essay contains all the relevant information for the reader. One might call this a writer-responsible approach.
Think of a trail guide preparing a group to hike in the woods. The guide provides all the information the hikers needed to go from a defined start to a defined finish. Should the hikers get lost, we fault the guide.
The writer in a direct style carries the same responsibility for guiding the reader.
This direct style also reflects an economical approach. There are no superfluous words or ideas to distract the reader. Advice from the classic guidebook, The Elements of Style, reflects this approach:
“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Direct writing tracks well with low-context cultures. Low-context communication puts an emphasis on the words. It is the difference between “saying what you mean” and “reading between the lines.” Low-context communication requires no shared understanding between writer and reader. As Erin Meyer notes in the The Culture Map, low-context communication represents precision and simplicity. “Messages are understood at face value. Repetition is appreciated if it helps clarify the communication.”
We see this reflected in advice given to American presenters: tell the audience what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you have told them.
When presented in this way, does it not seem overly repetitive, though? Is there no room for subtlety or artistic expression? Can we not build deeper layers in our writing?
Of course we can. And in doing so we start to move into an indirect style.
In his paper, Kaplan outlines a few styles in which main ideas and themes do not progress in a linear fashion. Instead, main ideas are presented through both what they are and what they are not. In one example, parallel sentence construction helps the reader to understand a concept.
Parallel construction can take several forms. Synonymous parallelism occurs when the first thought is balanced by the second part. Antithetical parallelism occurs when the first thought is emphasized by a contrasting idea in the second part. Synthetic parallelism occurs when the second thought completes the first thought.
Examples of this construction abound in the book of Psalms from the Bible:
For thy mercy is great unto the heavens,
and thy truth unto the clouds.
All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off;
but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.
For thou art my rock and my fortress;
therefore for thy name's sake lead me, and guide me.
In parallel construction, a writer defines ideas both by what they are and what they are not. The reader must interpret the text to some extent. The writing relies more on a shared participation between both the writer and the reader. Therefore, one might refer to the indirect style as a reader-responsible approach.
At their core, indirect writing styles are marked by a reliance on context.
When considering culture in writing, this idea of context can inform how we might structure even the simplest of communications. In an exploration of indirect styles among Chinese writers in the English language, Yuxin Jia notes a key factor in the structure of a piece of indirect writing: the main point is offered only after context has been established.
The essay offers a simple example: a sign posted in a lavatory at Hong Kong Baptist University:
First of all, thank you for keeping the lavatory clean and tidy. In our pursuit for a clean and healthy environment within the University campus, your participation and involvement are necessary and must be welcomed.
Therefore, should you have any opinion or suggestion on our cleaning service for the lavatories, please write or e-mail our office.
Thank you for your attention.
The first paragraph provides the reader with the context for the request located in the paragraph that follows. In a direct style, we would expect the order to be reversed. The request, emailing with opinions or suggestions, would occur before the context—if the context occurs at all.
Applying the concepts
Direct and indirect writing styles reflect opposite ends of a cultural spectrum. Like any discussion of cultural communication, we must work in generalities. For example, the style of the United States is considered among the most direct in the world, while the style of Japan is considered among the most indirect. There is quite literally a world of variation and interpretation between the extremes.
Further, the research for one culture might not reflect an individual from that culture. The generalities are useful insofar as they help us to critically analyze ourselves and our own preferred communication styles. In doing so, we can then also gain empathy and greater cultural awareness of others.
As writers, we can add these concepts to our toolkits.
When writing a technical user manual, we might favor a direct communication style. The reader needs all of the details. When we must write a refusal or deliver bad news, we might consider a more indirect communication style. In this way, we soften the main message.
We learn, we experiment, and we adjust.
And in doing so, we grow.
Kaplan, R. B. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education. Language Learning, 16(1-2), pages 1-20. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-1770.1966.tb00804.x
Strunk, W. (1920). The elements of style. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe.
Meyer, E. (2016). The culture map. PublicAffairs.
King James Bible. (2022). King James Bible Online. https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/
Jia, Y. (2004). Indirectness: The General Preference of the Chinese in Their English Writing. Intercultural Communication Studies, 13(2), pages 1-11. https://web.uri.edu/iaics/files/01-Yuxin-Jia.pdf