Today, the majority of workplaces are multicultural. Employees in the workplace are more likely to come from different backgrounds including cultural environments and different parts of the world. The textbook Technical Communication by Paul V. Anderson makes a point to emphasize cultural differences. It is important to take into account who a document will be read by.
The following characteristics show differences between cultures and should be considered by effective writers:
- Amount of Detail Expected – High-context cultures such as Japan, China, and France provide little details in their writing. A high-context culture is based on fewer, deeper relations with people; there are many unspoken social rules and understandings within the culture. People in these cultures expect readers to have enough knowledge about the communication before they begin reading. In areas such as instructions, for example, it is assumed that readers have enough background knowledge or experience that there is no need to explain different tools used or walk the reader through any steps. People in low-context cultures such as the United States, Great Britain, and Germany assume readers know very little before they begin reading. Low-context cultures have a greater number of surface-level relations; rules are more explicitly defined so others know how to behave. People in low-context cultures expect detailed writing that explains the entire process. Writers should consider the cultural audience of their writing so that readers are not insulted by an excess or lack of information.
- Distance Between the Top and Bottom of Organizational Hierarchies – Many organizations in the United States and Western Europe have great distances with many layers between top-level management and low-level workers. When the distance is large, writing to employees above and below tends to be more formal. In cultures where companies are more flatly organized, communication between layers tends to be less formal.
- Individual versus Group Orientation – Many Asian and South American cultures are collectivist, meaning people pursue group goals and pay attention to the needs of the group. In individualistic cultures such as the United States and Northern Europe, people are more interested in personal achievement. Writers should know if they are writing to an audience that is “me-oriented” or one that is “we-oriented.”
- In-person Business Communications – There are several differences that one should be aware of when meeting a colleague with a different cultural background. For instance, some cultures stand very close to each other when talking and some prefer to have distance. Some cultures make eye contact with each other and some find it disrespectful. There are also certain cultures where an employee will not disagree or give feedback to their superior. It is seen as disrespectful. In these cultures, it is usually unacceptable to ask questions.
- Preference for Direct or Indirect Statements – People in the United States and Northern Europe prefer direct communications, while people in Japan and Korea typically prefer indirect communications. When denying a request in the U.S., a writer will typically apologize, but firmly state that request was denied. In Japan, that directness may seem rude. A Japanese writer may instead write that the decision has not yet been made, delaying the answer with the expectation that the requester will not ask again. In Japan, this is viewed as more polite than flatly denying someone; however, in the United States this may give false hope to the requester, and the requester may ask again.
- Basis of Business Decisions – In the United States and Europe, business decisions are typically made objectively with consideration given to cost, feasibility, timeliness, etc. In Arab cultures, business decisions are often made on the basis of personal relationships. Writers should know if a goal-oriented approach is best, or if a more personable communication would be preferred.
- Interpretation of Images, Gestures, and Words – Words, images, and gestures can mean different things in different cultures. Knowing how images will be interpreted in another culture is crucial before sending documents to unfamiliar audiences. For example, hand gestures are interpreted differently around the world, and graphics showing hands should generally be avoided. Also, religiously affiliated wording can cause offense by readers. “I’ve been blessed to work with you” and comments that lend themselves to religious references should be avoided in the business setting.
Gaining Knowledge about Intercultural Readers
It is often difficult to determine who will be reading your documents. It is important to distinguish your audience before writing. When writing to a wide variety of people, knowing their cultural biases, assumptions, and customs are essential. There are a variety of resources online that provide cultural information about countries around the world. Understanding differences reduces the amount of miscommunication when doing global business. As an example, in the United States many times the date is written Month, Day, Year, but in other countries they write a date Day, Month, Year. Knowing this can reduce the confusion of when things are sent, due, and timelines. Learning information about other nationalities helps you relate to your readers as well as prepare you for the future. Readers will appreciate your knowledge about their customs.
Coworkers are a great source of intercultural information. People familiar with you and the company provide the best information about the expectations of your audience. If coworkers have previously written to your audience, they may be able to offer insight as to how your writing will be interpreted.
Previous communications kept by your company can also be a useful tool for determining how to write to another culture. If the writing was well received, you will able to look for clues as to how to structure your writing. Writing that resulted in a new partnership or a completed sale may be the best indicator of how to structure your writing.
It is not always possible to know who your reading audience may be. Many emails or memos written to your intended audience may go through numerous people. Although you may be targeting one type of audience, it is important to not forget about the “phantom,” “future,” and “complex” readers.
Phantom readers– Real but unnamed readers are phantom readers. They are “behind the scenes” and their presence is usually unknown to a writer. Phantom readers are included in communications that require a decision. A clue to phantom readers presence is that the person written to is not high enough in organizational hierarchy to make a decision. It is important to meet the needs of the phantom readers because they may be the most important reader.
Future Readers– Written communications may still be used weeks, months or even years after being written. Every company document is considered a legal document, so lawyers and judges could be future readers. Future readers can also be employees who retrieve old communications for information or ideas. Writing communications with future readers in mind will save time and give documents an appeal that will please a wide range of readers.
Complex Audiences– Addressing a group of people who will be reading from many perspectives is a complex audience. Focusing on writing to complex audiences will allow you to relate to people from many different backgrounds. It is important to relate to each reader while not taking away from your overall communication.
Mindful Tips When Writing
- Never Use Racial Profiling: Racial slurs, profiling or any other form in a professional document are unacceptable in every instance. NO matter how comfortable you are with your audience. If the document were to come in the possession of unintended hands it could look highly negative upon you. The professional world on no level tolerates writing like this. Save it for your personal or individual writing.
- Never Use Profanity: Again, this is not accepted in the professional world on any level. Even writing between co-workers, this can offend and look negatively upon you.
- Be Mindful and Respectful of Religious Beliefs: Avoid words like bless, god, covet, bible, or any other religious connotations. Avoid mentioning holiday names, for example; “During the Christmas Season…”, but rather “During this holiday season…”. This will ensure no one group feels excluded or discriminated against. Again, writing in this way is just professional courtesy.
- Avoid Slang: This is a general tip for all writing, but avoiding slang terms will ensure your words are not misconstrued and taken other than your intended meaning.