Cultural Considerations

Cultural Considerations

The technological advances of the last century make communicating with people around the globe easier than ever before. With that great convenience comes a need to understand the way different people around the world communicate.

Context

Many cultures differ in the way they use context when conveying a message. Context is the background information that supports a message and allows the communicator to omit information that the audience already knows. For instance, notice how this paragraph does not start off by explaining, “The writers of this guide wish to explain what context is because it relates to technical communication.” Why? Because you—the reader—already know that. The context of this guide and of your situation makes it redundant to include such a statement. However, not all cultures rely on context in the same way, and when writing to a global audience it is best to keep in mind the differences between the two extremes of context usage.

The first of these extremes are low-context cultures. Low-context cultures do not rely heavily on context, preferring instead to explain everything in an organized and consistent way. North American, German, and Scandinavian cultures are a few of the low-context cultures in the world. Low-context cultures are vulnerable to miscommunication if the speaker assumes too much. When writing in a low-context setting, ensure that you are clear and avoid omitting too much information. Without the proper context, readers may interpret the text as vague, ambiguous, and possibly confusing. Ensure that any instructions you provide are detailed and that each step flows directly into the next.

High-context cultures, on the other hand, prefer to exclude information that they feel the audience should already know. High-context cultures tend to be very homogeneous; that is, they include people of the same ethnic, religious, moral, linguistic and historical background. This common background gives high-context communicators a better understanding of what the audience knows. The Japanese are a well-known high-context culture, but they are not alone. Many other Asian cultures, as well as Arabic and Latin American cultures are high-context.

Avoid sending the wrong message by understanding how readers who are accustomed to one context level interpret writing that uses a different context level. To low-context cultures, high-context communication seems very vague and indirect; passive voice and impersonal statements are very common. To high-context cultures, low-context communication may come across as rude, because of its highly direct and explicit nature; low-context writers aim to use active voice as much as possible.

Visuals

Visuals play an important part in every document. From the text on the page to the graphics that support them, different cultures have different ways of looking at visuals.

Text Directionality

As you read this page, your eyes move from left to right until you reach the end of the line. You then repeat the process at the beginning of the next line for the rest of the text on the page. As a user of English, this is the most natural order to read the elements on a page. However, not all cultures exhibit these same tendencies, and text directionality influences the way in which people read other elements of a page, such as graphics and figures. For instance, instruction manuals arrange steps in a particular order. However, writers cannot assume that the audience will automatically read those steps in the same order, so steps are normally numbered to define the proper sequence that each step follows.

Naturally, the English language requires text to flow from left to right, and readers from any culture must accommodate this in order to read the text. However, readers are not constrained to following a particular order when reading a given page’s non-textual content.

Languages like English, French, German, Russian, and Greek have writing systems that flow from left to right and top to bottom. Readers that speak these languages expect the content of a page to begin in the top-left corner and end in the bottom-right corner.

On the other hand, languages like Arabic and Hebrew have writing systems that flow from right to left. Audiences in these cultures expect the content of a page to begin in the top-left corner of a page and end at the bottom-left corner. Websites that use Hebrew or Arabic place the scroll bar to the left side of the screen.

A third text direction uses vertical columns to align its text. This is a common practice in several Asian cultures, such as Japanese, Chinese, and Mongolian writing. These readers are usually accustomed to writing both vertically and horizontally, especially in areas such as math and science. Nevertheless, since vertical text is culturally important, writers who wish to appeal to Asian audiences may benefit from implementing visuals that take advantage of vertical text directionality.

Colors

Every culture values colors differently, and the emotions that each color conveys can vary widely from culture to culture. In the United States, red is often the color of danger or warning. On the road, drivers encounter red-colored stop signs and must stop at red traffic lights. On the other hand, the Chinese recognize red as the color of prosperity. Similarly, Western cultures consider white to represent purity and cleanliness, but in Asian cultures, white is the color of death and mourning.

In non-technical communication, colors convey the meaning that words sometimes cannot. In areas with low literacy levels, colors are often more important than words. However, colors are also important in technical communication as well. Warning labels, instruction manuals, and technical documentation use colors to highlight important sections or details; therefore, technical writers must be aware of the challenges that colors present. In practice, technical writers should never use color alone to convey a message.

Graphics and Symbols

Graphics are an important part of many documents, but writers face many challenges when choosing graphics that are appropriate for international audiences. Like colors, graphics do not always mean the same thing around the world. For instance, in the computing world, a question mark symbolizes the need for help, but the question mark is meaningless to cultures whose languages do not use the symbol.

Writers must also use caution when depicting humans and animals in graphics. For several reasons, many internationalized symbols use outlines or stick figures to represent people. The use of abstract designs to represent people usually allows writers to avoid issues of skin color, religion, gender, and age. Furthermore, photographs and other more realistic depictions of humans may be offensive to some cultures.

Fortunately for technical writers, several organizations have created standards graphics for a variety of different situations. These symbols often transcend linguistic and cultural differences. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has published its ISO 3864, which provides examples of international symbols as well as details on the creation of new symbols that are recognizable around the globe.

Global English

English speakers have an advantage in global communication due to the English language’s status as the current international lingua franca. The widespread use of English makes it an important tool for communicating to a worldwide audience, but it also comes at a price. There are some pitfalls that writers must avoid, especially native English speakers.

Regionalism

The English language is a living language, and as such, it varies widely from place to place. Fortunately, for the most part this variation is reserved for spoken English. Nevertheless, the written language has some minor variation that should not be ignored when communicating to an international audience.

Most non-native speakers of English learn either the British or American variants of English; therefore, it helps to highlight some of the major differences between the two. Note that no variant of English is more “correct” than the others as the English language has no regulatory body. Both American English and British English have evolved considerably since they split in the seventeenth century.

Spelling is one of the biggest differences between American and British English. One of the more obvious differences is the spelling of some suffixes. While British English tends to feature Francophile spellings (e.g., specialise, colour, and centre), American English tends to use more Latinate spellings (e.g., specialize, color, and center). For the most part, simple spellchecking programs will highlight these “errors,” but again the final decision is up to the writer.

English grammar is fairly consistent, and though there are some differences, they are unlikely to cause confusion. Lastly, while writers are free to choose whichever variant they prefer, it is bad practice to mix variants throughout a single document, so be consistent.

Expressions

The English language is rich with colorful expressions and sayings. However, many of these expressions are culture-specific and can potentially cause difficulties for both global audiences and native English speakers alike. For instance, asking someone from England for their “John Hancock” would probably raise a few eyebrows. American English is naturally full of culturally influenced idioms. For example, baseball idioms are common in speech throughout the United States. Phrases like “cover all the bases” and references to things that are “out of the ballpark” are widespread in American parlance. To an American, especially a baseball enthusiast, these idioms make perfect sense. To an outsider, their meanings are not obvious. Therefore, technical writers should avoid idioms and clichés.

Native speakers of English also tend to use a large amount of phrasal verbs in speech. Phrasal verbs consist of a verb and a preposition or an adverb that, when combined, take on an idiomatic meaning. Phrasal verbs are especially problematic to readers because it is often impossible to obtain the meaning of the phrase by analyzing its components. For example,

“The printer has run out of paper. Fill the tray back up and press the power button to go on with the print job.”

This example uses at least three phrasal verbs:

  • “run out of,” which means, “consume or deplete all of something;”
  • “fill [back] up,” which means, “replace the contents of a container;” and
  • “go on with,” which means, “continue or proceed.”

In technical communication, writers should avoid these types of verbs as much as possible. An acceptable alternative to the message above would be:

“The printer needs more paper. Refill the paper tray and press the power button to continue.”

This revised message replaces each phrasal verb with constructions that are easier to read. The verbs in this revision are much more meaningful than those of the original.

Formatting

Around the world, writers and readers of all cultures encounter different ways of writing dates, times, and numbers. Though most cultures convey the same information, there are differences in the way these details are formatted.

Numbers

Technical writers encounter numbers much more frequently than other writers. In an international context, formatting numbers properly and uniformly is essential to avoiding miscommunication. Larger numbers often make use of punctuation to separate groups of numbers and make them easier to parse and read. Formatting currency usually follows the same rules as formatting numbers; however, the position of the currency symbol varies widely from country to country.

In the United States, readers are accustomed to separating the thousands with a comma and separating a whole number from a decimal value with a period. In some countries, like Germany, the two punctuation marks have reversed roles. Figure #.# gives a few examples of number formats in different countries.

Currency and Number Formats in Different Countries
United States Germany Italy India
Number 246,944.985 246.944,986 246 944,986 2,46,994.986
Currency $652,504.95 652.504,95 € € 652 504,95 Rs 6,52,504.95

Dates

Cultures around the world have different ways of representing dates. Date formats do not necessarily rely on language; in fact, even speakers of English from different countries use date formats that are not always interchangeable. Writing a date requires placing the date's elements (e.g., the month, the day, and the year) in a way that is meaningful to the reader. However, there are at least three different date formats in use around the world, and ambiguous date formats can cause a variety of problems when communicating to an international audience.

The first date format expresses the most specific part of the date at the end. For example:

  • 2010 July 3
  • 2010 Jul. 3
  • 2010-07-03

This date format is known around the world as the ISO 8601 standard. ISO 8601 is the preferred date format of international organizations like the United Nations as well as nations like Japan, Hungary, and Sweden. Since the units of this date format are ordered from least specific to most specific, they are easier to sort and organize; therefore, industries like computer programming use this date format almost exclusively.

Another date format gives the most detailed part of the date in the middle. It is common in the United States and Canada but not in other English-speaking countries.

  • July 3, 2010
  • Jul. 3, 2010
  • 07/03/2010, which may be shortened to 7/3/10

This third and final format is popular around the rest of the world, and it is common in English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom and Australia. It expresses the most specific element of the date first:

  • 03 July 2010
  • 03 Jul 2010
  • 03-07-2010

To avoid confusion when writing dates, consistency is crucial. Writers should also avoid using formats that are ambiguous. Short forms that use only numbers often represent two possible dates depending on the order of the month and day. For instance, "7/3/10" could represent either "July 3, 2010" or "7 March 2010."

Times

Along with date formats, time formats differ culturally, and writers should keep in mind that some formats are less common in some parts of the world than others. Time formats are usually divided between 12-hour formats and 24-hour formats. In 12-hour formats, the day is typically split into two twelve-hour halves, whereas in 24-hour formats, the twenty-four hours of the day are numbered from 0 to 23.

In the United States, for instance, the 12-hour time notation is by far the most common. In fact, the 24-hour time format is known as “military time” in the United States because it is so uncommon outside of military contexts. However, most other countries in the world use 24-hour time. Figure #.# shows how some countries differ in the way they express two different times in written form.

Time Formats in Different Countries
United States Italy France
Before Noon 10:35 A.M. 10.35 10:35 or 10h35
After Noon 10:35 P.M. 22.35 22:35 or 22h35