Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Communicating as a Writer

Writing is hard work, for a number of reasons.  Learning to write in a different language adds even more challenge.  In addition to words and grammar in the foreign language, we also have to consider cultural differences in communication, and how these affect the writer and the reader.

Two main points here:
  1. the duty or "role" of the writer and the reader
  2. the "logic" of communication


The responsibilities of the writer and reader are perfect opposites in English and Oriental languages. Westerners think that to communicate effectively, we must "put ourselves in the reader's shoes," or, try to figure out what they know and think, so we can present information to them in a way they can best understand.  We can call this "writer-responsible" language.  In many Asian languages, including the Oriental languages (including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), the reader is responsible for discovering and understanding the clues left by the writer.

This means, in English the writer is primarily responsible for ensuring the reader understands the message.  Your tasks to fulfill your responsibility?
  • To express yourself clearly and effectively so that your reader can quickly and easily understand everything you have written
  • To lead your reader on a clear path through your writing
  • To give your reader a clear idea of what you know or your point of view.


We often hear that western logic is "linear."  The images below may help explain the concept.  A key word here is "digression" -- moving away from the main point you wish to communicate.  The "linear" argument suggests that we move directly to the main point as quickly and directly as possible, then move on (to the next point).  For people in other cultures, this can seem rude. And in fact, there are many people in western societies (especially diplomats and salesmen?) who will often try to be less direct. On the other hand, when westerners are frustrated by this lack of directness, they say things like "don't beat around the bush, get to the point!"

We understand that the Oriental approach is -- if I hint and infer and spend enough time around the issue, you can figure it out! 

In the first set of images below, it's not clear that in Oriental approach, we don't finish AT the point, in fact we continue on to the next point without actually saying what we want to communicate (there is no final arrow on that line)

(the following from
Robert Kaplan, for example, suggests in an influential article called “Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-Cultural Education” that the following symbols best describe paragraph development world-wide:
Whereas the English paragraph tends, for example, to follow a direct line of development, the Oriental paragraph tends to develop thought in a more circular pattern. Romance languages and Russian tend to prize digressions, while Semitic paragraphs often value parallel lines in development.
  • English - (includes Germanic languages such as German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish) Communication is direct, linear and doesn’t digress or go off topic.
  • Semitic – (for example, Arabic or Hebrew) Thoughts are express in a series of parallel ideas, both positive and negative.  Coordination is valued over subordination.
  • Oriental – (Languages of Asia) Communication is indirect. A topic is not addressed head on, but is viewed from various perspectives, working around and around the point.
  • Romance – (Latin-based languages such as French, Italian, Romanian and Spanish)  Communication often digresses. It is fine to introduce extraneous material, which adds to the richness of the communication.
  • Russian – Like Romance languages, Russian communication is often digressive. The digression may include a series of parallel ideas.
 You might also enjoy a slightly different presentation of the differences between North American and Asian (Chinese) progression, from 

(blue is North American linear communication, red in Chinese indirect communication)

Robert Kaplan, 1966
Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education
Language Learning (journal) Volume 16, Issue 1-2, pages 1–20.