How your culture shapes the way you write

cartoon of a world globe and restaurant cloche

We all agree that business writing should be clear, concise and direct, right? As any business writing expert – myself included – will tell you, you need to keep things simple, get straight to the point and ditch the jargon.

But what you may not know – and what many business writing experts also fail to realise – is that this attitude to writing is not universal.

In fact, the idea that you should ‘keep things simple, stupid’ is culturally determined. For many writers whose first language isn’t English, the idea that ‘clarity is king’ is greeted with surprise.

Different cultures, different views on the role of the writer

The disconnect stems from differing cultural attitudes to the relationship between writers and readers. According to linguist John Hinds, in Anglo-Saxon cultures such as the UK, the US and Australia, the burden is on the writer to make their meaning clear.

In these cultures, if a reader fails to understand what a writer is trying to say, it’s the writer’s fault. For this reason, the UK, US and Australia have been called ‘writer-responsible’ cultures. Hence the exhortations on every English-language business writing blog you’ve ever read to be clear, simple and direct.

But many cultures aren’t writer responsible. Instead, they’re reader responsible. In other words, they place the burden on the reader to discern a text’s meaning.

In such cultures, if the reader is confused by a piece of writing, it’s not the writer’s fault. It’s simply that they, the reader, have not worked hard enough to understand the writer’s points.

Hinds identified Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai as reader responsible cultures. In my experience, English writing by people from South America and many European cultures also displays the traits of reader-responsibility.

When different attitudes to writing cause problems in the workplace

These differing ideas about who is responsible for the communication of a message can cause problems in an international workplace.

For example, if you’ve been raised in a reader-responsible culture and your British manager asks you to write a report in English, there’s a strong possibility you’ll be working at crossed purposes. Each of you will have different ideas about what the end product should look like.

I once worked with a Portuguese economist whose British colleagues struggled to follow his train of thought in his reports. He told me:

‘People keep telling me my writing is disjointed and lacks flow’.

This perceived lack of ‘flow’, is a common feature of reader-responsible writing, because it places the onus on the reader to identify the links between points. In a writer-responsible culture, arguments and ideas are expected to be closely linked and to proceed step by step.

One of the Portuguese chap’s fellow economists, who also struggled with ‘flow’, bemoaned that when it came to writing:

‘I always seem to drag my Frenchiness around with me’.

It works both ways, too. Some years ago, a Japanese business student I was teaching at Cambridge came to me in despair at the response he’d received to a business enquiry he’d emailed to a US executive. The recipient’s three-word reply simply said:

“Where’s the beef?”

‘What does this mean?’ asked the bewildered student.

And then he showed me his original enquiry. Aside from being overly polite (to a Western ear), it was long, flowery and very subtle in its request – all features typical of reader-responsible writing.

The US executive’s response was just what you’d expect of someone working in a writer-responsible culture: short, forthright and clearly exasperated at the indirectness of the original approach.

And it’s not simply that different attitudes to writing can cause confusion. To those raised in reader-responsible cultures, the direct way of writing expected of a writer-responsible culture might also come across as rude.

In a recent workshop on how to write effective emails, a Portuguese social media analyst expressed concern about my assertion that emails should be clear, direct and to the point. She said:

“But if I spell everything out, won’t they find it patronising?”

One of her colleagues, a Slovenian, had read continental philosophy as a student and immediately recognised the difference between reader- and writer-responsible writing.

He described his first encounter with the work of one of the 20th-century’s leading intellectuals, Bertrand Russell. Here’s what he said of this famous British philosopher, Cambridge-trained mathematician and Nobel laureate for literature:

“The first time I read him, I thought ‘this guy’s an idiot – why’s he being so obvious?’”

Where the American executive had been frustrated by the Japanese student’s indirectness, the Slovenian philosopher was frustrated by the Russell’s over-emphasis on clarity and logic.

It reminded me of the following exchange between a Cambridge colleague of mine and an international student (Chinese, I think), who she was supervising:

Student: “So you want me to write like a five-year-old?”

Supervisor: “Well, like a five-year-old who’s doing a PhD at Cambridge, yes.”

How to help international colleagues write more effective business English

Do you manage someone whose first language isn’t English? Here’s how you can help them become a better business writer.

  1. It can be tempting to think ‘their English is terrible’, ‘they just can’t write’ or even ‘they don’t know how to think clearly’. Instead, tell yourself ‘they have not (yet) been trained to express their thoughts in the particular way that’s demanded in my culture’. (And remember: chances are they suspect you’re too lazy to read attentively).
  2. If you’re planning a writing workshop and some or all of the participants have English as their second language, consider devoting part of the workshop to exposing and exploring different cultural attitudes to writing. People will be more open to the idea that writing should be clear, concise and direct if they understand the cultural context.
  3. Hire a trainer or writing coach who has experience of working with people whose first language isn’t English. Someone who can show them simple strategies for achieving the things many writer-responsible writers tend take for granted – such as how to make their writing ‘flow’.

Clare Lynch is Doris and Bertie’s chief business writing expert.  As well as training and coaching business people on communication, she also teaches writing and presentation skills to international students at the University of Cambridge. 

Want to know more, while sharing ideas like these with your colleagues? Get in touch to arrange for Clare to give an informative and engaging ‘lunch and learn’ session in on intercultural communication in your workplace. And in the meantime, do share your experiences in the comments!

8 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Paul Eveleigh says:

    Thanks Clare for articulating what I’d always suspected but couldn’t explain.

  2. Rene says:

    Fascinating! I’ve always “known” that different cultures have different approaches to business negotiations, etc., but had never thought about the impact of those differences on their writing. Thanks for improving my understanding of the approach some non-native English speakers take in the essays I end up proofreading for them.

  3. Clare Lynch says:

    Paul – so many people have said the same thing to me in response to this article!

    Rene – It’s interesting you’ve noticed it in essays. What prompted me to write the post is that I spent the summer marking student essays from people who were non-native speakers. If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, I can recommend Matthew McCool’s book “Writing Around the World”.

  4. Andrew Denny says:

    This is very interesting & something I hadn’t thought of before. But it makes me wonder about how writing (& especially journalism) has evolved.

    Presumably English used to be reader-responsible too? That’s the only way I can understand the florid & convoluted style of earlier centuries. When did the change occur? Can we blame it on Hemingway?

  5. Clare Lynch says:

    Great question, Andrew. I have my own thoughts on this that warrant their own post. Watch this space!

  6. Vicki says:

    A friend told me about this last summer as I was preparing for a communication workshop. I added the information to the workshop. It applies to spoken communication as well as written.

  7. Tamara says:

    Your article got me musing, Clare! For 30 years I’ve happily subscribed to the Keep It Simple school of thought, which of course came into its own in the digital age. When I write for the ‘general audience’ on the web I take a mix of readability advice on board (Jacob Neilson’s 8th grader/13-year-old; average UK reading age of 9) – plus optimum sentence length of 19 words – to arrive at something I think can be universally understood.

    But this approach has its limits. While many of us pro writers like to think we can write ‘like a 5-year-old doing a PhD at Cambridge’, I’m not sure it’s possible when it comes to complex text (technical instructions, statutory advice etc) intended for a general audience. For one thing, anything reduced to its bare bones becomes glib and self-evident – managing to be both condescending and valueless to the reader. For another, over-simplification can mask a lack of understanding on the writer’s (and client’s) part. Examples of both abound in the public and private sphere.

    I wonder if there are any lessons the writer-responsible cultures can take from the reader-responsible ones to arrive at something that’s straightforward yet meaningful, respecting the intelligence of the reader? The holy grail 🙂

  8. Chris says:

    Clear, articulate, and revelatory. I’d noticed these distinct styles in reports and assumed some educational influence. To hear that there are reader and writer responsible cultures makes sense. A shame that I seem to have written many reader-responsible pieces in a writer-responsible setting in my time. I like the Russell reference.

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