Chapter 3 Navigate Cultural Differences Cross Cultural Commu

Student Writers

Bethany Bowles, Jennifer Blackwell, John Savage, & Zachary Anderson

Return to Journey to Successful Writing, Tour Guide to Technical Communication Menu

<i>As the workplace grows globally, you may find yourself in a culturally diverse work environment. Culture affects your written and verbal communication. This chapter will provide you with the information you need about certain cultural considerations, variables, and dimensions. You will be prepared for any situation in a collaborative environment by recognizing how cultures vary.</i>

Cultural Considerations

You should always consider cross-cultural audiences as you write documents about business, science, medicine, travel, or any other form of writing. Some cultures may be comfortable with a certain communication style while others may be offended by it (Lannon 645). Consider the importance of verbal and written cues as well as non-verbal or inferred cues of communication when putting together technical document.

Consider language differences as you write. Using direct language is accepted in some cultures such as the Middle East and Southern Europe, or it can be considered disrespectful and aggressive in other cultures such as Southeast Asia (Lannon 645). You will help the reader understand things better by stating them in multiple ways, causing less miscommunication and more clarity.

Include visuals in your writing to enhance understanding. If there is a language barrier, visuals will help the reader connect to your message Think about your readers. Ask yourself questions like these when you write for a diverse audience:

o How direct should I be in my writing?
o Should I be detailed-oriented or simplistic in my descriptions?
o Can I use allegories, similes, or metaphors in my writing, or should I avoid them?
o Will imperative sentences help or hinder the connection with the reader?
o Should I incorporate visuals in my writing or only use text?

If you are communicating in a group setting, think about how various cultures relate to each other. Do they work collectively or individually? Personal space is an importance subject to keep in mind as well. Some cultures like to be close and personal while others prefer to be stoic and impersonal.

Remember to understand your audience before writing a technical piece. Your communication will be less effective if you fail to consider your audience.

Cultural Bias

Cultural bias influences all people. It is impossible to avoid. Dr. Dan Jones believes that “the culture in which you write influences the way you write your technical documents” (Jones 226). In Technical Writing Style, Jones points out: “In the United States (and in many industrialized countries), technical communication requires simple, concise expression and clear thinking. Conflict with these requirements can arise in persons whose culture values detailed, subjective analyses and excessively philosophical argumentation" (Jones 226).

While it is important to communicate effectively across cultures, it is equally important to communicate effectively with people of different genders, races, ages, and physical abilities. It may be controversial to talk about these differences in some circles, but they should not be ignored, especially when your write business documents. In businesses, the words you choose are vital. Carefully construct your tone so that you do not offend anyone or cause confusion. Be careful in the way that you refer to groups of people. Avoid labels that could offend a group, even to the slightest degree.

Interactive Communication

From a psychological perspective, Fernando Poyatos researched non-verbal communication across cultures and defined his findings in Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Nonverbal Communication. He explains the triple reality of interactive discourse, which includes language, paralanguage, and kinesics.


Language can be defined in technical detail as “lexico-morphological syntactical complex, which has been traditionally considered as autonomous and a complete system” (Poyatos 36). However, two co-systems support language. Without these, language could not exist. One co-system is paralanguage, which determines the modifications of your voice, such as pitch or volume. For example, you may use a low-pitched, breathy voice in a passionate situation. The second co-system is kinesics, which determines how body language affects communication. For example, you might scratch your head as you talk to someone as a way to express your frustration. Kinesics may affect the way you write more so when you incorporate visuals into a document. Consider how different cultures interpret the body language you represent in your visuals.


There are four paralinguistic categories that researchers have studied across different cultures. They are primary qualities, qualifiers, differentiators, and alternates.

Primary Qualities

Primary qualities include the timbre, resonance, volume, tempo, pitch register, and rhythm of your voice. They can manifest biologically (timbre differs in male and female), physiologically (nasal resonance due to inflamed mucus membranes), psychologically (monotonous intonation of a depressed person), socially (speaker slows tempo to exude superiority), and culturally (higher and lower volumes depending on region) (Poyatos 38).


Qualifiers are the sound effects produced by various regional and cultural factors. The nasally twang of a Texan is a good example of this paralinguistic category.


Differentiators describe the way people laugh, cry, hiccup, belch, whisper, shout, or cough. They are set apart by education, culture, sex, or age. All differentiators can also vary according to culture.


The final paralanguage category is alternates, which are single or compound sounds such as sighs, clearing of throat, clicks, closed lip and open lip sounds, and meaningful silences. For example, people may say “Uh!”, “Mmhmm!”, “Psst!”, “Uh-uh”, and “Hm” (Poyatos, 39). These are not necessarily words, but they do convey a certain meaning.


Great technical communicators consider both the verbal and nonverbal sides of communication. You can do this by writing a document first, and then consider any nonverbal aspects associated with it. This process may help your message become decoded and received more accurately.

There are three categories of kinesic behavior: gestures, manners, and postures. This dimension of communication is subtle and nonverbal. There are two different types of kinesic behavior: free and bound. You demonstrate free kinesics by moving one or more parts of your body in the air, such as talking with your hands. You demonstrate bound kinesics by putting a hand to your mouth, gently putting your hand on another person’s shoulder, and even by placing your hand on a podium. You use bound kinesics when you touch yourself, others, or the objective environment (Poyatos 41). Pay attention to the intensity, range, speed of movement as you communicate with others, and remember that you may interpret these indicators differently than someone from another culture.

Consider Intrasystems, which are co-behaviors of facial expressions, body movements, and body positions. Consider the other person’s facial expressions and their entire body language when you communicate. Intersystem behavior such as tear shedding or touch can be neglected in cross-cultural communication, so remembering them will give you an advantage over your competitors.

You should also consider how different cultures view silence and stillness. People can demonstrate an “unfilled pause” as a response from a motionless speaker with a stance of expectancy or a listener’s stance of shock. A “filled pause” can also be a lexical paralinguistic alternate such as “Er” or “Um” (Poyatos 43). Various cultures use both stillness and silence in many ways.

Kinesic Coding and Decoding

Listed below are some sender/receiver aspects of coding and decoding information and the intent of the information from a cross-cultural interpretation.

Linguistic Coding Example

Homomorphs-synonyms: Same form and meaning Having a palm facing receiver with all five fingers extended is considered a hello or greeting in England, America, and Australia.
Antomorphs-antonyms: Different form and meaning Eyes downcast in Asian cultures and eye contact in America culture are signs of respect.
Antomorphs-synonyms: Different form and same meaning In Japan, pointing an index finger to the nose means of “I”. Americans point to the chest for “I”.
Homomorphs-antonyms: Same form but different meaning. In America, when index and thumb fingers touch and the three other fingers extended, it means everything is good. In Japan, it means the person has no worth.

These false cognates in kinesics language can lead to delayed decoding.

Non-verbal behavior symbolizes more than specific meanings—it is expressive of entire cultural viewpoints (Engel 96). The cultural gap is not just help to exotic and non-exotic cultures. It is found between all cultures including subcultures.

Examples of Cross-Cultural Communication

Linguist Giacomo Devoto said, “Words can be robust and flexible (in the terms of meaning), but through misuse they can become deformed, stiff and temporarily ‘sick’” (Zhu 180). Words or expressions that have the same form in two or more languages but convey different meanings are considered by Mona Baker as “False friends” (Zhu 181).

These False Friends exist because of lexical borrowing from various languages. You should look at False Friends at the level of words. The meaning of a word may change when it is borrowed from another language. The borrowed word may even develop several connotations. Consider the similar words that come from the Latin word “preseruatiuum”:

o “preservative” (English)
o “preservative” (French)
o “Präservativ” (German)
o “prezervativ” (Czech)
o “preservative” (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese)
o “prezerwatywa” (Polish)

In all these languages except English, the word mostly means condom and it is a false friend (Zhu 181). This is just one of many examples that technical communicators deal with regularly. It is very important that you understand your audience in all dimensions.

This example of False Friends operates on the phrasal level. American and British negotiators found themselves at a lull in talks because when the American company proposed that they “table” particular points. In America, “tabling a motion” means to not discuss something, and in England, it means to discuss something. Both sides were confused about what to do because of this cultural blunder (Zhu 182).

The next example of False Friends is on the grammatical level. When the Pope visited Miami, an entrepreneur made t-shirts saying, “I saw the Pope” in Spanish. He did not know that the definite article in Spanish has two genders. Instead of printing “El Papa” (the Pope), he printed “La Papa” (the potato). The venture flopped because no one wanted a t-shirt that said, “I saw the potato” (Zhu 183).

McDonald’s failed to consider the Chinese culture when they released a commercial that featured a Chinese man kneeling and begging for a discount. Chinese customers were insulted because they view kneeling as a sign of respect or in this case disrespect. The Chinese also felt that the commercial hinted of American imperialism (Chan 5).

The China Business Review mentions a Nike advertising campaign entitled “Chamber of Fear”. In the advertisement, Lebron James defeats a master of Kung Fu, ancient fairies, and two dragons. The characters were Chinese-styled cartoons. China accused Nike of being insensitive and denigrating their culture. China’s State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television banned the commercial to “protect national honor and traditional Chinese culture” (Chan 6).
All of these examples publicly display the incompetence of not only the companies that produced these blunders, but also the incompetency of the writers who wrote them. To avoid these problems, always research your audience before you create any form of communication for them. You may lose your job if you fail to do so.

Cultural Variables

Cultural variables exist in every facet of your life. They influence your writing whether you know it or not. So what exactly are cultural variables? They can be anything that classifies groups of people by a single variable. For example, people can be grouped by their education level (high school, vocational, college, etc.). This portion of the chapter covers seven important variables that may affect your writing. They are economic, educational, linguistic, political, religious, social, and technological variables.


Economic variables define cultures by their wealth. Societies determine whether people are rich or poor based on how much material possessions they have or can attain. For example, you might assume that a person is poor or even homeless based on the condition of their clothing. This economic variable would affect the way you would approach and write for this person. Therefore, you should remember that all cultures have economic variables that will affect the way you write.

It is important to consider economics when writing. People’s status of wealth will determine the way they interpret what they read. Because some people cannot afford certain things (or even anything), you must write with a focus on ‘fairness’. In other words, you must write to eliminate a sense of entitlement that often arises in economic differences.

Take Africa for example. Many areas of Africa have few possessions, especially according to the standards of western culture. Many Africans are limited economically and cannot gain access to computers or the internet. Therefore, you would not use a webpage to reach an audience that cannot afford a computer.

Remember also that cultures measure wealth differently. A wealthy person from the United States may own several laptop computers, whereas a wealthy person from Africa may own several cows. One might not find value each other’s possession because both people define wealth differently. The difference is in the definition. Consider what each cultures value when you write.


Educational variables define cultures by how much they emphasize education. You might use the terms smart and dumb, or more politely, uneducated when discussing this variable, but you should also consider terms like access and availability. Not everyone has the opportunity to become well educated.

Western cultures often stress the importance of education in local and national politics. They attempt to create a stronger foundation of education that will increase the knowledge of society through the public school systems. However, when comparing western cultures with those of Japan, there is a large gap between the educational levels. This gap is mostly due to the level of stress placed on educational values.

When looking at some Asian cultures, such as Japan, you may see a completely different stress placed on education. Children are monitored very closely at school and are limited in their extracurricular activity. Their social lives are limited, and a majority of their childhood is spent in the classroom. As a result, Japanese students score high on annual intelligence tests that continually outpace American students.

As you write, it is important to consider differences in the level of education of cultures. While the focus tends to be on a person’s intelligence or their ability to interpret what is written, you should also consider how seriously people feel about their own education. The motivation behind learning is as important as learning itself.


Linguistic variables define how cultures are affected by language. Languages can help identify a culture. Even when they do, cultures can be further broken up between dialects or accents. Linguistics is an important cultural factor because it helps define how you write and how you orally communicate with others.

Chevrolet failed to recognize a linguistic variable with their Nova model and it cost them. The model was well known in America, so Chevrolet released it in Mexico. However, the Nova was not successful because of a linguistic error.
In Spanish, “no va” roughly translates as “does not go”. Mexicans did not want a car that did not go. Therefore, they would not buy a Nova. This linguistic variable affected the sales for a line of cars in a whole country. Being aware of various languages is important in cross-cultural communication. Chevrolet could have caught the problem earlier if they had considered their audience better. They would not have lost so much money by releasing a car that had name that drove away customers (literally).


Political variables define how cultures are influenced and affected by their political situations and history. In many cultures, you use party terms to define where political ties lie. Americans may use terms like Republican and Democrat to express their political beliefs and alliances.

When writing, it is important to understand your audience’s political beliefs if you can. You would not want to make positive references to socialism in a conservative forum. Be sure to research popular political groups that inhabit the regions for which you will be writing.


Religion is a sensitive variable and must be treated as such. Many find solace and recognition in their personal faiths and it is very important to them. Writing often tries to be unbiased or sympathetic to the concerns of religion but without proper indication to a religion, it will come off as hollow and impersonal.


Social variables define how cultures act as a society. You may find that most nations have several hundred different societal cultures. It is an incredibly difficult task to consider all of the possible social variables elements. Even researching, to a large context, cannot do multiple societies justice. The most important factor to consider, then, is how affective that society is. You can make the most influential writing based summarily on that society-culture’s importance in the community.


Technological aspects differ from culture to culture based significantly on that culture’s ability access technology. One could argue that a culture’s economics ties directly in with their acquisition (or lack thereof) of technological advances. However, the access and knowledge allow for a greater sense of transference of technology, existing more in the realm of information than that of possessive wealth.

Think about the two ‘wealthy’ people: one owned several laptop computers and the other owned several cows. While you could consider both men wealthy (according to their culture), you can only consider one technologically advanced. This, of course, then, has very little to do in a monetary sense, but more so in accessibility and knowledge.

When writing, consider a culture's advancement in technology and how it affects their local linguistics and knowledge.

Modules of Cultural Dimensions

Over the years, researchers have developed several modules that discuss the differences between cultures. Even though these variables apply to different cultures, you should remember that people are still individuals who have their own personalities. People can and often do fall outside of their cultural dimension. These theories explain factors that different cultures widely accept among themselves.

This section discusses three theories of cultural communication. The first is the Iceberg Module, which explains why you need to look beyond the ten percent of a culture that you initially see. The second theory is Hofstede’s Cultural Values Dimension, which describes how cultures vary. The last theory is Hall’s Theory of Contexting, which details the difference between low-context and high-context cultures.

The Iceberg Module

The Iceberg Module dictates that you should judge a culture based on any superficial impressions. When you see an iceberg from the ocean’s surface, you are actually only seeing a portion of that iceberg. In fact, nearly ninety percent of that iceberg is under water. The same concept applies when you look at a culture.

Firstly and most importantly, you should avoid stereotypes. Stereotypes are usually based off that ten percent of a culture that you initially see. Do not write in a way that addresses a culture by the stereotypes that are associated with it.
For example, Russian men have a low life expectancy, living to be fifty-nine years old on average according to the CIA World Factbook. A contributing factor is that Russian men statistically drink too much alcohol. If you look at the superficial ten percent here, you might assume that all Russian men drink too much vodka. This information might tempt you to use vodka in your writing or as a visual element in order to reach the market of Russian men better. You would be making an unwise and unethical choice, because you will alienate men who make wiser drinking choices.

So just remember—if you think something you are writing may be based on a stereotype or a superficial idea of a culture, take it out of your writing.

Hofstede’s Cultural Value Dimensions

In 1967, Professor Geert Hofstede began an extensive experiment for IBM that categorized the way cultures interact. If you still believe that people of different cultures react to the same situations similarly, then pay close attention to this section. Cultures interact differently. Hofstede researched these differences and created his five cultural value dimensions. Each culture varies on the scale for each dimension.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

This dimension describes how people interact with each other within a society.

Individualistic cultures value people who do things on their own. These cultures respect independent people. People move into their own places before they start a family. In business, relationships are secondary.
Collectivist cultures remain in groups. Families share housing with their extended family members. People do not usually move into their own place well into adulthood unless they marry. In business, relationships are important.
Remember this dimension because these values are extremely important to a culture. You may want to use ‘I’ and ‘you’ as your pronoun of choice with individualistic cultures. You may want to use ‘we’ and ‘us’ as your pronoun of choice with collectivist cultures.

Power Distance Index

This dimension describes how well cultures respond to authority.

Cultures with a high-power distance place more power on the one who is in charge. Authoritative governments use a high-power distance to suppress the common citizens, and citizens are too fearful to confront that government. Employees will not refer to CEOs by their first names.

Cultures with low-power distance will are more likely to have informal relationships with those in authority. Citizens are able to peacefully protest their government. Employees may refer to a CEO by first name.
You should be careful how you word your documents for a high-power distance culture. The words you write can have a negative impact on the organization for which you are writing.

Uncertainty Avoidance Index

This dimension describes how well people accept uncertain situations.

Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance are less likely to take risks. They want to be sure of the outcomes. People with high levels of this dimension are uncomfortable in unstructured environments.
Cultures with low-uncertainty avoidance are more likely to take risks. They are comfortable when the outcomes are uncertain. People with low levels of this dimension may thrive in uncertain environments whereas people with high levels would fail.

Remember this dimension when you write because cultures with high-uncertainty avoidance will not want to read material that involves risks. Cultures with low uncertainty avoidance are more willing to take risks. These factors will affect which features you will highlight in your writing.

Masculine vs. Feminine

This dimension talks about traditional male and female roles, such as commanding for male or nurturing for female. This dimension does not reflect how males and females should be.
Masculine societies are more assertive and competitive. They focus on gaining wealth and power. Feminine societies are modest, caring, and nurturing. They focus on the relationships developed among people.
Remember this dimension in your writing in order to appeal to the values of a culture. You would not want to write something that focuses on material gain when your document is addressing a feminine society.
Remember that this cultural dimension is not intended to encourage sexist stereotypes. It does not mean that men or women should meet certain expectations.

Short and Long Term Orientation

This dimension describes how cultures focus on either long-term or short-term goals.

Short-term cultures focus on immediate results. They look at quarterly statements and may only think as far ahead as the next quarterly statement. They base their decisions on what brings immediate results.
Long-term cultures focus on the future. They think about how their decision will affect their organization in five, ten, or twenty years. They base their decisions on what provides sustainable results.
You should remember to write for short-term cultures differently than you would for long-term, especially if you are making a persuasive argument or trying to sell something. For short-term cultures, focus on the immediate effects of your writing, especially if you are writing to persuade. For long-term cultures, focus on the lasting effects.

Hall’s Theory of Contexting

Hall’s theory explains the difference between high-context and low-context cultures. High-context cultures imply much of their meaning. Low context cultures state their meaning bluntly and in a way that is not open for interpretation.


High-context cultures expect their members to know particular traditions without explicitly explaining them. You cannot always join a conversation and know what is being talked about because of so many inferences made about political figures, celebrities, characters or events found in literature, acquaintances, and family members. Members of these cultures are expected to follow conventions.
Russia and Japan are good examples of high-context cultures. A Russian conversation may include characters from a Tolstoy novel, the political uprisings of the twentieth century, and an old neighbor who both people know. A person who knows Russian but does not know about Russia’s history would be lost in the conversation. Japanese business people know who the leader is because he or she enters a room first. You would offend the leader if you entered the room before him or her. You must be aware of these cultural expectations.


Low-context cultures do not rely on implied meaning. Everything that is said in a conversation must be able to be understood in its own context. If people reference literature in a conversation, they will take out some time to explain the synopsis of that piece of literature first. Low-context cultures do not assume that audiences know what they are talking about or what they mean to say. They make themselves clear.

The United States is close to the center of Hall’s scale, leaning more towards the lower end. You can imply information, but this usually occurs in informal conversations between people who really know each other well. In a public forum, information is clearly defined.

How Hall’s Theory Affects Your Writing

If you write for a high-context culture, try to research something about that culture first. You may want to reference a political event that people from that culture would know. You may want to read some literature that is relevant and important to that culture. The most important thing to do is understand the scenarios where you will be expected to know something that is implied. You could really stand out from the competition by knowing these scenarios.


You can communicate effectively different cultures by taking the time to understand their differences and similarities. You should always respect those who you work with, those who you write for, and generally just those who fall under the classification of human being. Be patient with people when misunderstandings arise. Be flexible. Observe others and listen actively. Choose your words carefully when you communicate by avoiding slang, idioms, and cultural references. Be polite and professional, and you will avoid many potential cultural conflicts.