Is English a “writer-responsible language” and Chinese, Korean, and Japanese “reader-responsible languages”?

« previous post | next post »

These are totally new concepts for me.  Until David Cragin told me about them, I had never heard of reader-responsible language and writer-responsible language.

Dave works for Merck in the Safety & Environment group, knows Mandarin, has been to China 12 times since 2005, and teaches a short course on risk assessment and critical thinking at Peking University every year.  He was recently appointed to the Executive Committee of the US-based Sino-American Pharmaceuticals Professional Association (SAPA), so he has a professional and personal interest in cross-cultural communication.

In an earlier post, we discussed another, related issue that interests Dave:  “Critical thinking“.

Let us begin our inquiry by considering this post from the CAL Learning (Culture and Language Training for a Multicultural Workplace) Blog by Lauren Supraner:  “Who Is Responsible for the Message?”

Here are a couple of key excerpts:

English is a writer-responsible language.  That means it is the responsibility of the writer to make sure the message is understood. Writing is clear, direct and unambiguous. Schools teach from early on the importance of  structure, thesis statement and topic sentences when writing in English.  A good writer assumes no or little background knowledge on the part of the reader.

Korean, Chinese, and Japanese are reader-responsible languages. That means the reader is responsible for deciphering the message, which is often not stated explicitly. For an American who is expecting direct and explicit information, this style can be very confusing.

Dave says that he agrees with the description of English writing.  However, he acknowledges that he lacks sufficient basis to make a judgment on the writing of Asian languages.

The post cited above also pertains to speaking because it can fit a similar model.  Good speakers in the West see it as their responsibility for the audience to understand them.  In contrast, Dave says that when he has heard a regulatory official in China give a less-than-captivating talk (i.e., reading from a script), Chinese colleagues have explained, “he’s important, we need to listen and understand what he says.”  Naturally, there are exceptions to these patterns in both the US and China.

Dave thinks that a good example of the English model is the Wall Street Journal, because they always assume the reader has no knowledge and, as a result, almost anyone can read the paper and understand it.

For example, when the WSJ talks about a company, it always explains the company’s business.  This headline gives a simple example:

McDonald’s Expects Further Challenges

Fast-Food Company Takes Steps to Repair Its Business Fundamentals

While everyone in the US should know McDonald’s is a fast-food company, the WSJ still states it (and will restate it almost any time they mention McDonald’s in an article).

Or Walmart:

Wal-Mart Looks to Grow by Embracing Smaller Stores

Retailer Tries New Business Models as Its Superstores Fall Out of Favor

Everyone knows Walmart is a retailer, but the WSJ still makes this point.  If they didn’t do this, they’d have to decide which companies are known and which aren’t known.  By assuming no reader knowledge, they are always consistent.  If they don’t do it in the headline, they do it in the text.

Another look at the concept under discussion may be found in this article, “Reader-Writer Responsible”, from the “Valuing Written Accents:  International Voices in the U.S. Academy” program of the Writing Center at George Mason University, from which I take this excerpt:

Many of our informants were confused about why their teachers in the U.S. placed so much emphasis on structuring a paper, including having an explicit thesis and topic sentences. For many, this confusion stems from their experiences writing within “reader-responsible” cultures. In “reader-responsible” languages, according to John Hinds’ influential “typology” across languages, the burden is on readers for extracting the meaning from the text. In Asian cultures in particular (e.g. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai), readers expect ambiguity and imprecise writing as they work their way inductively through the text. In contrast, in our writer-responsible culture, English-speaking readers expect writers to be explicit and direct. Because of these differing expectations, Hinds says, English-speaking writers typically compose across multiple drafts whereas Japanese writers, for example, may compose only one draft, which is the final product. Even in highly structured genres like the scientific research report, according to many scholars of contrastive rhetoric, reader-responsible conventions are still apparent1.

A scholarly paper focusing on Chinese may be had in Xiukun Qi and Lida Liu (Harbin Institute of Technology, China), “Differences between Reader/Writer Responsible Languages Reflected in EFL Learners’ Writing”, Intercultural Communication Studies, 16.3 (2007), 148-159.

(pdf from this link)

This paper reveals the common occurrence in many Chinese EFL student learners’ English writings of a large number of sayings and parallel structures, and of diffusely organized rhetorical structures. Following the theory that the reader-responsible language differs in some way from the writer-responsible language, this study finds that the above mentioned phenomena in students’ writing do reflect some differences between the two languages, in that Chinese written discourse is likely to require readers’ background knowledge for understanding, while English written discourse tends to elaborate major propositions; Chinese rhetorical structures are often intuitively organized, while English structures are logically organized; and Chinese discourse appears to be expressive while English tends to informative. From the view of cognitive linguistics, these differences are attributed to the choice of different cognitive patterns such as imagery, metaphor, perspective, salience, selection, and encyclopedic knowledge. It is the choice of cognitive patterns that opens up a new way for Chinese EFL learners to gain clarity about the pattern of the written discourse of the target language.

Dave asked a Japanese friend who is a professor at the University of Tokyo about the article by Supraner cited near the beginning of this post and whether she agreed that Japanese is a reader-responsible language.  She said “yes”, and elaborated (forgive her English):

It’s very interesting and I agree with the statement though not sure about Chinese or Korean but as far as Japanese is considered, I think it is true.  In the lecture of Japanese language since elementary school to high school, we learn how to read between lines and actually, even government administrative documents or even constitution, ambiguous expression is used.

Therefore, for example article 9 of Japanese constitution, which is about pacifism, war renunciation and abandon war potential, we discuss about the possibility and to what extent our self defense force can act in the world crisis.

In his daily work, Dave says that he often gets involved in discussions with colleagues from Europe and elsewhere about how to interpret Chinese regulations and how to deal with confusion about the law’s requirements.  There is an issue with ambiguity in how Chinese regulations are written and this can make compliance difficult.  The China Daily recently discussed this as regards employment law.  In particular, see the last panel on “Ambiguities in Chinese laws that may lead to discrimination disputes”, which contrasts Chinese laws with US laws.

While this pertains to employment law, it’s true in other legal arenas as well.

Recently, I received this message from a Chinese colleague who was planning to come to Penn for a visit (I had told him that I had a conflict and wouldn’t be able to see him, but that my colleagues were eager to meet with him):

It is a pity but it is fine if I do not meet you this time. I would like to see the Asian Week too at the NY but I am not sure if I would have chance this time.

The quality of the English is by no means poor, but when I showed these sentences to the three of my colleagues who were planning to meet with this visiting Chinese scholar when he came to Penn, none of them was able to say with assurance whether he was still intending to come or not.  Consequently, since he was writing in English, I am tempted to say that, rather than there being reader-responsible languages and writer-responsible languages, there are reader-responsible cultures and writer-responsible cultures.  Of course, one of the chief manifestations of culture is language, so a reader-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in reader-responsible language and writer-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in writer-responsible language.  Naturally, however, if someone with a background in reader-responsible language / culture is determined to write in a clear and unambiguous manner, that is possible, and if a person with a background in writer-responsible language / culture wishes to be vague and ambiguous, that too is possible.

 



42 Comments

  1. David Moser said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    This post seems to touch on a very broad issue of the differential information-processing demands of Chinese vs. Indo-European. The linguist Wang Li 王力 once characterized the difference in syntactical informational demands this way: “就句子的结构而论,西洋语言是法治的,中国语言是人治的。” In saying Western languages are “rule/law-based” whereas Chinese was “person (reader) based”, what he meant was that gleaning the meaning of a Chinese sentence requires more contextual and inferential clues on the part of the reader, whereas Western and Indo-European languages tend to spell out semantic and logical relations more explicitly and in a more rule-based way. This topic overlaps with Wang Li’s observation to a considerable degree.

  2. John Shutt said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    This might have interesting consequences for how news would be written in different languages (from my own perspective I’m thinking of different language editions of Wikinews).

  3. michael farris said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    In Europe I informally call this plain language vs elaborate language (and corresponds roughly with Uncertainty Avoidance – low uncertainty avoidance cultures are more prone to prefer plain language and high uncertainty avoidance cultures are more prone to prefer elaborate language).

    Pllain languages include English, Scandinavian languages like Danish and probably Dutch. The idea behind plain language is that good writing is as clear as possible. Explaining difficult topics in a clear way is perceived as a skill worth cultivating.

    In elaborate languages (most of the other european languages) an important topic must be presented in important sounding language which usually means intricate sentence structure and lots of arcane vocabulary of the type brought out only for special occasions. A topic written about in such a manner that simply anyone could understand is thought to be dubious and certainly not very academic or important.

  4. York Weatherford said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    This also brings to mind Hall’s concept of high- and low-context cultures. It definitely rings true after 20 years of dealing with Japanese university students’ writing.

  5. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:05 am

    There seems to be a confusion here between specific American educational and journalistic practices, on the one hand, and the English language, on the other. It isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a rule of English that one should always begin with a topic statement, etc.

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    Perhaps one reason that Scandinavian languages emphasize clarity is that there is a lack of distinct plural forms in verbs and neuter nouns. When you write Swedish you have to make sure that the context carries the needed info. Afrikaans also gets by with sketchy grammar, but I very seldom encounter any ambiguity. I’d classify Afrikaans as a Swiss Army knife type of language.

  7. Lane said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:26 am

    I don’t think the WSJ’s “fast-food restaurant” and “retailer” were meant to help the reader, but were a form of “elegant variation”, avoiding either an awkward pronoun (substituting “it” looks weird) or a repetition of the name. This is common in western (journalistic and other) prose – I just ran across an essay about the same “synonymomania” in German. (They like to use town names, so a company on third or fourth mention might be “die Düsseldorfer” or, here, “die Taunussteiner”, those from the company based in Taunusstein, referring to Brita: http://www.handelsblatt.com/unternehmen/mittelstand/brita-chef-markus-hankammer-in-zukunft-designt-jeder-sein-wasser-selbst/10667668.html)

  8. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 9:46 am

    I’ve never heard of this distinction either but it is very much the same as Hofstede’s high-context and low-context cultures. The problem is that all this research is done in the context of business and office communications.

    In fact, both cultures are reader / writer responsible – they just differ in where they assume context is known. Making this division is as silly as Brits saying that Americans don’t understand irony when all the examples given are of people who just don’t share a cultural context.

    I am prepared to agree that American English in particular, occurs in communicative contexts where people don’t share as much cultural and situational context as with other languages, so it may have developed more strategies to deal with that situation. However, even so, far more research than a few anecdotes would be needed.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    Keeping in mind Andrew (not the same one)’s point that this is about standards in certain parts of society, not about languages, I wonder how the Nobel committee works. Are they capable of judging writers in every culture according to the literary standards of that culture? Though I supposed the best English literature is expected to be more reader-responsible than political speeches or newspaper articles.

    Lane: I don’t think there would have been anything wrong with

    McDonald’s Expects Further Challenges

    Takes Steps to Repair Its Business Fundamentals

  10. Jonathan Badger said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    On the other hand. it’s strange that the example uses headlines. As this blog has pointed out many times with “crash blossoms”, headlines written in English can be ambiguous in way headlines rarely are in other languages as my favorites “McDonald’s Fries Holy Grail For Potato Farmers” or “Mountain Lion Calls Swamp Police”

  11. Doctor Science said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 11:36 am

    I absolutely disagree about this being a characteristic of *languages*. This is all about *cultures*. What michael farris says:

    an important topic must be presented in important sounding language which usually means intricate sentence structure and lots of arcane vocabulary of the type brought out only for special occasions. A topic written about in such a manner that simply anyone could understand is thought to be dubious and certainly not very academic or important.

    was very much true of English in the 17th century, and to a large extent in the 19th, as well.

    In other words, English (e.g.) can be used in both high-context and low-context cultures, and in writer-responsible or in reader-responsible ways. I know of no reason whatsoever that this could not be true of Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, or Navaho, as well.

    The only way in which the *language* influences this cultural choice is that the current corpus may give speakers/writers more or less equipment to easily construct high- or low-context sentences. e.g. if you read enough 17th-century English, you can find yourself writing flowerly, high-context prose instead of the stripped-down, hyper-low-context English of the internet.

  12. michael farris said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    Andrew (not the same one): Yes, I assumed that it would be obvious that distinctions like this are about general cultural preferences rather than elements of the language themselves, but (in true low context fashion) it never hurts to make that ponit explicit.

  13. marie-lucie said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

    This topic was discussed in a Languaghat post of March 28, 2009 “On writing well” and in several of the comments, which are still relevant.. Here was mine:

    In France it is considered uncouth to begin a paper with a direct statement of your purpose in writing it. It is better to start with a general statement giving little inkling of what you intend to write about, and to get to the topic little by little. Your ending should also be something general, if possible veering off the topic, and certainly not a summary of what you just wrote.
    In the Memoirs of the late scholar, novelist and columnist Robert Escarpit, he tells how he and a friend, about to sit for a very competitive exam (including several essays over a period of days), dared each other to begin and end one essay (regardless of topic) with the following sentences, respectively (I quote from memory): Le merveilleux instinct des insectes supérieurs leur permet de subvenir à leurs besoins dans toutes les circonstances de leur existence and Au fond, ce n’est qu’une angoisse qui se cherche (“The wonderful instinct of higher insects lets them find everything necessary to their needs in all the circumstances of their lives” and “Basically, it is but an anguish in search of itself”). (He succeeded, and did pass the exam, but the friend could only manage to include one of these sentences)

    However, this comment may now be less pertinent, because of the influence of American works, translated or not.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

    Since data-based conclusions are so popular here at Language Log, I wonder whether there have been (or could be) any studies about these cultural differences.

    Incidentally, I first heard “high-context” and “low-context” from someone who (revealingly) didn’t define them, and I guessed they meant the opposite of what they mean. I find “reader-responsible” and “writer-responsible” easier to understand. “Reader-responsible” is a lot like “writerly”, right?

  15. Job van der Zwan said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

    Could part of the cause be the underlying writing system itself? The Western alphabet is phoneme based, whereas Chinese characters represent a word or concept and are more dependent on context for their meaning. I can imagine that shaping the way one writes.

  16. Not a naive speaker said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

    A writer-responsible writing system is for the masses, a reader-responsible system was created by a leisure class.

    In my opinion the writer has the burden to help the reader (word separators, interpunction &c.) The writer should help to make the reading process easier. Some options you don’t have, you have to abide to the chinese or japanese conventions.

    Some choices you have: Non-vocalized semitic scripts put a burden on the reader, so vocalize your arabic or ivrit.

  17. Daniel McCurry said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

    I experienced this issue today in my academic English writing class. My job is to prepare international students to enter an American university setting and part of that is learning how to write “American style.” I spoke with several students today about how to revise their paper and the most frequent issue was a lack of clarity. Students often write around the topic without coming out and and explicitly stating a thesis or point. In my anecdotal experience I would say yes to the query posed in title.

  18. maidhc said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    I think the discussion doesn’t distinguish sufficiently between different types of writing, for instance journalism, business or technical writing, legal documents, academic research papers, creative writing.

    In writing a set of instructions for servicing a jet engine, any ambiguity could be fatal. Ambiguity in legal contracts can lead to long expensive court cases. In creative writing though, ambiguity is often considered to be a desirable artistic effect.

    In the case of an academic paper, I suppose it’s to some extent culturally determined whether the goal is to transfer information in an effective manner, or to impress the reader with the erudition of the author. Similarly, the goal of teaching university students to write essays in a general education class is often not well-defined.

  19. Zeppelin said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    The fun part would be to see if “reader-responsibility” vs. “writer-responsibility” correlates with language that prioritise ease of articulation (French, Japanese, Indo-Aryan languages…) with lots of sandhi and similar sound changes vs. ones that prioritise ease of (acoustic) comprehension (German I guess? most Caucasian languages?). …I used to have a pair of technical terms for these types, but I seem to have misplaced them.
    Abkhaz definitely seems to have a strong dislike for ambiguity and non-specificity. They’ve got dozens of prepositions that are only used with one verbal action each, and syntactic rules for avoiding the “Policeman chased the robber with the bat” problem. And just very thorough grammatical marking in general.

  20. Zeppelin said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    Right, found the papers from the Abkhaz seminar — in a phrase like “The policeman chases the thief on a motorcycle”, whoever comes immediately before the verb is the one on the motorcycle (Abkhaz is verb-final). No idea how common that sort of thing is.

    Some fun hyper-specific prepositions I have here are sh’t(a)- “in [the tracks of]”, gar(a)- “in [a cradle]”, k’n(a)- “on [a hook]”-, xx- “on [a nest]”, chpn- “at [a river bank]”, chh°(a)- “by [a fire]” etc. etc.

  21. hector said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    “English is a writer-responsible language. That means it is the responsibility of the writer to make sure the message is understood. Writing is clear, direct and unambiguous.”

    — As a reader, this strikes me as a very idealistic description. “Clear” writing is hard, and thus often unattained; “direct” writing is often inadvisable, and avoided for good reasons (social acceptability, or not offending someone, especially the powerful, etc.). And given that life itself is very often ambiguous, a “clear” description of the circumstances often demands ambiguity. This conflict results, in my opinion, in a lot of “clear” writing that wishes the ambiguity away by ignoring it, thus violating the demand to be “direct,” since if you’re hiding something, you’re not being direct.

    @ Dominik Lukes: I once read (roughly a decade ago) a newspaper article about a comedy festival in Canada in which a prominent American comedian (don’t remember which one) said he loved performing in Canada because Canadians understood irony. On the other hand, I would agree that some Englishmen believe that all other human cultures lack an appreciation of the most evolved, most refined form of humour — their own. A lingering vestige of the glory days of the British Empire, perhaps, when it was thought that all aspects of English culture were the peak of human achievement.

  22. Sergey said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

    Maybe my original culture is context-dependent too, but I’d say that the last quote from the Chinese colleague is crystal-clear: you’ve already agreed that he is visiting at Penn, so he is expressing his regret that he would not be able to meet you during this visit, and starts the new thread of conversation that he would also like to also visit NY but doubts that he’d be able to. Your original agreement still stands unchanged.

    I actually find it difficult to communicate with people that require the restatement of context all the time. Both when I’m speaking/writing, since I tend to drop this context, and when listening/reading, since the text becomes very repetitive, and locating the new information among the repetitions of the old one requires a lot of effort, I tend to just miss it.

  23. Jim Breen said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

    If I can repeat a point made by Jay Rubin in his “Making Sense Of Japanese”, it’s not the language itself that is vague, writer/reader-responsible, etc. but the way the language is used by its speakers/writers.

    I guess we prefer not to sound critical of people, so it’s easier to say “the Japanese language is ….” when in fact what we are really saying is “the Japanese culture leads Japanese people to …..”.

  24. Eidolon said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    Doesn’t literary Chinese suffer from this very problem of requiring overmuch ‘reader-responsibility’ due to the pursuit of compactness? Though they’ve switched to writing in a colloquial manner, the stylistic legacy of having composed in such a way for centuries did not necessarily go away. Of course, I don’t imagine any of the three countries teaches writing via the Classics today, but I also don’t imagine they teach writing the way Anglo-American education systems do.

  25. Yuanfei said,

    September 8, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

    The concepts of reader-responsible language and writer-responsible language remind me of Barthes’ concepts of “readerly text” and “writerly text.” Whereas a “readerly text” means the reader is passive in the process of reading, as only a receiver of fixed information, a “writerly text” means the text invites the reader to be active in reading. A writerly text is aware of itself as a work of art. Barthes refers to realistic novels, or any “classic text” as examples to demonstrate his “readerly text”; and for “writerly text” it is Ulysses, even though an active reader can read a “readerly text” as a “writerly text.” I think what is interesting is Barthes didn’t consider language as writer-responsible or not. For him, any language, perhaps even including Asian languages, can create writerly and readerly texts. That means, even if the message is not expressed as clearly in Chinese as in English, the text written in Chinese can still be a “readerly text,” however this text is subject to the reader’s reading between lines. I think this is true in that many Chinese narratives are didactic. But if what is said in Dr. Mair’s post here is true, then that means for Barthes, it seems, English-language literature is more clearly expressed, less ambiguous, and more predetermined, thus would not allow the reader to participate more actively in his or her journey of reading? I am not sure this is the case, but definitely, every time I read an English novel or story, I feel the story is set out more clearly than a Chinese story. Also, it seems an “Orientalistic” point of view is that Asia is the place of poetics.

  26. Akito said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 1:17 am

    @Sergey: “I actually find it difficult to communicate with people that require the restatement of context all the time.”

    This reminds me of the often repeated claim that Japanese lacks the subject. It usually turns out that repeating the topic/theme of the discourse is avoided, as it is obvious from the context. That said, I do find some Japanese writing baffling even though it is my own language. Perhaps English speakers put more self-editing into their writing (writer-responsible)?

  27. D.O. said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 6:03 am

    Never mind writing. Not a month ago, everybody at my place of work was informed by appropriate authorities that in a case of umbrage-causing ambiguity the speaker is in the wrong. It was not stated explicitly though whether immediate execution would be in order or sincere apology would suffice.

  28. Movenon said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 11:28 am

    Is Legalese English a writer-responsible language?

  29. Victor Mair said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 11:51 am

    @Sergey

    As I noted, the three other colleagues with whom the Chinese scholar was going to meet when he came to Penn not being clear about whether he was still coming or not after I told him that I’d be travelling, one of them wrote to him to ask explicitly if he were still planning to come. Here’s his reply:

    =====

    Thank you very much for your message and your planing to recieve me at your UPenn. I am going to DC from NY on the 18th, so Phila is on my
    way. I will make an appointment to visit the Phila Museum of Art, but
    if Victor is not there, I might not come to U Penn to visit you this time.

    However, I will be in NY from the 14-17th Sept and give a lecture about the textiles from XXXX at the YYYY, if Victor or you are in NY in case, we could probably meet during the Asian Week.

    =====

    My colleagues are still not sure about his actual intentions, but I can read between the lines (like a Chinese), so I know what he wants to communicate.

  30. Freddy said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    How long have the Asians been trying to tell us this?
    And how long have westerners been missing the point?

    And what were Xiukun Qi and Lida Liu *really* trying to say when they wrote that paper that purports to be about “Differences between Reader/Writer Responsible Languages Reflected in EFL Learners’ Writing”?

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    Even within English there can be substantial variations over time and between genres and registers on how much work the writer is expected to do to make things clear. Do you quote bits of Latin without offering an English translation? Do you quote or paraphrase a Biblical passage without giving a chapter-and-verse citation (or without even explicitly signalling that the Bible is the text of origin)? Do you use bits of field-specific insider jargon without explaining/defining them? It depends, and (as noted above) it depends in part on assumptions about how much context (and what sort of context) the piece’s hypothetical reader is likely to bring to the table without needing it explicitly set forth. Writing for a general/mass audience is ceteris paribus a lower-context situation than writing for an elite/specialized audience.

    In some legalese-type contexts (potentially including the workplace situation D.O. referenced, mutatis mutandis for an oral context), the situation is different because instead of a standard Gricean default assumption that the reader is trying his best to comprehend the writer’s likely meaning, it may be the case (or at least it may be prudent to plan on that assumption) that the reader is likely, now or at some future time, to be pursuing a separate and adversarial agenda, making the writer’s goal not maximization of understanding but minimization of risk. What strategy minimizes the risk of the writer’s words subsequently being used against him to his detriment (and whether that strategy is more likely to involve increasing clarity or increasing ambiguity) is itself going to depend on lots of culture-specific factors.

  32. bianca steele said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 9:09 pm

    I’m still not entirely sure that the issue with the e-mail in the OP isn’t the way two topics are run together. A clearer way to write it would have split the topics into separate paragraphs, and removed the word “and.” Many people, though, especially those who weren’t “good in English” in school, have trouble switching to a written register.

    I find the OP interesting, in part because I had a job several years ago where I was the go-between, between people in the US and a couple of people in China (who were pretty young and inexperienced, in their first jobs, and with I think no previous contact with Americans). I found more than once that my suggestions along the lines of “I think he’s implying such-and-such” were received by my management with counter-suggestions that I was reading too much into things. Which was an interesting conflict!

  33. Yuanfei said,

    September 9, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

    Judging from the email, it seems to me, a Chinese, clearly, that this scholar is coming to Upenn only to visit the museum. It seems he doesn’t want to meet with any one, if Dr. Mair is not there. He only wants to view the artifacts alone. He is pretty clear about it, from my point of view. The last sentence in Chinese could just be, 如果Victor 不在的话,我就不用在Upenn跟你们见面了。The confusion is “come to Upenn to visit you this time” as this is in conflict with what he said earlier that he will come to Upenn to visit the museum (which is part of “us” from the point of view of the colleagues). But the “you” in his terms means the colleagues and not the museum artifacts. 你们 in Chinese refers to persons, not objects. Also the English sentence “to come to Upenn to visit you” seems to be influenced by the Chinese grammar 来.. +v, i.e., 我就不来Upenn跟你们见面了. And this sentence has its ambiguity. It could mean “I won’t come to visit Upenn” or I won’t meet you at Upenn.” Generally, this email seems to be a little Chinglish. If rendered in Chinese, it could be much clearer. Still, it is true, we need to read the context, to determine the exact meaning of that sentence.

  34. GH said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 8:55 am

    @ J.W. Brewer:

    What strategy minimizes the risk of the writer’s words subsequently being used against him to his detriment (and whether that strategy is more likely to involve increasing clarity or increasing ambiguity) is itself going to depend on lots of culture-specific factors.

    Culture and context. I am also reminded of an episode in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, in which he imagines a totalitarian society where the risks of saying something politically unorthodox are so steep that people only dare speak in quotations from government-approved propaganda manuals (and have consequently developed a language based on these phrases).

  35. nguist said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

    This is a very interesting topic. I am a native speaker of Korean, and I think Korean is a reader-responsible language in that it is a high-context language. For one quick example, as you may know, Korean speakers frequently drop most of the pronouns. It is the reader’s responsibility to identify what pronouns are omitted and identify these with the referents within the context.

    I also agree that cultures play a role in classifying languages into writer/reader-responsible categories. I have little knowledge about Chinese, but I can conjecture why the Chinese scholar wrote the second message in such way. Since people in Asia tend to take direct refusals personally, a polite refusal would typically accompany elaborated excuses with the lack of direct ‘no’. In his message, the Chinese scholar justifies the fact that he is unable to visit UPenn by mentioning an unrelated topic (that his tour schedule is very tight) and by offering a third option(that he could meet you in NY). I think he’s trying to say that ‘I’m saying no but it’s not you. it’s my tour plans that I can’t make it’.

  36. Sergey said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

    I suppose this proves once more that when relying on the context, the context may differ :-)

    On a different note, every language, including English, has certain fixed patterns to express some concepts, with the pattern meaning being defined separately from the meaning of the words in it. The different cultures can also have different concepts but even when the concepts overlap, translating the patterns correctly is not easy. The smalltalk is particularly full of this kind of patterns, so when on Star Trek they show the human crew meeting some aliens for the first time and the captain exchanging pleasantries for the first time through the universal translator, it doesn’t look believable :-)

    A friend of mine was taking an ESL course recently and asked me to explain some phrases from the course book, so it was an interesting exercise translating the patterns from these phrases to Russian. For a simple example, the pattern “I used to do something” is very common (and easy to translate to Russian – but not directly word for word), expresses a very important concept, but means a different thing that the combination of the individual words and is not taught or even widely known about in the English courses in Russia. In Russian this pattern is actually a non-pattern, you can just read it word-for-word and understand the meaning, and maybe that’s why it’s not recognized and not taught in the courses of English. For another example, the English grammar has a large number of the past tenses. Russian has the concepts of all these past tenses too but they’re expressed through the word patterns rather than through the grammar (the grammar has only one past tense).

    So maybe the real thing is that everyone has a difficulty with recognizing these patterns and the concepts they express in the foreign languages but they tend to go completely unnoticed in the native language. And this makes the foreign languages feel “context-dependent” while the native one feels “context-free”.

  37. Sergey said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    @GH The concept of speaking by quoting from the propaganda manuals is not entirely imaginary. Things really did work very much like this in the Soviet Union. Well, not a complete language but the language was full of the stamped propaganda phrases.

  38. Dave Cragin said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    I’m a quantitative person and would love to have data to prove/disprove whether the languages are reader/writer responsible, but this is unlikely to ever exist. In addition & as noted, it can be based on the topic/situation.

    I definitely agree with the idea that reader/writer responsible language fits with Hofstede’s high/low context cultures. Linking the 2 also gives insight because according to Hofstede the UK is in the center of high/low context cultures whereas the US is much less context based. That is, we’re both speaking English, but culture affects this as well.

    The examples from the WSJ headlines were just that: examples – quick ones grabbed for illustration purposes (and it wouldn’t make sense to post a WSJ article on the blog). If you read the paper beyond the headlines, you’ll see they follow this approach. If WSJ doesn’t say the company’s business in the headline, they say it in the article. It is definitely to help the reader.

    Similarly, when the WSJ discusses various financial instruments, they almost always define them. As a result, almost anyone can read the WSJ and understand it. It’s clearly a “writer-responsible” American approach. I always recommend to my grad students in the US to subscribe to the WSJ because of the clarity in writing. You have to read more than the 2 headlines in this blog to see this.

    To Dominik’s point: “Making this division is as silly as Brits saying that Americans don’t understand irony when all the examples given are of people who just don’t share a cultural context.” Before this blog was posted, I was discussing this issue at lunch with a US-based Scottish colleague. She said she gets herself in trouble with e-mails because many Americans don’t understand her ironic humor.

    Does this mean no Americans understand irony (or that all Brits understand irony)? Of course not. But it does mean that it’s something for both sides to be aware of when communicating.

    And to me, this is the point of posting a discussion like this. There is no 100% correct answer. Becoming more aware of possible cultural differences in communication can do much to increase your effectiveness. Ignoring them or dismissing them does the opposite. Seemingly small things make a big difference.

    That is, Bianca’s sensitivity to possible implied messages likely adds much to the effectiveness of her communications with Chinese colleagues.

    Also, Dan McCurry’s openness to seeing potential differences in communication styles likely benefits him as well. In teaching in his classes, this discussion may give him extra insight into explaining to his students how to communicate in the American way. To be clear, he’s not teaching them the “right way” to communicate – just the American way. The “right” way is based on ones’ culture.

    We may never have quantitative data to settle the question. In the meantime, I welcome examples like Marie-lucie’s and any others readers want to offer.

  39. Dave Cragin said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 9:55 pm

    In response to the question on reader/writer responsible languages, Korean friend had some fun comments:

    “Mostly in Korea, things are very static and in-direct. If you are straightforward person like English speaker… many Koreans will think you are having personal problem in behaviors. Of course, if you are apparently western person, it will not be a problem.”

    We then exchanged notes on the idea that the indirectness isn’t 100% and can be topic dependent as well, i.e., I noted in China, asking someone if they are married or if they have kids tends to be much more direct than in the US.

    She replied:
    “Sure, that’s totally true. Koreans also asked those type of personal questions – “how old are you?” “why you didn’t marriage?”. My German PhD supervisor was super-embarrassed when he got those questions during his trip in Korea. It is definitely cultural things… which means if you’d like to live in Korea as a NORMAL man or woman, you’d better be married and having kid.”

    The English above is unedited, but I think this adds flavor to it. Just reading her comments still make me laugh.

  40. Nanani said,

    September 10, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

    There may be some broad cultural differences here, but it is surely an exaggeration to say this is a feature of the languages themselves.

    For instance, I work with Japanese patents. If it were really a feature of the language that the READER is responsible for understanding everything, then there would be no such thing as refusal of patent for lack of clarity, or amendments clarifying this or that feature, and so on.

    It’s also not true that “English assumes no background knowledge”. Try reading an English-language patent without the legal background or how patent documents work, and/or knowledge of the relevant technical field.

    Thinking about this idea in relation to actual practice makes it clear that a notion of reader-writer responsibility is, at best, communication culture but surely not baked into the languages.

  41. Adrian Docherty said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 7:50 am

    But English can be obtuse too! My favourite example of this is the recent nudge given by the Bank of England to Barclays Bank to post lower LIBOR rates:

    “it did not always need to be the case that we appeared as high as we have recently”

    Discussed widely here:

    http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2012/07/03/1070001/mr-tucker-stated-that-it-did-not-always-need-to-be-the-case-that-we-appeared-as-high-as-we-have-recently/

  42. kltpzyxm said,

    September 12, 2014 @ 10:27 am

    This trope originates I think with McLuhan, who distinguished ‘hot’ media, which require little user participation to extract meaning, and ‘cool’ media, which require grater user participation. Ross 1982 extends it to language, where English is ‘hot’ because it requires less user participation to extract meaning from utterances, and East Asian languages are ‘cool’ because they require more user participation.

RSS feed for comments on this post