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Communicating Across Cultures

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Nonverbal Communication

See also: Chinese Characters


"Writing" is one of the most exciting and fundamental "extensions" humans ever developed to extend our ability to communicate with each other. Writing doesn't just mean a system of marks which record spoken language. It includes all recording systems, not just text, but also graphics, maps, numeracy, databases.... Written language is in some ways a different language than its spoken cousin, with its own words and grammar. Writing and its cultural and political fallout are central to cross-cultural communication, and play an important role in conflict and its resolution.

  • Connects across distance and across time, vastly increasing the information available to us and ability to coordinate large numbers of people.
  • Lets us store and retrieve information as it is needed
  • Allows us to handle abstract concepts, increases our opportunity to reflect, rework, comment, contemplate, quote, compare texts.
  • Allows development of complex information systems: e.g. mathematics, tables, graphics, accounting systems, instructions. Allows systematic means of argument, testing, and proof.
  • Is more self-reflective and conscious than speaking, less participatory - a different way of using the mind and a different kind of memory than spoken language.
  • Unifies nation states and large scale organizations.
  • Makes it easier to communicate across dialects and with non-native speakers.
  • Is the starting point for schooling, and the foundation of all formal education.
  • Many writing systems are originally associated with religion, sacred texts. Priests were society's most literate members. The written word still has an aura of moral authority (as does schooling.
  • Literacy is status marker. Jobs or lives which don't need writing are devalued. College degrees have value far beyond the knowledge students have acquired in those brief years. Writing is used to exclue, by
  • The other reason writing is sacred is, as with other arts, writing transcends death
Main reference: Jack Goody Interface between Written and Oral, 1987.

Implications for Intercultural Communication

Writing can be a great help in communicating across cultures.
  • Slows the communication process, giving non-native speakers have time to think, to translate, to look words up in the dictionary, to craft their response.
  • Removes many cultural complications of participating in conversation.
  • Is closer to the language learned in school. Writing is the more conservative language form. Spoken language has more variation, fluidity, change, slang.
  • Generally avoids problems of dialects and accents. Particularly with English, where most speakers are not native speakers, and where the many "Englishes" (Indian, Australian, Brooklynese, Canadian, Mauritian, etc.) have more similarity in their written form than in the spoken language.
  • Allows communication across oceans, to isolated areas where telecommunications are a problem.

Implications for Conflict

Writing is more formal, and therefore more serious, than conversation. While email has watered this down somewhat, in general when parties send each other written documents (letters, petitions, grievances, lawsuits, threats...) it serves to solidify positions and escalate the conflict. Writing is the main way parties "cross the line" between private and public dispute.

Mediation has an ambivalent relationship to writing. On the one hand, mediators may press people to put outcomes in writing because the written word has more durability than the spoken one. Participants often hesitate to put agreements on paper, partly because it locks them in, partly because it admits the seriousness of the situation. On the other hand, mediators keep minimal notes and information about disputes. They tend to move discussion away from written evidence and coax the parties back to the oral world: face-to-face, spoken words, body language. Conversation may be less precise communication, but its ancient immediacy has the capacity to bring minds and hearts together.

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