Cross-Cultural Global Communication

by Susan Mueller

In a world of ever-increasing global economy, technical communicators must learn to write carefully and succintly for international markets. Because more and more companies manufacture products for export, the job of the technical communicator expands beyond creating user manuals for native-speaking consumers. Technical communicators must also produce appropriate manuals for the foreign market.

However, writers need to concern themselves with more than simply translating documents into target languages. Cross-cultural communication involves conscientious usage of icons for different cultures and the correct use of colors, idioms, and hosts of other issues. For example, red may signify warning to an American reader, but to a Chinese reader, red represents luck. This could pose a problem to a technical communicator trying to caution readers through the use of color.

To understand the importance of cross-cultural communication, consider communication on a national level. Cultural differences abound, even within the borders of one country. For instance, writers who prepare documents for products with safety concerns must familiarize themselves with myriad regulations on issues such as handling, transporting, and disposing of hazardous materials. To comply with various state and local regulations, for example, writers often need to modify instructions for the disposal of such materials. One state law might allow dumping of certain items or substances in a landfill, while other state laws may object. The same holds true for emissions standards.

Now take the same product and ship it to another country. Technical communicators must stay alert to the laws and regulations governing other countries' safety and environmental issues.

Not only do technical communicators need knowledge pertaining to users' needs and how products function, they need an awareness of cultures and possible cultural barriers. Technical manuals and documents must be user-friendly. Therefore, technical communicators must concern themselves with things such as the idiomatic differences between languages and the expectations of other users. Writers must take measure to avoid–at all costs–abbreviations and documentation that may limit the user’s understanding. Companies exporting a product to other English-speaking countries may find it helpful to double-check terms. For example, American English differs slightly from New Zealand or Australian English. Technical communicators run the risk of misinterpretation or confusion by failing to investigate differences in cultures and their dialects.

In addition to confusing word usage, word choices may pose problems and offend people from other countries. Graphics and humor often depend on culture, so writers must take precautions to avoid insulting their end-users. William Horton, author of The Almost Universal Language: Graphics for International Documents (1993), suggested the five strategiesto use to avoid offensive language or misinterpretation.

Use simple, abstract depictions of humans, free of any indication of race or gender

Maintain a sense of modesty when using figures or exposing skin

Avoid hand gestures

Define color and use it sparingly

Avoid humor

In addition, writers must bear in mind that other countries may have different cultural preferences with regard to the presentation and organization of information. Some people in other cultures prefer their information ordered from specific to general. People of other cultures, however, expect documentation to begin with general information and lead to more specific details. Often there exists a heavy reliance on topic sentences and headings.

The job of the technical communicator encompasses not only effective but also gracious communication. When doing business that concerns foreign markets, technical communicators become the liaison, not only between manufacturers and users, but also between vastly differing cultures. Companies needing their documents translated must hire writers who pay careful attention to detail in every component of the document, not just vocabulary and word usage.

Therefore, writing successfully for a foreign market means possessing an awareness of the needs, expectations, and cultural differences of many diverse audiences.š


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