Communicating in a Global Society: Understanding Different Cultural Writing Styles
Variety is the spice of life, and an international community like that at UNC Charlotte provides a wealth of opportunities for learning about other cultures. Many people don’t realize, though, that writing is a cultural experience; different language groups have their own standards for what “good” writing—especially “good” academic writing—should be in terms of organization, argument, sentence structure, and citation use. These different expectations can often complicate communication between writers and readers in ways that go beyond second language acquisition, causing readers unfamiliar with a particular writing style to judge the piece as disorganized, rude, or just downright “wrong.”
As our society becomes more global, an entire field of study called “Contrastive Rhetoric” has emerged around these cultural writing differences to facilitate greater understanding between readers and writers. Here in the WRC, for example, understanding contrastive rhetoric helps us recognize when a client is working within another cultural writing model so that we can help him or her grasp the expectations of American academic writing. While the research in this field is vast, here is a simplified description of the distinct writing styles of several global language groups:
- ENGLISH—Academic writing in English-speaking countries generally features a linear, direct argument style with clear, concrete vocabulary. Writers use a deductive approach to present information, with the main idea first, followed by supporting details.
- ROMANCE & SLAVIC LANGUAGES—European cultures (French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Czech, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian) prefer broad, philosophical discussions presented with tangential details. The main idea is presented in the middle of the paper, and elaborate wording and sentence structure is used throughout.
- ASIAN LANGUAGES—Papers written in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures usually feature abstract vocabulary and a circular, inductive approach, where details are presented first. The main idea is not presented until toward the end of the paper.
- SEMITIC LANGUAGES—Arabic-, Farsi-, and Hebrew-speaking cultures prefer a writing style that uses repetition and strings of parallel forms to support the main idea. These writings tend to include lyrical, descriptive vocabulary, and often mention family and/or religion.
It’s no wonder that all these differences in style cause confusion for readers! But which style of writing is the correct one? The answer is: none of them and all of them. No particular writing style is “better” than the others, and there is no one “correct” way to organize and present academic papers throughout the world. The right style is the one your reader expects! If you are writing for an audience in China, for instance, write in the accepted Asian style. If you are writing for a professor in the United States—even if he or she is an international professor serving as a visiting instructor at a U.S. university—use the preferred English writing style. Your goal as a writer is to have your message understood, so writing in a way that your reader will most easily grasp is always your best bet.
Conner, Ulla. Contrastive Rhetoric: Cross-Cultural Aspects of Second Language Writing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
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Miller, Laurie. Internationals Writing in English: An Introduction to Contrastive Rhetoric. Washington: World Bank, 2007.
Petric, Bojana. “Contrastive Rhetoric in the Writing Classroom: A Case Study.” English for Specific Purposes 24 (2005): 213-28.
Reid, Joy M. “ESL Composition: The Linear Product of American Thought.” College Composition and Communication 35.4 (1984): 449-52.