There are two parties to every conversation, whether verbal or written. Assuming that the very purpose of a communication is to arrive at a common understanding of the issue, whose responsibility is it to ensure that the “common understanding” has been achieved? Turns out, it depends! It depends on culture. And, it depends on the language. Studies say, there are something called a “transmitter/speaker orientation” and “Receiver/listener orientation”.
I first noticed this notion recently when this article from the Language Log was pushed to me by my Feed Aggregator, Feedly.
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.
I was immediately drawn to my experience of finding the product literature from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea as cryptic and tangled. I was intrigued, I thought about it, and filed it in some cranny of my brain.
It’s funny how we start noticing something again and again with alarming frequency once we come to know about it. Later in the week , I was casually reading “OUTLIERS” (for the second or third time!), and suddenly came across the same, or similar, concept being discussed, ready to be put in context. “Outliers: The Story of Success:” is a best seller written by Malcolm Gladwell and I heartily recommend the same. Here’s what it had to say:
To Western ears, it seems strange that the flight engineer would bring up this subject [Added: A dire warning before an impending plane crash] just once. Western communication has what linguists call a “transmitter orientation” that is, it is considered the responsibility of the speaker to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously. Even in the tragic case of the Air Florida crash, where the first officer never does more than hint about the danger posed by the ice, he still hints four times, phrasing his comments four different ways, in an attempt to make his meaning clear. He may have been constrained by the power distance between himself and the captain, but he was still operating within a Western cultural context, which holds that if there is confusion, it is the fault of the speaker.
But Korea, like many Asian countries, is receiver oriented. It is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said. In the engineer’s mind, he has said a lot.
The context is a conversation just before an air crash.
Finding the same to be tantalisingly interesting, I researched the topic in some detail. Here’s what some other reputable sources have to say about this.
There has been a very reputable study on the topic by Xiukun Qi & Lida Liu from Harbin Institute of Technology, China.
This is what they had to say about this phenomenon.
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 encyclopaedic 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.
Reader and Writer Responsible Languages
The findings of the study can be boiled down to three categories: diffuse discourse organization, which results from the four types of unsmooth discourse organization, effective application of rhetorical devices for discourse production, and logical discourse organization, which is based on the appearance of textual patterns. Further study reveals that diffuse discourse organization actually takes the characteristic of what Hinds (1990, p. 98) calls a “delayed introduction of purpose,” which he often finds in oriental writings. “This delayed introduction of purpose makes the writing appear incoherent to the English-speaking reader” (Connor, 2005, p. 20). In regard to the frequent appearance of rhetorical means, the writers seem to involve much contextual knowledge in discourse production. In fact, the two issues are found to address the “relative reader/writer responsibility” (Ibid). This relative reader/writer responsibility is understood as the responsibility for ensuring successful communication between the writer and the reader. The term of relative responsibility suggests that the writer and the reader assume different degrees of responsibility for their communication. Moreover, this reader/writer responsibility varies across natural languages
(Wang, 2002, p. 315).
In a writer-responsible language, the writer assumes very heavy responsibility, and the presumption of shared knowledge is severely constrained. In this case, the communication via writing starts with the writer’s belief that the reader is equipped with the least background knowledge of the topic as well as the writing convention. In consequence, it is the responsibility of the writer to provide maximum assistance for the reader, which may include excessive guidance to the structure of the text through the use of transitional phrases, patient explanation of many slightly puzzling propositions, and direct and clear organization of the text. In this sense, “the rhetorical form preferred in the West places the expository burden chiefly on the writer” (Connor, 2005, p. 20).
In comparison, Chinese is a typical reader-responsible language. In Chinese, heavy responsibility is placed on the reader to understand what is said, and a very high degree of shared contextual knowledge is assumed. Chinese writers entrust readers with good knowledge of the background of the topic, and therefore much is said without clear explanation in reference to the reader’s potential for comprehension (Wang, 2002), as is reflected in forms of diffuse discourse organization and rhetorical means in the Chinese students’ writings.
Here’s an example of a real problem that was covered in a newspaper article that probably stems from the same issues.
Going back to the original source, the Language Log article concludes with the observation that while they may be constructs inherent to the language itself which cause the said variation of listener versus transmitter orientation, it may have got something to do with culture.
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.
Speaking as to the truth of the above, the following was aptly noted by Edward T. Hall was an anthropologist who made early discoveries of key cultural factors.
In a high-context culture, there are many contextual elements that help people to understand the rules. As a result, much is taken for granted.
This can be very confusing for person who does not understand the ‘unwritten rules’ of the culture.
In a low-context culture, very little is taken for granted. Whilst this means that more explanation is needed, it also means there is less chance of misunderstanding particularly when visitors are present.
Contrasting the two
French contracts tend to be short (in physical length, not time duration) as much of the information is available within the high-context French culture. American content, on the other hand, is low-context and so contracts tend to be longer in order to explain the detail.
Highly mobile environments where people come and go need lower-context culture. With a stable population, however, a higher context culture may develop.
Overtness of messages
Many covert and implicit messages, with use of metaphor and reading between the lines.
Many overt and explicit messages that are simple and clear.
Use of non-verbal communication
Much nonverbal communication
More focus on verbal communication than body language
* Some rows have been elided for brevity.
My opinion is that in order to use and learn a second language, such as all the “English as a second language” writers, we must pay a close attention to the cultural context of the language, and drink in the cultural ethos of the culture of the languages origin. Only then, can we “write/speak” like native speakers.