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Last modified October 27, 2005 at 10:31 AM

Ethical Implications of Intercultural Audiences

Lisa Heitzman
Argues that it is crucial that technical writing courses raise the awareness of the implications of intercultural communication, and specifically, how to include the translator as the target audience.

We live in a world of the global market. Even if you have never set foot in a foreign country or spoken a word of a different language, the impact of the global market is evident; you watch your Japanese television while sitting on your Swedish furniture eating your German chocolate and talking on your Malaysian phone. Similarly, more and more American- made products are being exported overseas. Problems arise when we need to explain the product or process of the product to the various cultures purchasing our merchandise.

Audience adaptation has been a prime concern for technical communicators since the beginning of the field. How do technical writers create documents targeted to such a wide and diverse audience? One way of coping has been to implement standards, such as writing to specific discourse communities and creating a minimalist style. However, the audience for professional communication documents has been recently growing more complex as the market globalizes. With the changing audience conditions, the previous standards of audience adaptation need to be reanalyzed to accommodate for the complexity of languages and respect the diversity of cultures. For instance, the use of English as a standard language can no longer manage these complexities and diversities. For example, in 2004, employees of General Electric Medical Systems, a US company located in France, sued because the company documents and instruction manuals being written primarily in English. Workers complained that not only did “being forced to speak English” promote discrimination, but it also caused safety issues when French speaking employees were expected to put together medical equipment using instruction manuals in a foreign language (French). The employees’ protest demonstrates the need for technical writers to be aware that their standards imply more than technical messages; they have ethical and cultural implications attached as well. Technical writing courses need to integrate cultural awareness throughout the curriculum, and as technical communicators, we need to be aware of how our words might reflect cultural biases or how they might promote cultural dominance.

Why We Should Teach Cultural Awareness

There are many reasons why technical communicators need to be aware of how to cope with multicultural and multilingual audiences. Perhaps the most obvious reason is so the readers in other countries can use the documents that we create. However, other factors contribute to this growing need as well. With a global market, more and more businesses and workplace employees will be culturally and linguistically diverse. An awareness of cultural differences will help English speaking employees relate and work with co-workers from different parts of the world because “without realizing this cultural interference in the writings of their foreign-born colleagues, many native speakers of English are often lost when they have to read or edit their international colleagues’ writing” (Subbiah 16). Furthermore, technical documents may serve as a tool to assist selling a product. An international company might pick a specific product based on the accompanying document’s readability in their own language and culture (St. Amant 298).

Besides the marketing and employee cooperation, an awareness of cultural issues in technical writing can also promote awareness of ethical implications in technical writing. Dombrowski explores the past and present connections between rhetoric and ethics. For example, he discusses how modern rhetoricians such as Toulmin, Gates, and Foucault place rhetoric in a direct relationship with social and cultural values. Dombrowski claims, “In more recent times, rationalists, social constructionalists, and other theorists have shown that all language use entails ethical values and cannot due otherwise. We should, therefore, always be conscious of the ethical values communicated through the rhetoric of discourse” (31). This connection between values and language is particularly prevalent when audiences are intercultural. Therefore, it is crucial for technical writing students to gain an awareness of how their writing reflects social and cultural values. I am not necessarily saying that we should teach a strict code of ethics within technical communication courses, but what I am suggesting is that we provide our students with enough knowledge for them to have the ability to make ethical decisions on their own. By teaching differences in international audiences, linguistically, rhetorically, and culturally, we are helping our students become aware of the issues at hand. However, I believe that we need to not only establish an awareness of the differences, but offer knowledge of the approaches used to cope with this complex diversity. Furthermore, I propose that we need to show our students how to recognize the political and ethical implications these solutions have. In doing so, we can emphasize the importance that technical communicators’ decisions have, not just in the usability of documents, but on a more universal level.

The Myth of a Universal Standard

One method to cope with the diversity of a diverse international audience is through implementing a standard that is applicable to a variety of communities. Visual documents tend to be more adaptable to the internationalization approach than text because visuals are already somewhat universal since they do not require textual translations. However, visuals still carry a large amount of cultural connotations. As Charles Kostelnick examines both the globalization and localization of visuals, he observes that when designing visuals for a universal audience, these associations are what must be examined and removed to “bridge cultural gaps” and create a “culture-free design” (Kostelnick 183). He gives the example of the modernist flatman design which “forms display high figure-ground contrast and appeal to basic, presumably universal, cognitive functions of the mind; aesthetically, with their clean, simple geometry and machine-like precision, they embody pure modernism; and pragmatically, they are as easily reproducible and transplantable across cultural boundaries as steel and glass buildings” (Kostelnick 183). In the internationalization approach, the goal is to avoid creating visuals with cultural connotations. For instance, colors can have different meanings in different countries, so technical communicators should be aware of what their visuals may mean in a variety of cultures.

The internationalization approach to audience adaptation attempts to unify meaning by a single universal mode of communication. This method would perhaps be ideal if there were a true universal way of communication that had no cultural connotations attached, however, no ideal standard exists. Ikea, a home furnishing store with a vast global market, provides a good example of how attempts to internationalize instructions through culturally neutral visuals can backfire. In an attempt to eliminate cultural connotations in their instructions, Ikea used more pictures of men than women to avoid offending their customers in Muslim countries. Instead, Norway’s Prime Minster charged Ikea of sexism for not including enough women in their instructions (Ikea). It appears that creating a universal standard without any cultural connotations, even in visuals, is nearly impossible to accomplish because too many differences exist between cultures. Similarly, St. Amant explains:

Unfortunately, there is no single, universal rhetorical standard. Rather, human rhetorical preferences vary from group to group and culture to culture. Moreover, these cultural rhetorical differences can occur on a variety of levels (from the sentence to the overall document) and can affect how certain cultural audiences perceive a given English-language document” (298).

No single standard can erase all cultural connotations, which still leaves the task of writing to international audiences a problematic issue.

English Language as a Global Language

Since a universal standard is so difficult to achieve, internationalization often ignores the distinct rhetorical features of individual cultures and gives power and authority to a single community as a standard. With the rise of globalization and with America as one of the significant driving forces behind globalization, Western, and more specifically American standards became the accepted universal ideal. According to 2004 statistics, English was spoken by 402 million native speakers, but it is also the most learned second language in the world with approximately 600 million people speaking it as a second language (Wikipedia). English is particularly the standard in the business and scientific realms. For example, according the British Council:

  • English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, and diplomacy
  • Over two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English (Britishcouncil).

In order to survive and succeed in the business and scientific world, knowledge of English has become a necessity which can cause nonnative speakers frustration need to work with a plethora of English documents like the French employees at General Electric Medical.

However, not just the English language is an international standard. Cultural preferences are also used as a universal idea; for example, the overall design of documents has been suited to Western standards. Mary Lou Fisk illustrates how “spatial arrangements” vary from culture to culture, particularly with the ratio of white space and text (176). She explains, “Comparing these spatial differences suggests that since English is the international scientific language, our rules of document design prevail in these international journals. But recent work, particularly on technical writing documents designed for localized audiences, indicates that we cannot always accept the fifty-fifty ratio as the paradigm” (Fisk 176). The American standard of spatial arrangement, as Fisk observed from her American students, is a “linear orientation”. Her two Navajo students, however, designed documents with more of a circular orientation which is representative of their culture. Fisk reflects on her decision to make the Navajo students conform to the Western standard, when she could have used the experience as an example of how cultural differences affect preferences in documents. Like the French employees at General Electric Medical Systems, the Navajo students were expected to conform to the standards of English speaking culture.

In one way, internationalization can be viewed as a positive force that attempts to find a universal means for communication that connects people together. However, we must carefully examine why a particular language has the power to become the universal standard and what implications this has on the other cultures who must adapt to the standard. By using English as a standard, it implies, in some way, that English is superior to other languages since, in many instances, it is the only way to communicate which echoes the imperialistic mentality. In order to adapt, these other communities must compromise part of their own language and culture to become like the universal standard. Of course, one might argue that this adaptation is not violent or forceful and is only intended to help other communities survive and compete in the competitive global market, and that many nonnative speakers of English choose to learn English out of their own desire. However, the very fact that they need to trade in their own language for another to survive is a form of hegemony; the universal language becomes so appealing because it is a necessity to become successful. Seen from this point of view, the charitable benefits English internationalization becomes an issue of a power struggle and cultural dominance. In this way, the standard creates a binary between the English culture and the adapting cultures. Hoft warns about the standards implemented by internationalization:

At the department level, these agreements and concessions might be achieved through power plays. At the multinational or world level, they might be achieved through economic influence and power. Standards in these situations might end up representing and resembling the more ‘dominant’ culture rather than many cultures. If you happen to be a member of the dominant culture, you might not even notice the problem. But if you are a member of a minority culture, the bias is obvious. (Hoft, 4).

Hoft makes an important point of the tendency to overlook cultural implications if you are part of the standard used which shows even more of a need to teach an awareness of how language can create ethical dilemmas and power struggles. Technical communicators must be aware of the ethical implications they portray when using an internationalization approach to address international audiences

Striving for Clarity

With the English language as a global standard, our focus on clarity naturally follows as the same path as well. Technical communication in English speaking countries places significant value on the importance of clarity which appears to become the prime virtue of technical writing: “a universal business and technical writing principle” (Weiss 324). However, this emphasis on clarity can be considered as a culturally biased ideal, since not all cultures place the same amount of importance on clarity; for example, many Asian cultures value silence and politeness over clarity. However, clarity in meaning has been the prime focus of technical writing in exported technical documents through the use of Plain Style. This method attempts to further standardize English by using guidelines for clarity such as common words, pronouns, active voice, and short sentences Plain Style also recommends replacing words such as ‘accomplish’ and ‘utilize’ that are Latin in origin with ‘everyday’ words like do and use that come from Germanic languages. Plain English promotes further clarity by using phrasal verbs, or two-word verbs, such as ‘fill in’ and ‘put off’, which are idiomatic in nature. One reason for these guidelines for clarity is to create simpler English texts that can be more easily read by nonnative speakers. However, even this standardization of English fails to accommodate the complexity of international audiences (Thrush 292-293). Emily A. Thrush conducted a study that examines the usability of Plain English for nonnative speakers and found that Plain English was not always an ideal of clarity for all nonnative speakers who had difficulties with phrasal verbs since they tend to form unfamiliar idioms. Furthermore, speakers of French, Spanish, and Italian were more competent with the Latinate words before the texts were converted to the Germanic words used in Plain Style. Thrush’s study offers an illustration of how the attempt to clarify texts for nonnative speakers can lead instead to more interpretive confusion. Timothy Weiss agrees that “It seems to me that those who argue that clarity (singularity of meaning) is achievable in business and technical writing texts are really defending a very limited idea of clarity; they are arguing that a text can be clear for a certain audience at a certain time only” (Weiss 327).

Weiss suggests that the insistence on clarity, or a unified meaning, has led technical communicators astray. Instead, they should be more concerned with “astuteness of interpretation and translation.” He says that “we have been taught to assume that the real problem in communication is getting the words right; we would not be so confident about that assumption if we considered communication in intercultural and international contexts where words tend to be more unstable, where the ambiguity of meaning of the simplest sentences can surprise and frustrate” (Weiss 329-330).

Weiss’s definition of clarity as singularity of meaning portrays the international approach similarly to Shannon and Weaver’s communication theory in which communication is a message delivered from the writer to the reader with a single meaning in mind and with as little noise, or interruptions in meaning, as possible. This theory, however, fails to accommodate the diverse and complex situation of international audiences with variances in language and cultural connotations when it assumes that there is only one meaning bound within a text, which is what we imply as we strive for clarity. A more appropriate theory to apply is Stanley Fish’s notion of interpretive communities which consists of a group of people who are guided by the same set of beliefs. This discourse community decreases the number of variances because “texts and readers lose the independence that would be necessary for either of them to claim the honor of being the source of interpretive authority” (Fish 142). Stanley Fish’s notion of an interpretive community is based upon the standard rules and beliefs that a group of people have in common; it is the standardization of these rules and beliefs that guide the interpretations of the community members. Although Fish applies interpretive communities to literature academics, different cultures around the world can be looked at as different interpretive communities; each cultural community guides its members in their preferences of rhetorical patterns (Subbiah; Hoft; St. Amant). For instance, circular orientation is part of the Navajo discourse community just as the focus on clarity is part of the American discourse community.

Rise of Globalization

The need for teaching technical writing students how to cope with intercultural communication is more of a need today than it has been in the past. The past standard of English as the global language allowed technical writers to assume that audiences read English and were familiar with English culture. Weiss observes that “in American colleges and universities we have taken a US-centered approach to business and technical communication; we have assumed that our principles are universal” (330). Because of the increasingly global market, as Mahalingam Subbiah says, “we can no longer enjoy the ‘we-are-the-world syndrome’” (14). Americans can no longer assume our readers will be English speakers nor should we expect them to be. For instance, other languages are beginning to rise to prominence and spread throughout much of the globe, such as Mandarin, which is predicted to become the next global language. Weiss argues that technical communicators “must become much more adept at interpretation and translation, at functioning in high-context environment…” (331). Because of the global marketplace and the decline of English as a form of standardization, technical communicators need to be aware of and learn how to deal with the cultural and linguistic differences they are bound to face instead of assuming that the universality of English is adequate for our diverse readers.

Localization and Translation

More recently, the approach of localization has gained popularity as a method of addressing multicultural audiences. For instance, Microsoft has recently released versions of Windows to other countries geared specifically towards their culture and language. Unlike internationalization which tries to erase cultural traces in documents, localization makes these cultural differences its focus. Localization works by writing towards a specific discourse community, in this case, a certain culture instead of a universal standard. However, to what extent do we teach cultural awareness, and is an awareness of the issue enough? Do we teach about specific cultures and languages? Do we pick and choose which cultures we think our students will most likely be targeting? Once again, the extent of the audience becomes an issue.

Translation is one technique used to implement the theory of localization and to help cope with the diversity of an international audience. The emphasis of translation as been hindered in the past from internationalization as Bruce Maylath observes that “the spread of English as a foreign language, particularly in science, business, and technical writing, has probably deterred both instructors and students from focusing much attention on preparing texts for translations” (33). By translating English documents into the languages of the cultures targeted for the product, communicators beginning to reverse internationalizations method by adapting to different discourse rather than forcing them to adapt to English speaking standards; localization keeps cultural diversity in focus which in turn, diminishes the ‘we-are-the-world’ attitude. Focusing on translation also provides a solution to the diverse audience issue as technical communicators can write to the translator as a standard audience. Standardizing the audience in this way can point out key issues needed to keep in mind for the intended audience. Therefore, it is important to teach technical writing students how to write to the translator audience. “Practical skills include learning how to choose and work with translators, a skill that many technical communicators today learn through a costly trial and error process. A closely related skill is how to write for translation” (Hoft). Flint et al instruct technical writers to “include your documents’ translator as a crucial member of your reading audience” (238), and describe and analyze an online tutorial created for the company Medtronic to help writers consider different aspects for intercultural communication. To write help assist translators, they suggest:

  • Carefully selecting word choices (for example, avoid using metaphors)
  • Provide translators with contextual information
  • Chunking information (243).

Teaching our students how to write to translators is one way that we can help to prevent the cultural hegemony associated with internationalization.

Expanding the Field

For localization to succeed, technical writers must become aware of cultural and linguistic differences of their audiences so they can write their documents with these specific aspects of the audience in mind. By adapting technical documents to the specific patterns of these discourse communities, technical communicators can avoid the dominant mentality of the international approach. Localization can further be implemented through promoting a curriculum that expands outside the field of technical communication. Timothy Weiss encourages a curriculum that will counteract the internationalist attitude of previous course as he explains, “Our courses are simply not sufficiently demanding; they do not put sufficient emphasis on interpretation of words and actions…We need to get beyond a literacy-oriented, rhetoric-oriented, technology-oriented approach and teach interpretive and translation skills as well (i.e., how to read human behavior and messages and how to work with presences and absences in messages)” (Weiss 335-36). He promotes an “interdisciplinary approach” to teach these skills (336) “to learn to be better prepared to interpret differences in human behavior, to ‘read’ what is taking place in a particular situation and how they might act and respond given their ‘reading’ of what is going on” (335). Many authors suggest encouraging our students to engage in courses outside the field of technical communication such as anthropology and linguistics (Hoft). Establishing a cross-discipline curriculum would help in teaching our students some of the differences they need to be aware of both linguistically and culturally as they write to international audiences.

Dangers of Localization

However, standards are still established through localization. Criteria must be decided what constitutes as a culture, where the boundaries lie, and what the characteristics of the culture are. For instance, writing to the audience of discourse communities does not offer a flawless solution in how do address such a diverse audience; discourse communities do not entirely eliminate disagreements because different communities can form different interpretations, and even a single community will rarely have unanimous interpretation. According to Fish, these disagreements are not hindrances to the field, because they serve to fuel the changes that take place and advance the field. These changes within discourse communities, though, provide even more complexities when analyzing the audience.

Furthermore, Nancy Hoft notes a potential danger in localization as “we find a strong trend toward generalization. Excessive generalization can lead to myth and stereotyping, among other extremes” (Hoft 3). In attempts to refute the dominance of power created by globalization, localization can create the same type of powerful hierarchy through stereotyping. However, as Hoft observes, localization also has additional drawbacks and “is a strategy adopted by very few companies because it is expensive and time consuming” (Hoft 4), which leads to another ethical concern. Our capitalistic society is focused on materialism and wealth. However, should ethics ever be compromised for the sake of making a profit? Hoft claims that we now have the technology and the ability to make localization work, “yet we continue to struggle to find economic, timely, and effective ways of addressing the blatant cultural differences in our audiences” (Hoft 5). Perhaps the problem lies in our own motives. We realize what we should do, and what we have the capability of doing, but we fail because we are indifferent. Cultural localization has not been a central concern in years past, and perhaps we still carry some of the “we-are-the-world syndrome”. Teaching cultural awareness and ethical implications of intercultural communication in the classroom would help to raise awareness of the importance of the issue and be a starting point to change our attitude


Learning prescribed guidelines for writing for translation writing is an essential tool in addressing intercultural audiences and offers the most ethical standardization. However, even with the standard translator in mind as an audience, technical communicators must learn to adapt their writing to the situation and the context they are writing for. Perhaps this is one of the most valuable lessons a technical writer can learn – adaptability. We create standards to help us cope with the wide diversity of the audience, yet we must learn that these standards are subject to change; they do not cover every audience for every situation. A technical writer needs to learn when to implement these standards and when to adjust them to fit a specific situation. I am not saying that any of these approaches should be considered an absolute solution. Instead, I suggest that we need to show students that these are options for them to use, show the advantages and disadvantages both for usability and ethically. However, the most important lesson we can teach our students is adaptability. Students need to be able to decide when it is appropriate to use each method. For example, the universalist approach would most likely be the most efficient and ethical solution to use when designing airport signs (cite). A localist/translation approach would be much too complicated for the complexity of the audience. In this instance, the efficiency would overrule to mentality of imperialism that the universalist approach instills. Likewise, a product geared towards a specific country would benefit the most from localization and translation. A universalist approach in this case would undermine the specifics of the culture. Therefore, it is essential to give students the tools of knowledge needed to make their own decisions.

With this in mind, technical communicators are more than just translators or messengers for scientists. The decisions that technical communicators make are crucial in the audience’s ability to use a certain product or understand a certain piece of technology. Furthermore, the choices technical writers make in their approach to intercultural communication reflect a whole mentality and attitude towards the target culture and their own. Therefore, it is crucial that technical writing courses raise the awareness of the implications of intercultural communication, and specifically, how to include the translator as the target audience. We can’t expect technical communicators to bring peace to warring countries or eliminate biases among cultures. But, we can put our best effort forth to make contentious decisions about our audience and examine the ways our words will affect and influence them. Technical documents can be more than just user manuals; they can make political statements about the relationship between the technical communicator’s culture and the culture of the audience.

Works Cited

Dombrowski, Paul M. Ethics in Technical Communication Boston: Allyn and Bacon 2000.

“English Language.” Wikipedia 27 April 2005

Fish, Stanley. “Change.” Doing What Comes Naturally. Duke University Press: Durham and London, 1989. 141-160.

Fisk, Mary Lou. “People, Proxemics, and Possibilities for Technical Writing.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 35.3 (Sept 1992): 176-182.

Flint, Patricia, Melanie Lord Van Slyke, Doreen Starke-Meyerring, and Aimee Thompson. “Going Online: Helping Technical Communicators Help Translators.” Technical Communication 46.2 (1999): 238-248.

“French Fight Shift to English.” The Guardian 23 November 2004. 27 April 2005

Hoft, Nancy. “Global Issues, Local Concerns.” Technical Communication 46.2 (May 1996)

“Ikea Bans the Instruction Manual.” The Evening Standard 11 March 2005. 27 April 2005

Kostelnick, Charles. “Cultural Adaptation and Information Design: Two Contrasting Views.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 38.4 (Dec 1995): 182-196.

Maylath, Bruce. “Writing Globally: Teaching the Technical Writing Student to Prepare Documents for Translation.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 11.3 (1997): 339-352.

St. Amant, Kirk. “When Culture and Rhetoric Contrast: Examining English as the International Language of Technical Communication.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 42.4 (1999): 297-299.

Shannon, Claude E and Warren Weaver. The Mathematical Theory of Communicaiton Urbana: The University of Illinois Press 1949.

Subbiah, Mahalingam. “Adding a New Dimension to the Teaching of Audience Analysis: Cultural Awareness.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 35.1 (1992): 14-18.

Thrush, Emily A. “Plain English? A Study of Plain English Vocabulary and International Audiences.” Technical Communication 18.3 (Aug 2001): 289-296.

Weiss, Timothy. “Reading Culture: Professional Communication as Translation.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 11.3 (July 1997): 321-338.

Last modified October 27, 2005 at 10:31 AM

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