Culture and Writing Style: Audience Expectations

In American academic culture very little is expected from readers, and arguments tend to be presented quite plainly and directly. However, in many other cultures’ traditions, the reader’s role can be much more participatory in terms of following and constructing arguments or being aware of an accepted style or structural element. Students bring their training and expectations with them, so it is good to be aware of how they might differ from U.S. expectations. Below are some examples that may be encountered in international students’ writing.

"Connecting the Dots"

In many cultures’ writing traditions, the audience is expected to participate in the creation of an argument, with the reader making the connections between a writer’s examples and how they are relevant to the argument rather than the writer explicitly discussing their relevance. To present this information too directly for the audience can be considered condescending because it assumes the reader is lazy and/or unable to think.

Suspense, Entertainment, and Resolution

Another feature of audience expectations is related to form. In some cultures, the audience (even an academic audience) expects to be kept in a kind of suspense, knowing that eventually this suspense will be resolved through the final unveiling of the argument, but in the meantime, they will need to read on. This can be frustrating to an American reader, who may be asking: “Where is this going?”

Audiences in other cultures can also expect to be impressed or entertained by a writer’s use of language, with that being as important as the argument that is being presented. Again, an American reader might wonder why there seems to be so much unnecessary, “extra” language, but in other cultures a writer would be judged negatively if he did not display such prowess.

High and Low Context Cultures

Audience expectations also relate to the idea of high and low context cultures. In a high context culture, such as in Korea or China, members of that culture share a great deal of unspoken knowledge. This shared cultural, historical, and linguistic background means very little may need to be said to communicate a much bigger idea or to create a deep understanding.

In a low context culture, such as in the United States, because we have so little shared background, we have come to expect very direct and clear communication of ideas. From the outside, rather than seeming thoughtful and thorough, it may look like we consider our audience to be unintelligent and therefore in need of such detailed, step-by-step explanations.

SEE: Commenting on Writing

SEE: Communicating Clearly