Technical writers as negotiators of culture

by Terence MacNamee

How does culture enter into the job of the technical writer? There is a tendency to restrict the discussion unduly by focussing on the issue of keeping culture-specific elements out of technical manuals intended for an international audience. In my view, culture is a much bigger factor in the writing business than just that. What I have to say is particularly true for those technical writers who work in an international environment. But most of the industries we work in today are so globalized anyway that there must be fewer and fewer of us who don’t deal with people outside our own borders. I would suggest that the factor of culture comes up for many technical writers in the following activities:

  1. dealing with colleagues, subject matter interviewees, suppliers and other external business partners who belong to different cultures;
  2. adapting a wide range of texts (not just manuals) to suit different cultures;
  3. writing in English if their own culture is not Anglo-Saxon – an increasingly common situation in many countries.

The official job of a technical writer may be to write manuals – but their unofficial job is often that of being a communications facilitator and trouble-shooter in the organization. That has been my experience anyway. On the other hand, technical writers often come to this role without much knowledge of cultural factors in communication. Technical writers who learn English as a foreign language are often no more aware of cultural differences in any detail than English-speaking tech writers who write for international audiences.

Technical writers should inform themselves about culture and cultural issues so they can contribute to improving international business communication generally. They should familiarize themselves with, and reflect on, the differences between their own culture and other cultures they may be dealing with in the course of their work. I would suggest that they can make a contribution to international business – a real one, albeit a modest one – by taking on these tasks:

  1. systematically review and edit (as required) all texts written by colleagues for readers of a different culture (whether the target is your own culture or another one);
  2. sensitize colleagues about cultural issues in the workplace on a day-to-day basis, mainly by pointing out the cultural dimension of a communication problem if no-one else seems to realize it;
  3. provide consulting support (even unofficially) to your company’s executives and CEO: become a resource person for these people when cultural sensitivity is needed in a particular instance, say, negotiating an important international deal, or managing relations with a foreign “key account”;
  4. build a network of “native informants” for different cultures and enlist their help whenever you are dealing with their particular culture.