Did my content just trip over your culture?

Many of the web writing projects I work on are cross-cultural. In other words, I am writing English-language content for French-speaking clients who want/need to communicate in English.

I work hard to produce clear, concise copy. My starting point is always the same: It’s up to the writer/client to make himself understood; it’s not up to the reader to understand.

My first draft is always “tight and light”. I’ve adopted this writing style for several reasons. One, all clients have a tendency to add to words. In fact, I’ve never seen a client cut copy. If you start lean you have a better chance of not getting too bloated. Two, most of what I’m producing will be translated. The clearer it is in English, the more accurate the translation will be. Three, I never assume that the reader is a native English speaker, especially when working on web content.

My years of working in a cross-cultural setting and the feedback I’ve received from French speakers about content have led me to think hard about the role of culture, writing and content.

Cultural speed bumps

In no particular order, here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the problems that I regularly encounter.

Simple vs. simplistic

Some clients bristle at the idea of seeing their product/company/service described in simple terms, because they don’t want customers to think they are simplistic and/or stupid.

Showing off

I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but there are clients who think that you’re supposed to show off how smart you are when you write. I think this a throwback to school, when you wrote to please the teacher. They like their language to be lyrical. They want to see literary references, clever wordplay and obscure vocabulary. Too bad if it makes the reader feel inferior of confused.

American isn’t English

I think this attitude was best expressed by Alain Decaux, a member of the Académie Française, in a speech he made in 2001:

“Les langues et les cultures sont inséparables. Nos petits-enfants devront parler l’anglo-américain, devenu l’espéranto de notre siècle, car leur réussite éventuelle en dépend. Mais il leur faudra, s’ils veulent connaître Shakespeare, Wilde ou Joyce, revenir à la langue anglaise dans ce qu’elle recèle de richesse, de beauté et de dons créatifs. Chacun, en Europe, devra défendre sa langue, y compris les Britanniques.”  The Future of the French Language. Annual public meeting of the five academies. Alain Decaux, 16 October 2001

Roughly translated it says:

“Language and culture are inseparable. Our grandchildren will have to speak Anglo-American, the Esperanto of our century, because their success will depend on it. But if they want to get to know Shakespeare, Wilde or Joyce, they will have to return to the English language, to the richness, beauty and creative gifts it holds. Everyone in Europe, including the British, must defend their language.”

Once you pinch you nose and get past the stench of fin de siècle intellectual superiority, the subtext is pretty clear. American English isn’t the language of a culture; it is the language of business. “Real” English (my quotes) should be rich, subtle, clever and sophisticated – just like French. And only British English is up to par.

This attitude is more prevalent than I thought. It often results in client changes that make the copy longer and windier. Simple sentences become complex. Verb tenses get confusing. Passive voice abounds. They want the English to look more like French.

Now, I don’t want to get into an argument over American English versus British English or, for that matter, Australian, Canadian, etc. Suffice it to say that I’m very sensitive to the differences. (Full disclosure: I have an American father and Scottish mother. I spent a good part of my childhood, and went to school, on both sides of the Atlantic).

What I find fascinating is that this line of thinking equates writing with an act of resistance. The intellectually superior French and the British are supposed to join forces and rise up against the hegemony of American English, with its insidious short sentences and concise style. As far as I’m concerned, no one wins and the reader becomes collateral damage. As if the British can’t be concise.

And content strategy in all this?

Cultural attitudes add an interesting wrinkle to content strategy. Imagine what it would be like if your client didn’t buy into the importance of clear, concise communications.

Most of the thinking I’ve encountered and admire on content strategy takes for granted the acceptence of a very pragmatic – dare I say American? – approach to web writing. But the concepts of “short, sweet and to the point” don’t always translate well.

If content strategy is going to become a truly international discipline it will have to take cultural attitudes to writing into account. I wonder how the attitudes to writing and culture are impacting content strategy in other countries?

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