Je ne suis pas content: Do cultural attitudes to writing affect content strategy?

I’m convinced that cultural attitudes to writing can have a big impact on content strategy, especially when you’re trying to produce web writing in English for non-English organizations.

I’m going to use my experience in France to highlight some issues that I’ve encountered. Please note: I’m going to make sweeping generalizations about the French language based on personal experience. Your mileage may differ.

Keeping it simple ain’t so simple

French is very good at dealing with abstract concepts, while English is a very concrete language. In English, we tend to be more factual and pragmatic.

On the whole, French sentences are longer, with more complicated syntax,  subordinate clauses and lots of connectors. It’s very telling that on a French keyboard you have to hit SHIFT to insert a period.

As a result, many of the tenets of “effective web writing” (write tight, keep it short) that are directly rooted in the Anglo-Saxon approach to writing don’t always come naturally to non-English speakers.

An inverted what?

For most non-writers, school was the last time they actually had to pump out any serious verbiage. So to understand how people view writing, it’s worth looking at how students are taught to write essays.

In France, there is one sacrosanct essay structure: introduction, thesis, antithesis, synthesis and conclusion. Each section gets at least one paragraph, which is why Anglo-Saxon readers can be heard muttering “get on with it” when reading a French essay. The antithesis and synthesis sections smells like digression.

While this time-honored tradition is slowly disappearing from today’s high school classrooms, most of my French clients had to jump through these hoops back in their school days. The structure was burned into their souls with a hot poker, which makes it hard for them to wrap their heads around concepts like the inverted pyramid and front-loading.

Should writing impress or express?

Then there’s how students are taught to write. A lot of emphasis is put on learning how to write “good French” not on how to be a good writer. Writing is seen as a stylistic exercise not a story-telling exercise. And don’t forget that France is saddled with lucky enough to have the Académie Française, which decides what is and isn’t good French. (For a giggle, check out the Académie’s page on the French language. Inviting isn’t it?).

French students learn early on the differences between the registers of language – formal, normal, informal, slang – but they are rarely taught the process of writing. They study philosophy at an AP-level but practically never dabble in creative writing. I’ve never met a French person who wasn’t traumatized by learning how to write.

Consequently, in France writing serves to replicate archetypes. And the archetypes are poorly adapted to the real world and the web. What you are saying and your ability to elicit a response isn’t taken into account. Writing is to impress not express. A bit like the difference between the short program in figure skating and Holiday On Ice. The plain language movement might as well be from Mars.

This can cause problems with French clients when trying to establish their voice and style. What might come across in English as natural and flowing can be seen as too conversational and dumbing down. These remarks become more frequent the higher up the org chart you go. It can cause further problems when back-translated into French. Even if the client is comfortable with the style in English, they suddenly revert to their old ways when they see it their native tongue.

Et vous?

My experience is limited to English and French – and is purely anecdotal – but I’m pretty sure that other content professionals working in multi-cultural organizations run into issues caused by cultural attitudes to writing every day. Care to share them with me?

I also wonder what impact the “Anglo-Saxon” model will have on content in other languages. Will it end up enriching writing in other languages or impoverishing it?

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4 comments on “Je ne suis pas content: Do cultural attitudes to writing affect content strategy?

  1. Libby Wilson
    August 23, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    So true. My experience from 10 years working in France for multi-nationals is that many non-English marketeers want to achieve the punchy compelling voice that comes from well-written English copy. But they over depend on the exclamation mark to make their appeal to readers. (!) If there’s one thing I hope the Anglo-Saxon model can contribute it’s clarity and subtlety.

  2. Christine Astle
    October 15, 2010 at 4:39 am #

    My comment is not regarding writing but rather web design. When I lived in Korea and visited local websites, I noticed that many of them were, from my cultural veiwpoint, busy and overcrowded. My theory at the time was that their visual landscape generally is busy, and so it’s natural for them to interact in that way. However, I could be totally off base, and web design may have changed since I left.

    • Rich
      October 15, 2010 at 7:59 am #

      Hi Christine,

      Thanks for the comment. A really good point. Even between the US and Europe (and within Europe) there are very different schools of thought about web design and information architecture. The current love affair with uncluttered design seems, to me at least, to be deeply rooted in a very Western tradition of modern design. It may not appeal to some cultures. If you ever run across any blog posts or reading on the subject of culture and design, I’d be very interested.

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