The Responsibilties of Communication

by Justin Ancheta

Many years ago, I had the chance to attend a university-level summer engineering camp in high school. Towards the end, there was small-group activity centered around the Challenger Disaster of 1986. My group represented the engineers who were pleading with upper management to delay the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. The twist was that we couldn't use direct language in communicating our intent: words like “clear”, “failure”, “can't”, “must”, “crash”, “therefore”, and “have to” were replaced with words like “perhaps”, “likely”, and “maybe”. (The reason? A report with blunt and direct language would potentially get us fired, given the political importance and urgency of the launch.) We hoped the group hearing our presentation would be able to read between the lines and understand the dire risk. But given our report, our superiors thought that everything was going to be okay – even though it wouldn't. The moral of the story: engineers are responsible for being clear and unambiguous in communicating to non-experts, especially when lives are at risk.

I thought back to this activity when I came across an interesting post in Language Log, from September 2014. Here, Victor Mair cites an earlier 2011 blog post from Lauren Supraner:

English is a writer-responsible language. That means it is the responsibility of the writer to make sure the message is understood. Writing is clear, direct and unambiguous. Schools teach from early on the importance of structure, thesis statement and topic sentences when writing in English. A good writer assumes no or little background knowledge on the part of the reader.

Korean, Chinese, and Japanese are reader-responsible languages. That means the reader is responsible for deciphering the message, which is often not stated explicitly. For an American who is expecting direct and explicit information, this style can be very confusing.

I personally think that it is difficult to make such grand, sweeping generalizations; we've all come across native English speakers who say in 1,000 or 10,000 words what could be easily said in 100. (I'm both guilty of, and familiar with this sin, being a rehabilitated academic.) And we've all come across many examples of Korean usage in our day to day life, where the speaker was very, very clear with their message and intent. Calling to mind the many discussions I've had, both in and out of KOTESOL, of high context vs. low context cultures, Mair makes this comment:

I am tempted to say that, rather than there being reader-responsible languages and writer-responsible languages, there are reader-responsible cultures and writer-responsible cultures. Of course, one of the chief manifestations of culture is language, so a reader-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in reader-responsible language and writer-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in writer-responsible language. (Emphasis mine.)

I have to say that I'm unfamiliar with the discussion of languages in a reader-centric vs. a writer-centric mindset, but I strongly believe that this is something worthy of contemplation when EFL teachers think about teaching topics like persuasive writing (or perhaps even writing in general). English is a language that I argue, can be both used in a reader-centric and a writer-centric fashion: there are times when one may be more appropriate than the other. An essay intended by the writer to warn the reader of impending peril (e.g. “Continued ignorance of environmental issues will directly lead to massive economic and social problems in the near future...”) arguably needs a different tone from a letter informing someone of a traumatic event, or a problem of a sensitive nature. (e.g. “I'm sorry honey, I promised I'd cook you dinner but it didn't quite go as planned...”)

I can easily see this being important for EFL instructors teaching professional English to academics and engineers, as well business people and teachers. While it is important to remain savvy to the high-context conventions of Korean society, a writer's clarity of message and clarity of intent is still instrumental to effective communication. In the end, I think we can all agree that communicating effectively is just as important in a classroom or office, as it is for rocket scientists and engineers.