Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS

Misrepresentation of Cultural Differences and the Necessity of Emphasis on Function

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This week’s blog is, in part, a response to the documentary, Writing Across Borders (Wayne Robertson, 2005). It is also a commentary on approaches to writing tutoring and instruction.


Misrepresentation of Cultural Differences and the Necessity of Emphasis on Function

Stephen Choi, Tutor

I want to address two issues: the problem of misrepresentation by international students of the style of writing in their own countries and the necessity of emphasizing function over style. They may seem unrelated, but my view is that one is the cause of the other.

I will begin with the problem (as any good argument should). It first came to my attention during the training session in the end of August. We viewed a documentary video, Writing Across Borders, where a number of international students speak about the differences in writing style between their home country and the United States. While they mention some interesting points, I had doubts about their ‘expert’ opinions. The problem is that they are not experts. They are presenting generalizations based on personal experience, without any evidence of justifiable knowledge or research. This bothered me not a little, but not being an expert myself, I refrained from commenting on the subject.

A few days ago, however, I did come across a tiny piece of evidence that proves that at least one of the students was guilty of misrepresentation. I do not mean to say that the student was lying or that she intentionally misrepresented her knowledge. She quite possibly believes everything she says and she may even have been educated to think so. I only wish to point out that she may not be in the position to speak for her entire country.

What she says in the video is that in Japan, her home country, the essay is structured in four parts: ki起 (introduction), shō承 (development), ten転 (turn), ketsu結 (conclusion). This was the main point that was unsettling for me because I have been studying Japanese for a long time and have actually studied the four part structure through books on fiction and script writing. The kishōtenketsu structure is presented in those books as a Japanese equivalent to the three-act system mainly used in Hollywood. I found it odd that the same structure would be used in essay writing, when the structure is clearly one devised for narrative.

I found the evidence to back up my intuition in a Japanese book (a very popular one) on writing. In the book, Writing that Communicates and Moves! (my translation) by Zoonie Yamada, it is stated very clearly that “If a novel, the dramatic leap in the ‘ten’ of ‘kishōtenketsu’ is considered enjoyable. However, in an essay for example, building up the thought process in a logical way, such as by ‘stating the problemanalyzing the causeconditions for solution. . .’ is fundamental” (my translation). Yamada is the editor of an educational magazine that focuses on teaching writing to high school students in Japan. The distinction that she makes between novel writing and essay writing is definitely the same as one that a North American writing teacher may make, and, quite possibly, one that writing teachers across all cultures may make.

It would seem, then, that the student in the video was misinformed about the writing conventions of her own country. This is most likely from no fault of her own. Yamada also makes the point in her book that the Japanese education system focuses too much on what she calls “abundant expressive force” (my translation). From elementary to high school, Japanese students are taught writing as a form of expression. This is only speculation on my part, but the student in the video may be an example of the weakness of such an education system. The differences that she perceived actually arose from her misunderstanding of what she was learning. It was not a difference of culture, although it was possibly the result of a different system of education.

Now I will move on to the second part of my argument: the cause. What causes the students to believe that culture is the reason for the disparity between the style of writing they are used to and the style they are taught in North American schools? Culture may be a part of it, but I am not too comfortable with accepting that culture is the only reason. They seem to be noticing cultural differences that are not really there. I think that the problem arises from misattribution. They are attributing differences in function to differences in culture. They do not understand that function is what decides style. In the case of the Japanese student, she could not discriminate between the function of a narrative (to entertain) and the function of an essay (to persuade). She was attributing the differences in style to differences in culture rather than function.

There are more examples of this misattribution in the video. One student comments on the directness of North American culture, saying that when he meets American students at school, they get right to the point without any kind of a lead-in. His opinion was that this is a rude way of communicating. Ignoring the fact that he is stereotyping, it is clear that he is basing his assumptions about writing in experiences of oral communication. While I do not deny that writing and speaking are related, they serve very different functions. If we all spoke in the same tone as the one we use to write essays, we would sound rude and arrogant indeed. The extent of his misunderstanding is evident in his anecdote about sending an email to his family back in his home country. He experimented with sending them a straight forward email without any greeting or inquiry as to how they were doing. Again, his verdict was that this was rude. I agree with him. The function of an email sent to family, whom the sender has not seen in a long time, requires that there be some sort of ‘catching up’ in the beginning. That is true of any culture. We do not write essays to the members of our family – not even in North America.

North America is not the only place where we emphasize structure in an essay. Clarity is important for communication in any language, and structure is ultimately a tool for clarity. It seems that students believe essay structure is a result of culture. I would have to disagree strongly with that. Culture may have a small part in it, but essays, in essence, must allow communication across cultures. That is what the structure we teach allows people to do.

I do not want to give the impression that I believe the students are at fault for giving such false analyses. I believe that the fault is on the side of our own method of education. The problem is in the way North American schools present the essay structure to its students. It is presented as a set of rules that the student must memorize and learn to use just as it was laid out to them. Because of the lack of explanation as to the logic behind the structure, students fabricate their own theory about the structure. If the students in Writing Across Borders are any indication, the probability of students formulating a faulty theory seems high. Writing education needs to focus first and foremost on function. That is the main argument that Yamada makes in her book, and I agree with her completely.

One thought on “Misrepresentation of Cultural Differences and the Necessity of Emphasis on Function

  1. This is fascinating Stephen, and I think you’re right. From my own experience working with students, many seem to have given little thought to the purpose of their piece and the audience for whom they’re writing. This is true of students of all backgrounds, but it also seems as though, once students begin considering these questions, the structure of their work begins to fall into place. If more emphasis is placed on purpose and audience when teaching students how to write a particular genre, I suspect it would help a lot.

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