Culture-Specific Writing Styles

Blogger Steve, whose great blog you can find here,  made the following comment that I would like to address in more detail:

I read somewhere that different cultures have different styles of writing, and it had some diagrams, and one that I remember showed English culture as going straight to the point, but Spanish culture taking as long as possible to get to the point, and circling around it for a long time, and a lot of this also involved preference for the passive voice.

I have tended to think that beating around the bush is undesirable, and I agree with what you say about the passive voice. But I also wondered if that was just an Anglo-centric viewpoint, and was something I needed to become aware of, as others have implied that I need to become aware of my alleged white-centric viewpoint.

But then I think, you are more likely to have a Ukrainian-centric viewpoint than an Anglo one, and yet I agree with you about the passive voice, so perhaps it isn’t an example of cultural chauvinism.

For years, I preferred to write my research in Spanish and dreaded writing in English because precision and concision that are marks of a good writing style in English were completely alien to me. If Spanish allows for interminable, roundabout sentences, then Russian does so to even a greater degree. I can create a sentence with 15 dependent clauses that goes on for 20+ lines and uses a passive construction in every clause. I really dig writing this way, too, because it reflects my way of being so well. Learning to stop beating around the bush and just saying what I want to say was a long and painful process for me. It was very hard to get rid of all the verbal flourishes, all of the “It might be argued”, “One might be justified in venturing a suggestion”, “It should probably be mentioned”, “What seems to be in need of being pointed out in this situation”, etc.

When I first started writing in English, I thought it would be OK simply to transfer my very Russian writing style into English. I soon discovered that it was not acceptable, though. One of the reasons I started this blog was to learn to write in a way that would sound less Russian and would be more attractive to English-speaking readers. (I think this has been a very successful strategy and my writing has improved dramatically in the 2,5 years of blogging.)

Now, the question is: why are the writing styles in Russian and in English so different?

I believe that the vague, imprecise, never-really-coming-to-the-point, passive-voice writing style in Russian is a result of our painful and long history of political repression.

When I read Belinsky and Pisarev, my favorite XIXth-century Russian literary critics, I see a very beautiful, powerful writing style that is free of any trace of vagueness and imprecision. When Pisarev wants to say that Pushkin is an idiot, he does it without hiding behind any verbal flourishes. When Belinsky wants to say that women are downtrodden and abused in the Russian society, he does so in a crystal-clear and passionate way.

The roundaboutness and lack of precision gradually became the hallmarks of the Russian writing style as the twentieth century progressed. The Soviet censorship was so terrifying and careful that sneaking any marginally original insight by the censors required significant skill. Readers learned to decipher interminable sentences for any sign of mildly subversive reasoning. The art of writing simply, clearly and directly was lost because there was no use for it. Whether the knowledge of how to write in a less convoluted, passive style has any hope of being reborn in Russian-speaking countries will depend on how well the freedom of speech will be protected in our countries.

17 thoughts on “Culture-Specific Writing Styles

  1. In my field (Applied Linguistics) at least, there is a great deal of debate over the extent to which academic publishing in English should be required to follow these types of norms (which are often seen as Anglo-centric), given that there are writers and readers who feel that other ways of writing (some of which are from well-established Englishes) better express their ideas. In addition, there is the related problem of attributing writing styles to people (i.e. Russian-speakers are illogical), and particularly language learners (she can’t understand this because she only comprehends Russian style) which is obviously problematic for many reasons, one of which is that style changes, as you show in Russian. Just in case my admittedly long sentences are not clear (I love them despite being a native speaker of English), I’m not saying that you are doing any of these things, but rather that these are some of the issues that come up in discussions of cultural differences in writing styles in my field.

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    1. And this is why I dislike North American Applied Linguistics. 🙂 Sooner or later, I start hearing how insisting that my students don’t use “ain’t” or double negatives in academic writing is hugely oppressive, and I have no patience for that.

      We also had this kind of thing in literary criticism with the inane debate about the oppressive nature of teaching “Dead White Males.” The good news is that we are no past this sad stage, and nobody makes these arguments seriously.

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      1. The debate I am referring to centers around making editors of international journals aware that there are established varieties of English (which include formal academic registers) that differ from American and/or British norms. For example, Indian English, Singaporean English, Hong Kong English (and there are more). Your example is one of register difference within a particular English (American). I also think you are misinterpreting this argument or have been exposed to shoddy versions of it. The idea is not that telling students not to use “ain’t” in academic writing is oppressive. Rather, the argument is that it is oppressive to tell them that “ain’t” is incorrect English that doesn’t properly express meaning and has no value anywhere. The point is to realize and teach that academic writing is an extremely conservative and formalized register whose conventions reflect existing power structures. Knowing these conventions is useful and likely necessary for academic success, but it doesn’t make them inherently “better” versions of the language, particularly as they do change with time (double negatives used to be acceptable in formal English, for example).

        Or, to go with the dead white males example, it’s not saying that you shouldn’t read them, just that they shouldn’t be the only thing you read. Furthermore, you should think about how a particularly canon was established when you are presented with it (which you probably do, so I’m not arguing with you, just clarifying my point).

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        1. “Rather, the argument is that it is oppressive to tell them that “ain’t” is incorrect English that doesn’t properly express meaning and has no value anywhere. The point is to realize and teach that academic writing is an extremely conservative and formalized register whose conventions reflect existing power structures. Knowing these conventions is useful and likely necessary for academic success, but it doesn’t make them inherently “better” versions of the language”

          -Yes, that’s precisely the argument I dislike. 🙂

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            1. To me, “academic writing is an extremely conservative and formalized register whose conventions reflect existing power structures” sounds like “riles of good writing are oppressive.” It’s hard as it is to communicate to the students the idea that the subject and the verb need to agree. If they start thinking about this in terms of power structures, good writing will be impossible to teach.

              I don’t think any of this has to do with any power structures. Some people simply don’t want to make the effort to learn to write well, that’s all there is to it.

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              1. Okay, let me try to clarify. It is the context that is important to consider. It is the difference between “ain’t is not acceptable in academic writing” and “ain’t has no value as a word, ever”. “Ain’t” has a clear semantic meaning in American English (isn’t). If a student writes “he ain’t here” you do not have difficulty understanding the meaning. The different between “ain’t” and “isn’t” is one of register and dialect. For example, “ain’t” often marks a stigmatized dialect, based on class, race, or geography. If you want to be accepted in a social group composed of speakers of a dialect that uses “ain’t”, knowing how to use “ain’t” correctly is important, and it has social value. If you want to be accepted as an academic writer, you need to know that “ain’t” is not acceptable in academic writing. As for the power relations part, academic writing tends in the United States tends to be closer to the spoken English of white, non-working class people than to the spoken English of other groups. This does not mean that an middle-class student will automatically write good academic English or that a working class student won’t. It just means that the middle-class student may have less difficulties and the working class student may have more (clearly, there are other factors that are important besides dialect). For example, if “ain’t” is not part of the spoken English of the middle-class student, they are unlikely to have to learn to remove it from their written academic English, as they aren’t going to use it in the first place. If “ain’t” is part of someone’s dialect, and particularly if they feel that it conveys a different meaning than “isn’t” in their spoken language, they may struggle (at first) in their written language. It is potentially oppressive if you tell them that “ain’t” should never be used (when is carries a meaning for them separate from isn’t), but not when you say that it shouldn’t be used in academic writing but is acceptable in other situations. .

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    2. Russian speakers illogical? Russian, to its credit, has no word for “is,” (at least not in the present tense) or if it does, I never learned it. Surely the predicate nominative makes for as efficacious a cover for bullshit as does the passive voice. For that reason they invented E Prime.

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      1. “Russian speakers are illogical” is an example stereotype I made up from Clarissa’s description of beating around the bush/not getting to the point in Russian writing. As far as I know, it doesn’t actually exist, but I am not up on my Russian stereotypes, which is why I had to make that one up. The more usual one is that “Asians” are circular and illogical thinkers because this is what their culture values while Americans are individualistic and thus value direct speech (no, it doesn’t make any sense, which is why it has been extensively debunked).

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  2. I love reading and writing technical and on-the-point stuff in English, because the language leaves almost no room for you to beat around the bushes. For everything else, I often feel as if the English language prevents me from more accurately expressing myself because I am unable to formulate certain nuances. Also, what really bugs me is that there is no more formal way of addressing someone than a simple ‘You’.

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    1. Some of my students have found a way of going around the “you” issue. They say “you is” in less formal occasions and reserve the more formally sounding “you are” to signal higher levels of respect.

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  3. Long ago, when I took some Russian 101, 102, 201 etc. courses, there was an oral final exam. I was asked to give directions from my present location to some other location on campus, something like that, and a few other questions to answer. Maybe 10-20 minutes of talking in all. The instructor remarked that my speech was almost entirely without modifiers. He referred to the notion of “colorful language,” which apparently is rich in modifiers. I didn’t know what to make of it. At the time I took it as a diagnostic, meaning perhaps adjective declension was a weak area in my learning that would need to be shored up. I also worried, though, that perhaps this evaluation implied something about my character, and maybe my English also lacks color. I still think about that from time to time, and wonder whether my English usage is lacking in color, or is at any rate below average in that department. Also, since that time I have sketchily outlined a conlang (or constructed language) into which I mentally translate stuff I watch on TV. In this language (which I call Gudobian) almost all words are derived from a core vocabulary of adjectives. Adjectives are as central to Gudobian as verbs are to the Semitic languages.

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  4. Riddle me this: How would one translate the following into Russian?

    “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

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  5. Lovely. When I was a student, I had to work hard to avoid criticism on the basis that I wasn’t direct and concise enough. I always felt that I had said just what I meant, and not the abbreviated, edited version that was suggested. Clearly I am simply not meant to be an English speaker!

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