Sunday, March 17

Persuasion, rhetoric and cross-cultural communication
A review of 'Beyond Language: Cultural Predispositions in Business Correspondence' by Charles P. Campbell (, a paper presented at a conference in Texas in 20 February 1998.

With examples from American and Chinese business correspondence, Campbell shows how western rhetorical principles can be used to accommodate other cultural patterns.

Western countries tend to have what Edward T. Hall (ref. 1) calls 'low-context cultures'. The more shared context (i.e. stored or shared information) there is, the less information must be transmitted, and vice versa. According to Campbell, low-context cultures (such as the USA) tend to value goals and procedures and short-term, purposive behaviour; they also tend to set store by individualism. 'High-context cultures' (such as China), on the other hand, tend to value long-term relationships more, and to be relatively collectivist.

Any written document, Campbell argues, contains the three elements of 'ethos', 'logos' and 'pathos' (the classic elements of Aristotelian rhetoric), although they are not equally well developed. The logos represents the matter under discussion. Pathos is the reader’s stake in the matter. Ethos is the author’s claims to dependability and authoritativeness. Even documents written entirely in the passive voice and without reference to readers still have an implied ethos (objectivity, professional competence, lofty indifference) and pathos (readers should be able to 'get it' on their own). Aristotle saw ethos, logos and pathos as inseparable.

The balance of logos, pathos and ethos seems to have shifted in the West over the past century, Campbell reports. John Brockmann (1989, ref. 2) noted that, in manuals written around 1900, ethical exhortation was fairly usual: writers reminded readers of shared civic values. Today, manuals today shy away from ethical exhortation. (Computer manuals, for example, seldom tell the reader why certain features might be helpful or why one might want to use them.) There has also been a decline in the use of pathos (except, perhaps, in advertising). In western business correspondence, then, logos rules supreme.

In high-context cultures like China and Japan, on the other hand, writers carefully develop relationships with their readers. To western eyes, oriental business correspondence may therefore seem hopelessly indirect. It gets to the point only at the very end of the letter.

The Japanese concept of kishotenketsu seems to explain the typical descriptive but lengthy introductory remarks, as well as the structure, of the standard business letter. A Japanese linguist quoted by Dennett (1988, ref. 3) says: 'First you have the subject, ki, then you raise it, sho, next roll it, ten, and then . . . you end it beautifully, ketsu.'

A Chinese teacher quoted in Li Xiao-ming’s "Good Writing" in Cross-cultural Context (ref. 4), which explores priorities in the teaching of composition in the USA with those in China, states:
'It is very unlikely that one would start a piece from a form; we all start from ideas or from experience in life . . . Especially in a country like China that has a literary history of thousands of years, is arrogant to think that one can surpass his predecessors without first learning from them.'
In Chinese rhetoric, two inseparable characteristics that contribute to good writing are the qualities qing and li. Qing is all about persuasion, while li is a matter of reason and truth. As another teacher quoted by Li Xiao-ming puts it,
'Truths, though existing in objectivity, are approached and learned only through subjectivity. Truths should be learned with passion and conviction.'
Campbell postulates that, while li appears roughly analogous to logos, qing seems to include both ethos and pathos. Chinese rhetoric does not appear to make the western distinction between individual and audience: emotions are not yours or mine, but ours.

Campbell’s conclusion, with reference to the letters reproduced in his article, is this:
'For business-letter writers in low-context cultures writing in English to readers in high-context cultures (Latin or Asian), this advice may be as simple as remembering that their cultures predispose readers to be more interested in long-term relations with reliable people than in products or profits for their own sake.'
Westerners should bear in mind, too, the importance of ceremony and politeness in oriental cultures, in particular. We should not neglect the need for pathos, in the classic rhetorical sense. In writing to members of Latin and Asian cultures, we should therefore start with one or more paragraphs that establish common ground and show our understanding of the readers.

And as Campbell points out, this strategy 'works pretty well even on readers in low-context cultures.'

1. Hall, Edward T., 1983. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. New York: Doubleday.
2. Brockmann, R. John, 1989. ‘A Historical Consideration of Ethics and the Technical Writer: From the 1880's to the 1980's.’ In Technical Communication and Ethics, ed. R. John Brockmann and Fern Rook. Arlington, VA: Society for Technical Communication, pp. 107–112.
3. Dennett, Joann Temple, 1988. ‘Not to Say is Better Than to Say. How Rhetorical Structure Reflects Cultural Context in Japanese-English Technical Writing.’ IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 31: 116–9.
4. Li, Xiao-ming. 1996. "Good Writing" in Cross-cultural Context. Albany: State University of New York Press.

See also
* Excerpts from Book I of Aristotle's Rhetoric at
* Aristotle's Rhetoric (the function, nature and proofs of rhetoric) at
* Understanding Persuasion and Argument at for an analysis of logos, ethos and pathos, with modern examples.