communication for the real world

You Can Get There from Here

road with trees

Although they are about the same distance apart geographically, Madrid is not to Munich what Manhattan is to Miami. In Europe, short distances can mean big differences in expectation and understanding as well as in language and culture!

I am a Canadian with dual British and Canadian citizenship. I have lived and worked in several countries, and in every case, I have found linguistic adaptability, the ability to think like a local, and sensitivity to subtle issues important talents for writing useful documentation. I learn on my feet and through being here. Even though I come from the cosmopolitan, bustling, and, by North American standards, somewhat European city of Montreal, nothing prepared me for Europe, or other places in the larger world, quite like being here. It is a challenge to which I have seen many of my fellow expats succumb. They go home, wherever home is, chalk it all up to a very foreign—and thankfully brief—experience, and settle back into what they know and understand. Although I still sometimes have bouts of wrenching homesickness, I have stuck it out in strange places and learned, eventually, to thrive immersed in foreign-ness. But what foreign-ness am I talking about?

How Far Is Foreign?

To get from England to France you merely have to hop across the English Channel. But there are glaring differences between the two countries. For example, it is a well-known fact that you can read a Frenchwoman by the way she wears her scarf and the type of scarf she wears. Englishwomen are less readable overall. As for lunch, two hours is typical in France, where drinking wine with your meal is expected even in a business setting and everyone enjoys long, gossip-filled conversations, often openly discussing office romances that would be terribly indiscrete and out of place in England. A much shorter break is the norm in England, where a quick sandwich and a cup of tea are consumed in an office canteen, or a quick pub lunch is consumed at the nearest public house (or pub). Sensitive conversations in the pub can be declared to be under Pub Rules, which means that they are not be repeated. Office romances, although they are certainly discussed, are not openly celebrated.

Italy and southern Germany (Bavaria) both huddle against the Alps, but the differences between Bavarians and Italians permeate their lives. Bavarians drink beer, drive Porsches at unregulated speeds on their straight, well-maintained highways, always look a bit severe if not thunderous, and wear lederhosen (leather shorts with suspenders) as a matter of course. Italians drink wine, drive Alfa Romeos on twisting, crumbling roads, always look sexy and cool, and wear the gorgeous, stylish clothes for which they’re famous. Could close neighbors be more different?

Writing to Match the Culture

In subtle ways, documentation written for each group has to match its cultural expectations. Bavarians would not respond well to preamble. They want brusque direction that gets to the point as quickly as possible. Italians prefer a meandering approach that gets to the point eventually, after lots of discussion, a possible sidetrack or two, and maybe some more wine. If you get to things too quickly or abruptly in Italy, you will quite literally be shown the door—and not asked back in again. If you take too much time over things in Bavaria, you will be kicked into action very quickly. Or kicked out.

Writing in Europe is all about using language and skill to bridge such differences. When I write documentation for a company in the Netherlands, I bring confidence and directness to a table that is non-hierarchical, even when the CEO is sitting at it. When I write documentation for a company in England, I bring a quieter, less assumptive expertise and a very necessary deference for management personnel.

Being There

Many such cultural clues cannot be learned other than through time spent in the country. If you want to work overseas, you have to be alert and sponge-like in your ability to absorb local culture and languages. You also have to be tolerant and patient so that you can gather data and gradually benchmark it to be able to make informed decisions.

If you want to learn to communicate technical ideas successfully abroad, it is best to live in the target country and learn the people, their language, and their point of view. Don’t expect it to be an overnight study, even if you speak the local language. Small distances in Europe mean large differences.