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The Value of Spoken vs. the Written Word – It’s a Cultural Thing

Content value of spoken vs. the written word

As early as man has been on this planet, there has been communication. In the beginning, it was primarily verbal, although we obviously have hieroglyphics that formed initial written communication.

As civilization evolved and cultures began to engage with one another, especially through trade, there came a need for verbal communication, in terms of agreements for products to be delivered and prices to be paid. Again, these were primarily verbal in nature, although cultural language differences probably complicated things somewhat.

With the advent of writing, communication took on an entirely new format. Now, however, there were translation issues to deal with too. Nevertheless, trading companies and merchants began to reduce agreements to writing, at least within their own countries and regions. Still, most agreements continued to be verbal and were actually upheld by courts in common law countries like England.

We’ve Come a Long Way – How Does Culture Impact Communication Today?

In Western societies, perhaps because of the influence of common law, we can see how culture influences language and communication among parties. In these societies, important types of communication, specifically agreements, documentation, contracts, policies, etc., are always reduced to writing. The importance of “relationships” between parties is not particularly important – what matters is what is in writing, especially where the law is concerned.

Things are Different in Non-Western Societies

In non-Western societies, specifically in Asia and the Near/Middle East and Africa, things are a bit different and help to answer the question, what are the cultural effects of relationships and agreements?

  • In the Near and Middle East, especially Muslim cultures, one’s honor is critical, and verbal commitments and agreements are considered fully binding. While these may ultimately be reduced to writing, it is the spoken word that is paramount.
  • In Japan, a highly structured society, written contracts are not perceived to be “written in stone” as they might be, for example, in the U.S., Germany, or France. They value flexibility in such documents because circumstances may change and should be resolved through verbal communication. The same goes in China. Both of these cultures value the relationships that are established through the spoken word, and the flexibility that can be achieved through these verbal exchanges.
  • In Latin America, relationships are also considered key and are developed through the spoken word, not via the details of written verbiage – those come as extensions of verbal communication.

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When individuals and businesses whose values of the spoken word vs. written word are very different, both parties must proceed with caution, honoring how cultural differences affect communication.

For example, when someone whose value is placed upon written documentation and agreements pushes those written pieces upon one whose culture values the spoken word, things can go awry. The latter wants conversation, comfort, and a “meeting of the minds” through that verbal communication first. Even social events can be considered important precursors to any agreement that may be put in writing.

Don’t Impose – Empathize

Whether your cultural background values the spoken or the written word more highly, it is important not to force those values on one whose communication values are different from yours. The goal is to find balance between the two.