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Plain language as a bridge where there is no shared culture

Plain language as a bridge where there is no shared culture

In diverse settings, we can’t rely on “common sense” to communicate. That’s why we need plain language: to make the unspokens explicit.

In 2022, I went to Tokyo to attend a one-day plain language conference—my first conference ever in Japan and in Japanese! It clarified for me the question of whether plain language was a cultural imposition, a point which had always nagged me.

Recap: Is plain language cultural imposition?

In the West—especially in the US and in business settings—people prefer to be direct. Generally,1 Western culture is low context; words can be taken at surface value.2

But Japan is a high-context culture. The explicit words cannot stand alone; you need to look at the context to understand what’s really being communicated.

So by advocating for plain language, am I promoting a Western style of communication and imposing Western values over others?

In Japan, subtle language is preferred

Several Japanese practitioners at the conference mentioned that a big challenge with plain language in Japan is that many Japanese believe in the beauty of subtle language. Cultured people should be able to “read between the lines.” In contrast, writing things explicitly—plainly—is unrefined.

(There are Japanese writers who would disagree that unclear language is better. Author Jakuchô Setouchi reportedly said: “Even if you know something difficult, when you write, it’s about using simple language so the other person can understand.” 「文章というのは、むずしいことを知っていても、やさしい言葉で相手にわかるように書かなければいけないんです」)

But if you expect the other person to decipher your underlying message, they have to have a decoder, a common code. And outsiders (like me! Even though I’m a fluent “native” speaker) don’t have that.

You can’t “read between the lines” when you don’t have a shared culture

Professor Yuko Takeshita (Toyo Eiwa University) explained that when two people come from the same culture, they share many unspokens. That shared understanding allows them to decode what’s not explicitly stated and communicate effectively.

But when people are from different backgrounds, they don’t have that common ground. There’s no decoder. And that’s why we need to put things explicitly into words.

Put the main message explicitly, at the top. Use uncomplicated words and sentences. Tailor your language to your audience.

Now I feel justified in calling for plain language use when communicating with diverse audiences 🙂


I loved learning about plain language in Japan and issues specific to the language and culture. And now I have a solid reason to encourage plain language for better communication across borders.

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Cover image by Pexels from Pixabay.

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Footnotes

  1. I know I’m very broadly generalizing. The level of directness in the US is very different from the UK, for example.
  2. Again, more or less.

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