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Communications & Control by J.R. Swartz
Enhancing Communications

Text On-line
The advent of the Internet and its increasingly global access has taken this dissemination of information beyond comprehensible proportions. No longer are there restrictions to information access due to limitations in the technical process of printing or the availability of paper. No longer are there delays in information transfer due to the need to send it by horseback, ship or airplane. Today, information is omnipresent and immediate. There are no limitations brought about by geography or time. The amazing production of 30,000 impressions per hour that is noted above by Kaufer & Carley, palls in comparison to the information that is immediately available via Internet.

As an example, recently, when seeking information on the Internet about Hewlett Packard Company, my search located 112,000 sources on the subject in less than ten seconds! Further, the research articles noted in the bibliography located at the end of this paper were located through an Internet source by the name of "Electric Library." Electric Library has 150 full text newspapers; 100 full text magazines; national & international news wires; 2,000 complete works of literature; over 28,000 photos, images & maps; TV & radio transcripts and a complete encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus and almanac. Including printing all 33 papers [some 25 pages long] for review away from the computer, the process took about two hours [The search: ten seconds; reviewing: about fifteen minutes; & printing: about 1 hours], and the cost for the service is only $10.00 per month for unlimited access.

In another example, I am associated with an on-line group of over 1500 individuals who are involved in on-line training, information transfer and education. They include educators, scientists, business people involved in communications and technical people involved in various forms of information processing and transfer. The membership is global and represents regions as far reaching as Africa, Brazil and Russia. Each day all 1500 of us receive updates about ongoing projects taking place around the globe. Information of this magnitude would have been impossible to access a few years ago without a team of full time researchers, but now it is updated daily, and is waiting on our email servers each morning. Further, it is interactive, so that any individual with access to this network can make comments, ask questions, etc. of any of the individual members, or of the group as a whole.

The point here is that all of this data is available in textual format, and given its global accessibility and enormous base of information, the form in which text is presented can greatly influence global cross-cultural communications. One obvious impact is the overwhelming presence of English in global communications. Because language is a mirror of a culture’s reference structure, consider the potential impact of a world transferring information that does not truly represent the way that they have learned to think, understand and communicate.

Consider, for a moment, the use of culturally bound phrases. Despite the fact that many individuals from around the world have an excellent command of English, their command of culturally bound phrases appears to be virtually non existent.

I became interested in this area a number of years ago, while still living in the United States. This interest was sparked by a comment from a Lebanese born friend of mine who had lived in the United States for fifteen years and received his business degree from the University of Washington, in Seattle. [Coincidentally, he makes his living in the printing business, and is highly successful at it.] He said that when he was a freshman, one of his professors told the class that they had to learn a certain portion of the text "by heart." My friend was at a loss as to what the textual information had to do with his heart!

I decided to conduct a brief survey of some foreign born individuals whom I knew in the Seattle area, to determine what problems they had with culturally bound phrases. They were all residents of the United States and had lived there for periods ranging from eight to thirty years, and all had a good to excellent command of American English. Included were an English couple, engineer & airline representative (30 years resident); a Lebanese couple, owners of printing company (20 years); an Austrian machinist (30+ years); a Russian civil engineer (8 years); a Mexican, airline employee (educated in the American school in Mexico City and 8 years in the U.S.). The gender of the group was well balanced with three men and four women, and they were all well educated.

From James Rogers’ book The Dictionary of Cliches (1985) which contains 2,000 entries, I selected 93 culturally bound phrases or cliches and presented them to the group noted above. Following is the list of phrases:

Culturally Bound Phrases & Cliches
A-1 By the book Go whole hog
Ace in the hole The chips are down Hit pay dirt
Achille’s heel A clean slate In the pink
Acid test Climb the wall It’s the pits
Across the board Close shave Keep your fingers crossed
Albatross around the neck On cloud nine Keep your shirt on
All thumbs A cock and bull story Knuckle under
All wet To get cold feet Lay an egg
All in the same boat Come off it Let it all hang out
Arm’s length Cut no ice Let sleeping dogs lie
As the crow flies Cut and dried Long shot
At loggerheads Dark Horse Low man on the totem pole
Have an ax to grind Dead to rights Make no bones about it
Babe in the woods Deep Six Millstone around the neck
Back to square one Dog eat dog No skin off my nose
Back to the drawing board Down in the dumps Off the wall
Back to the salt mine Down in the mouth On the fence
Bag of tricks Draw the line at Over a barrel
A whole new ball of wax Drive you up the wall Pass the buck
Bark up the wrong tree Dyed in the wool Put on ice
Bear the brunt Eat crow Raise the roof
Beat around the bush To have egg on your face Spill the beans
Beat a dead horse Face the music Stand pat
Behind the 8-ball A fair shake Take it with a grain of salt
Beside himself Fill the bill Tongue-in-cheek
Betwixt and between Fly in the Ointment Turn the tables
Blow your own horn Fly-by-night Wet blanket
Bone of contention Get a handle on it White elephant
Break the ice Get in on the ground floor Wild-goose chase
Burn the midnight oil Get it down pat Wing it

These particular phrases were selected because I felt that they were commonly used in our social and business language and assumed would easily be understood by most native American English speakers with at least a high school education. Subsequently, since living in Tokyo, I also frequently hear these phrases spoken by U.S. business people when speaking with their Japanese associates, and am frequently called upon by my Japanese colleagues to interpret them as well.

I was surprised when I found that most of the words on the above list were not known by any of the individuals in the group. Further, the one’s that were known, were not known collectively, but rather, only by one or two individuals in each case. While this exercise was not conducted in a truly scientific manner, nor did it consist of a significantly viable sample size, it does allude to the potential for misunderstanding when dealing with textual information on a global basis and suggests that further study in this area is necessary.

Next Section: Importance of Face-to-Face Communications

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