Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

"Dear Friend" (?): Culture and Genre in American and Canadian Direct Marketing Letters

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

"Dear Friend" (?): Culture and Genre in American and Canadian Direct Marketing Letters

Article excerpt

Canadians are different from Americans. Business communicators know this, after a fashion. They know that they have to change money at the border, that they need their birth certificate (but not their passport) to cross the border, and they know that handguns are not allowed into the country (well, they should know this but they do not always). In short, they have a general sense that things are different north of the border even if they have trouble explaining exactly how they are different. If they smoke, business communicators may be so familiar with the following warning as to not read it (and certainly not heed it) anymore:

Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, and May Complicate Pregnancy.

However, on the insert to the first package of cigarettes they buy in Canada will be a large print, bold, black warning. The warnings recently printed include the following: "Cigarettes cause strokes and heart disease," "Smoking can kill you," "Tobacco smoke can harm your children," and "Cigarettes are addictive" [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

This is business communication Canadian-style. It conveys more or less the same denotative message that the American message conveys, but it does so in a more highly charged way - and in French, too. The link between smoking and hurting children would be resisted aggressively by the tobacco lobby in Washington, and the general public might see it as transgressing public discourse decorum. For Canadians, however, smoking is not just a public health issue; it is a matter of morality (hence the link to children's health). You do not just make yourself sick when you smoke - you also impinge on the rights of others to live a healthy life.

I bring up this example to highlight the different approaches Canadians and Americans have elected to take to their public communications. Business communicators, both in North America and the rest of the world, need to be aware that effective business communication for Canadians treats them as a distinct culture and audience. Others in business communication are already aware of this. Both Limaye and Victor (1992) and Victor (1994) call for more studies of other cultures; Victor (1994) draws specific attention to "variations in written business communication across cultures and languages (e.g., resumes, sales letters)" (p. 42). This study adds to the response to this call for research by examining some variations in sales letters written for English-speaking Canadian audiences. The differences between American and English-speaking Canadian cultures involve more than switching allegiances between teams - replacing the White Sox with the Blue Jays in references, for example. These differences are a much more complex matter, requiring understanding of how cultural meanings are created and held. Some of these meanings are shared across the cultural divide, which is precisely why it is difficult to identify the "hidden" or less obvious ways that English-speaking Canadian readers understand and create meanings out of texts written for American audiences.

In the remainder of this essay, I will argue that in order for business communicators to write successfully for Canadian audiences they need to conceptualize Canadians as different from American audiences. The next section of this essay reviews a small segment of the vast literature on Canadian and American cultural identity, much of it written from a Canadian point of view. Out of this knowledge we can then understand how marketing letters are cultural objects peculiar to the culture that spawned them and not pan-cultural or universally understood and accepted artifacts. Instead, I will argue that they are examples of a genre particular to the United States. To understand how this genre works, I examined over 60 letters: 50 letters sent to various people (including myself) at U.S. addresses, and 12 letters sent to English-speaking Canadian addresses. …

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