“Contrastive U.S. and South American Rhetorics”–Barry Thatcher

In this article, Thatcher compares rhetorical patterns in US-American and Latin American versions of the same letter, which address difficulties in car registration and taxation in Ecuador, to demonstrate how broad cultural values influence rhetoric and manifest themselves locally and distinctively in locational rhetorics. Thatcher explains that Latin America is a collective, highly stratified culture in which “personal identity, seeing identity, and dealing with the world are based on the person’s kinship or social group” (59). He claims two critical patterns result: inequality, which citizens expect and respect, and particularlism, “meaning laws, politicies, and procedures are applied differently ito everyone, depending on that person’s social standing” (60). The US, as de Toqueville so famously noted, is based on individualism and emphasizes universalist thinking patterns, which expects equality even though it is not manifested in US culture as some would like to believe. Both of these cultural values are reflected in organizational behavior. For instance, whereas management in US stresses independence and equality and lets subordinates problem solves, South American management values dependency, heirarchy, and close overseeing of subordinate’s work (60). Another difference in work placed values and practices revolves around the concept of POWER DISTANCE, “which measures the ability of two people with different power and authority to influence the other” (61). High power distance scores in S.A. indicate subordinates rarely influence their superiors at work, home, church, and school whereas in US, where power distance scores are lower, superiors consult subordinates for feedback, creativity, and problem solutions (61). The Letters, Thatcher argues, demonstrate these distinct cultural values.

Letter O–Ecuador Letter R–US

In letter O, writing is flowery and formal because writers are reflecting Ecuadorian collective values, which are sensitive to social structures and position. Letter R is individualistic and universalist oriented.

Distinct appproaches to law also are reflected in distinct rhetorical patterns. According to Thatcher, “these different legal approaches imply different expectations about certainty and ambiguity, especially as they relate to written communications” (62). Letter O, for example, states law precisely and claims actions should be based on law. Letter R relies on precedences and claims what happens to one should set precedent for all that folllow.

Different values related to writing and orality are also key cultural values reflected in rhetorical patterns. Because Latin America privileges orality over writing, their written texts include many oral rhetorical features. For instance, Ong (heads up Trish!) explains, “oral cultures learn through immersion into the context, using step-by-step procedures, guided by an expert, listening to and repeating formulas, and developing a ‘cooperative memory,” which explains Letter O’s highly contextualized content and formulaic almost recital of cooperative memory of law (64). Letter R, on the other hand, reflects the US priviliged form of writing that is analytical, linear, “organized,” and chronological.

Difference in uses of context in letters also reflects distinct cultural rhetorical values. Letter O represents a HIGH-CONTEXT communication form, which articulates relations between stage, actors, and issues. Letter R represents a LOW-CONTEXT communicative tendency because writer doesn’t really rely on context that much. Thatcher claims US writers have a “more homogenized sense of audience and context” whereas Latin Americans are much more “sensitive to place and the audience and to how much information in that place the audience will need” (65).

Lastly, Thatcher points to issue of problem solving and time in relation to rhetorical patterns. Thatchers cites other scholars who claim Latin Americans are not focused on future problems and tend to say focuse on present. Latin Americans also perceive time polychronically, which means time is characterized by “flux; simultaneity; multiple tasks managed simultaneously; and apparent disorganization, focusing on the importance of place and involvement of people rather than on adherence to present schedules” (65). US, on the other hand, operates monchronically, as evident in “linked linear structures of cause and effect with an organized flow of events” (65). Letters R and O reflect these distinctions, Thatcher points out. Letter R is linear, problem based, and future driven. Letter O is highly complex in its presentation of people, events, and relationships.

Thatcher points out syntax of Spanish language indicates this polychronic characteristic and then concludes essay by noting the danger in making broad generalizations about both US and Latin American rhetorics based on his study. Nonetheless, he asserts “understanding these basic rhetorical differences critically highlights how the two populations might interact rhetorically, but more importantly for US scholars, this comparison denaturalizes the individualistic, universal, common law, low-context, and agented rhetoric that is commonly assumed to be the benchmark for “clear” writing” (67).

Thatcher ends essay by claiming we need to understand how increased cultural and economic interactions between two populatinons change rhetorical traditions and suggests we also investigate how technology and global economy is influencing rhetorical traditions. I would have liked to seem him take on a social global justice angle here at end, however. I see great potential in contrastive rhetorical anaysis, which could lead to more diplomatic resolutions to geopolitical tensions. I read in the NYTimes the other day that we are on the verge of a second global arms race, if we are not there already. How could contrastive rhetorical analysis assist in negotiating peaceful and just resolutions to this heated and pressing issue?

Thatcher’s work is important because it demonstrates just how important locational research is when analyzing and interpreting cultural rhetorics. Friedman claims, “rhetoric has a particular history and location requiring historiographic genealogies and ‘thick descriptions’ of local manifestations.” Thatcher makes that point all too clear. The combination of these two readings over the last couple of weeks is exciting for someone becoming interested with transnational studies. What Friedman and Thatcher provide is a kind of ethics that rhetorical scholars must pay attention to when studying and re-presenting cultural rhetorics.

Thatcher is clever to admit the weakness and generalities of his study. Doing so alleviates some of the suspicions I had with the credibility and validity of his study. However, I am still not comfortable with the part of his analysis that relies on scholars who claim inequality is the social norm, which Latin Americans support because they believe “there should be an order of inequality in this world in which everyone has his or her rightful place; high and low are protected by this order” (60). In my travels in Mexico and South America, I have never asked anyone if they thought inequality and stratification of classes and the extreme poverty and living conditions that I have witnessed SHOULD exist, but that cultural belief is hard for me to swallow. I can’t help but wonder what those living in poverty would say. This suspicion leads me to ask: What dangers arise when we base our scholarship on assumptions that “some” scholars have argued? And what dangers arise when our scholarship fails to represent perspectives from those on the margins and instead privileges those in the center, even if those in the center are scholars?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Contrastive U.S. and South American Rhetorics”–Barry Thatcher

  1. “O” writing seems to have a lot in common with feminine ecriture. The distinction between linear, cause and effect witing and the writing of simultaneity and circularity makes me suddenly see a big shift in America as between “old” rhetoric and the sense of simultaneity and presentism of the internet.

  2. Eileen E. Schell

    Laurie, I was particular fascinated (I’m winking here at Trish and Tanya who give you a hard time for that word) with your comments about an ethics for rhetorical scholars that account for transnational context and spatio-temporal relations. You note: ” What Friedman and Thatcher provide is a kind of ethics that rhetorical scholars must pay attention to when studying and re-presenting cultural rhetorics.” I think this is really interesting, and I’d like to hear more about what you mean by this.

    Also, I think what you said about Thatcher’s comments regarding inequality is dead-on. I questioned that assumption. It seems like a contrastive assumption that is really problematic and possibly culturally biased.

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