Academic Cross-Cultural Differences – Academic Writing

Academic thinking and writing traditions around the world have developed culture-specifically. These culture-based traditions differ substantially from each other. As a writer of academic papers in an international field, it is crucial to be aware of differences between academic thinking, presentation and writing styles. Being aware of these differences can help us as readers and writers to understand why an academic text has been created in a certain way, in what way it is constructed, and how “we have to read it”. In addition, we learn how to create a paper in a certain culture-specific way, which can be useful when publishing an academic text in an international medium. Furthermore, knowing about fundamental differences between academic community style approaches increases the level of readiness for written cross-cultural cooperation projects.

This blog post is a part of a three-part blog series. You can find the first blog post about general observations here and the second about the role of communication here.

A lively group of Japanese students sitting by their desks in a classroom. Guitar chord instructions can be seen on a white board in front of the classroom.
Academic thinking and writing traditions differ substantially from each other.

Two Opposing Positions

In this article, the focus is on general assumptions about culture specific intellectual and thinking styles, as well as on specific issues of academic writing and writing discourse. Intellectual styles are cultural-bound models of thought and behaviour (Galtung 1985). Cross-cultural differences in thought and writing patterns have become a serious field of enquiry only in the last thirty years and two opposing positions have developed. Some of the theorists stress the universality of academic discourse (Widdowson 1979) whereas other researchers focus on the culture specificity of cognitive and textual structures (Kaplan 1966/1980, Clyne 1981, Galtung 1985, House 1997, Kachru 1983).

Galtung’s Four Academic Community Style Approaches

Galtung (1985) suggests four academic community style approaches in order to capture divergences in intellectual style: The Gallic, the Teutonic, the Nipponic and the Saxon style. He analyses these approaches by investigating four dimensions: The academics’ ability to analyse paradigms (Paradigm analysis), the ability of generating propositions (Generation of hypotheses), the way academics form theories (Theory construction) and the style of commenting on the works of others (Peer reviews).

The Gallic Intellectual Style

Academic cultures that represent The Gallic intellectual style are located in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Latin America. This style is seen as being preoccupied with linguistic artistry. Clarity and elegance are as important as theory formation. The best theory is a theory that shows balance and symmetry. When commenting on the works of peers, criticism is not expressed in a direct way. The typical research question is: “Peut-on dire cela en bon français?” “Can you say this in good French?” The fact that there are disagreements is generally accepted.

The Saxonic Intellectual Style

The Saxonic intellectual style can be subdivided into the UK style and the US style and it is characterized by avid organization and collection of data which is often a team effort. This style is strong on hypothesis generation and relatively week on theory formation. Saxonic academics engage in dialogue with their peers and colleagues seeking to smooth out divergences of opinion. Diversity is generally tolerated. Typical questions posed by representatives of the Saxonic intellectual style when confronted with a thesis are: “How do you operationalize it?” (US) How do you document it?” (UK).

The Teutonic Intellectual Style

Representatives of the Teutonic style focus on fundamental issues of theory formation and deductive reasoning (=from generalizations to specific observations) rather than data analysis and inductive thinking (=from specific observations to broad generalizations). Teutonic intellectuals are seen as being strongly elitist and less democratic than other intellectual communities. Knowledge is passed from masters to apprentices. The academic debate centres on the weaknesses of other intellectuals’ lines of argument, and a typical research question is: “Wie können Sie das ableiten?” “How can you derive this?”

The Nipponic Intellectual Style

The Nipponic style is characterized by its fact orientation and the stress on commenting other intellectuals using paradigms, propositions and theories. The style is non-linear with circular thought pattern and argumentation structures. The Nipponic intellectual style is characterized by its strength on description and weakness on theory formations and paradigm analysis. In scientific discussions, it is crucial not to hurt hierarchies or social relations.

Differences in Written Discourse

When comparing academic cultures and the way researchers and students write academic texts, certain differences can be explored. According to Clyne (1993) styles of academic texts can be studied from the following perspectives:

•    linearity versus digressivity
•    focus on form versus content
•    textual symmetry
•    abstractness versus concreteness of content
•    content structure
•    continuity in argumentation
•    integration of data
•    use of advance organizers
•    writer responsibility versus reader responsibility

Is the text written in a linear way or is the stress on digressivity? Does the writer focus on the form or the content of the text or a both of equal importance? In terms of symmetry and structure, academic texts can vary substantially. According to Kaplan (1966), texts can be built and structured as shown in the picture below.

A diagram representing the English, Semitic, Oriental, Romantic and Russian ways of organizing a paragraph.
Kaplan’s (1966) diagram presenting cross-cultural differences in paragraph organization.


Additionally, academic papers can vary in terms of style. How abstract or concrete is the content of a paper? What is the quantity and quality of examples, clarifications and/or advance organizers that the writer uses in order to explain a phenomenon? What kind of argumentation is being used? Is the reader responsible for the text understanding or does the writer take the responsibility? In other words, how much is being explained in the text and to what extent does the writer expect the reader to have background information about the topic discussed in the paper?


Exploring cross-cultural differences in academic writing can be an eye-opening experience. Having studied and understood these differences in style and content, it is considerably easier to read academic papers that have been written by representatives of unfamiliar academic cultures.


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Clyne, M. (1993). Pragmatik, Textstruktur und kulturelle Werte: Eine interkulturelle Perspektive. In: Harmut Schröder (ed.): Fachtextpragmatik. Tübingen, 3-17.

Galtung, J. (1985). Structure, culture and intellectual style: An essay comparing saxonix, teutonic, gallic and nipponic approaches. In: Social Science Formation. London/Beverly Hills: Sage.

Kachru, Y. (1983). Linguistics and Written Discourse in Particular Languages: Contrastive Studies: English and Hindi. In: Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 3. Cambridge, 50-77.

Kaplan, R. B. (1966/1980). Cultural Thought Patterns in Intercultural Education. In: Croft, Kenneth (ed.): Readings on English as a Second Language. Cambridge, 399-418.

Widdowson, H. G. (1979). Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Text: Lena Segler-Heikkilä, PhD, Principal Lecturer, Humak University of Applied Sciences, Interpreting and Linguistic Accessibility.