I recently completed Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” Another outstanding book by Gladwell. There’s so much to be gotten from the book, I couldn’t possibly hope to cover it in just one blog post. One gem I got from the book deals with the notion of cultures that have a “transmitter orientation” — the burden of clear communication is on the transmitter vs. cultures that have a “receiver orientation” placing the burden of the communicated intent on the listener’s ability to hear what is really being stated.
Gladwell describes western cultures as having a transmitter orientation whereas Asian cultures are more likely to have a receiver orientation. Here’s an example of the two in action. Suppose I’m in a friend’s house and I’d like something to drink. If I’m in a culture of transmitter orientation, I’m likely to make a statement such as “Gee, I’m pretty thirsty. Would it be okay if I helped myself to something to drink?” In this case, I’ve made my intent clear and placed no burden on my friend to “get my meaning.”
If I were living in a culture of “receiver orientation,” my comment to my friend might have sounded more like this: “gee, it’s very hot, my throat is parched.” Now the burden of understanding my intentions is on my friend. He has the responsibility of hearing what I was really trying to say. His response would be something like “oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Can I offer you a drink?”
Western ears might be squirming to hear of an exchange like the one described above — one that is fairly common in eastern cultures — as being too fuzzy but as Gladwell points out, the reverse would be true too. Someone from an Asian culture might consider the westerner’s direct style of communication to be too forward or even rude.
In conversations where both parties have the same orientation, this wouldn’t be a problem. If you expect me to be direct and I’m direct, we’re good. If, on the other hand, you expect me to be indirect and you’re listening for me to be indirect, we’re good there too. You’ll get my meaning. But this really breaks down when we have different orientations. In “Outliers”, Gladwell describes how this mis-matched orientation tragically caused plane crashes. I had an opportunity to witness this mis-matched orientation while at my local Starbucks in Northern Virginia today.
It was a very simple exchange between the director of distribution for a major national newspaper (let’s call her newspaper woman) and one of the baristas working the espresso machine (we’ll call her barista).
Newspaper Woman: Hi, have you guys been getting your newspaper deliveries from us?
Newspaper Woman: Because I’m not seeing any today
Newspaper Woman: So you’ve been getting your newspaper deliveries?
Newspaper Woman: OK because I’m not seeing any today.
This went on for a little while longer and was excruciatingly painful to observe. I know, I know. I had no right to eavesdrop but it was right in front of me. There was a very simple question the newspaper woman was trying to ask but the barista didn’t listen hard enough to hear what she was really being asked. If only the newspaper woman would have simply asked questions such as “did the delivery come today?” and “have you been selling many newspapers?” – answers to those two questions might have explained why she wasn’t seeing any newspapers on the newspaper rack. They came, they sold, they’re gone! Or possibly, no, the delivery never came today, but that hasn’t been a problem in the past. That explains why there aren’t any papers today.
So how does the subject of transmitter and receiver orientations relate to SEO?
Thought you’d never ask. What do you think, I have a receiver orientation? LOL
SEO lives in a world that has a very strong transmitter orientation. Very little is implied. If you want to rank in search results for topic x, you have to be very explicit and communicate clearly to the search engines what the intent of your article is. If you’re hoping that the search engines are listening for your intent and will pick up on the subtle signals of your intonation, body language and grammatical style, forget it! They don’t work that way. SEO is a game of direct communication between you and the bot. Say what you mean and say it in a way that is consistent with how people search for what you’re writing about. The bot won’t translate for you.
If you mean to rank for topic x, write about topic x with a strong transmitter orientation. Receiver orientations may work in polite cultures but it won’t work for SEO.