Left to Right Can Be Wrong

Dec. 21, 2004
Writing patterns differ around the world.

The written word is all around us. Every day, most of us encounter books, newspapers, magazines, billboards, faxes, e-mail, correspondence, instruction manuals, and even graffiti. It's not surprising that we take written communication for granted. But not every culture writes the same way. For example, with minor variations, the Latin alphabet is used in most of western and central Europe. Greece is an exception; it has its own distinctive alphabet. And in eastern Europe, including the Russian Federation, the Cyrillic alphabet prevails. In all of these countries, writing is done in horizontal lines, and text runs from left to right. The pattern is different in the Middle East. Words in the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets are written horizontally right to left--the opposite of the general pattern in Europe and North America. Horizontal lines are not, however, the only way the world writes words on a page. Chinese symbols and Japanese kanji traditionally are written in vertical lines--and read top to bottom, right to left. Many Japanese-language publications, however, now are written with the text in horizontal lines--although the symbols are still read right to left. The different ways the world writes complicates the job of communicating. Take a look at your most impressive piece of business literature--your sharpest, best-designed brochure or prospectus. Look at the front cover. Now look at the back cover. The back cover probably doesn't have the visual impact of the front cover. It may be blank. But if you were to take that piece of literature to Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, or Japan, the back cover likely would be the first part of the publication your customer or prospective client would look at. In those countries, magazines, books, and brochures are laid out in reverse order from the standard U.S. format. It may seem strange, but writing patterns around the world also have an effect on theater. Most Western audiences are expected to look at the stage from left to right. For this reason, an actor who enters from the audience's right is considered to be making a strong entrance. To view an actor entering from the right, members of the audience have to break the usual left-to-right pattern, making the actor's entrance more noticeable. On the other hand, if an actor wants to slink onstage unobtrusively, he or she does so from the left side of the audience's field-of-view. The actor is moving with the usual left-to-right flow. Why should an international executive care about theater entrances? You may want to send a visual as well as spoken message the next time you deliver a speech. In the U.S., for example, if you have a choice, enter from the audience's right. In Saudi Arabia, enter from the left.

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