While growing up when my father didn’t like any of my action, his subtle expressions and one odd sentence was enough to ensure I understood, which probably was my first communication lesson. A lesson of reading between the lines which is also a deep rooted communication technique in Indian culture. Later on, working in international environment first with US, Australian and then with German customers, I tried hard with all my senses to read between the lines in emails, take cues from the expressions for disagreement or, discomfort in the virtual and face to face meetings, but all in vain.
With time, I realized that probably there was no in between the line communication but a clear explicit communication. And Finally, I realized maybe I have been trying to pick up messages none of my customers had intended to pass. This was a shocking revelation, a realisation that If I don’t understand the culture of my customers, I am subconsciously judging them by the default mechanism of my own culture.
Recently we worked on a language translation task for an ecommerce customer who wanted to launch a multi country site, which lead to the question, is simple translation of a site from one language to another enough or, success via content requires navigation through the wilderness of cultural difference? Is the information required by a German customer, a French customer, a Japanese customer and an American customer same before making an online purchase? I believed but did not go against the customer that a simple translation would not be able to decode the cultural traps and we might easily have a failed ecommerce market.
The aim of this article is to put forth a few points on content management across cultures and is based on the team’s experiential learnings, feedback from customers and tacit knowledge acquired through various articles and books on culture and communication.
So here we go:
The history of the country tells you the communication context of the country.
A country which has a very ancient history like India or, Japan will have high context communication style, which means lot of communication is based on context and implicit in nature. For e.g. Tomorrow and yesterday have the same translation in Indian language ‘Hindi’ i.e. ‘Kal’ based on the context. On the other hand, a country with a recent and shorter history will have a low context and more explicit communication. Simply because people have known each other for lesser duration, fewer generations have passed and have larger number of ethnic groups within the group. For e.g. US has a shorter history and have so many different groups from all over the world that it is difficult to have a common context for the same discussion, hence the need for explicit communication with larger amount of information. Let us take another example of two countries from the same continent, in France it is ok to have between the line communication or, some of the information is open to interpretation by the Customer, while in Germany it is a bad strategy to put ambiguous or, incomplete information. Also, in Germany, you must decide whether your content has a formal route or an informal route because misusing simple words like ‘see’ (they in English but is used for you in a formal set up) while ‘du’ is more of an informal ‘you’. Using both in the same communication might put you in the outsider category.
Food for thought: Would a communication between two different high context cultures be easy or difficult? How would a site from one high context communicate with customers from another high context culture?
What will Product do for me versus how does the product work?
From the above discussion one should assume that communication between two different countries with low context culture should be easy because both have explicit communication. But fathom this, an American ecommerce site decides to launch in Germany, both are low context countries hence explicit and clear product information already in English is simply translated to German. But the site fails to pick up!
Yes, both are low context countries but have different approach to the context. An American customer would look at what the product does for me and to the point feature list explicitly shared on the product page. However, a German customer would look at the product ground up, where he or she would like to know the technology, the methodology of building and then finally the features of the product. “The process is important versus result is important” cultural difference within the low context culture.
Task based trust versus emotional trust
The discussion on culture and communication is a vast topic with unlimited incidents to quote, however let us conclude this article with one last point of emotional trust versus task based trust. Reason why we should discuss this is that the content changes with to the point feature based product USP versus emotional appeal of the product.
A simple rule of thumb for trust is the limits of the legal system, if you look at countries with stronger legal system and consumer rights protection are task or product features based trust, consumers are more willing to experiment based on features because they know they are protected by law. This kind of consumer environment can be seen in the developed countries. But consider a country like Nigeria or, brazil or, India where the legal system is not strong and fast enough to protect consumer rights. In such geographies the content needs to build a connection with the consumer, he or, she should emotionally connect and relate to the content to be convinced to buy something from you. The consumer here is not buying the product but is building a trust with the brand because that is the core mechanism that protects him from any misleading or, frauds.
To conclude we are all humans driven by similar physical and emotional needs, yet we are all wired in a certain way based on our culture but each one of us is still a making of his or her own within that environment, it is like a Venn diagram where each is a subset of other. One single formula of communication does not exist, it is the iteration after iteration with lot of A/B testing to find what connects best with our customer at global cultural and individual levels.
Thank you for reading, hope it had some insights to your content strategy. An exceptionally good read to understand culture in business environment is the book CULTURE MAP by ERIN MEYER.