Our first impulse is typically to create content that would appeal to us, or to people like us. It’s an approach that works well in other aspects of life; we tend to cook things we’d enjoy eating and produce things that we personally think are of value.
What we fail to consider at times, however, is that people with very different situations, cultures and understanding of the world are increasingly consuming our content. In a globally linked world, creating with an audience of “me” in mind is decreasingly advisable.
Regardless of the industry for which you typically write, design or develop, chances are the content you help to create will be consumed beyond North America at some point. After all, according to statistics from mid-2014, North Americans made up only slightly more than 10 percent of Internet users, compared to the nearly 46 percent of Internet users based in Asia. Even small businesses now have global audiences as boundary-less digital communications have become the norm. With this truth should come new considerations: Will your audience understand your work? Will your messaging hold significance to them? Are you violating cultural expectations with your expressions or style elements? Are you sending unintended signals?
The answers to some or all of these questions could easily be “Yes.” The answer to the question of whether you should be expected to account for all these factors is probably “No.” The good news is that there are companies, services and perhaps even internal resources out there that can help, but you at least need to be aware of possible sticking points to know when to engage them. To help you avoid missing the mark with intercultural communications, here are a few pointers to keep in mind.
1. Anticipate Translation and Transcreation: Probably the most obvious change that can occur when optimizing content for use internationally is translation to a foreign language. As a rule, involve a translator as early in the content development process as possible, as this will give you more opportunity to avoid missteps. Consider also the idea of “transcreation”—a term used by companies like Smartling that go beyond literal translations of written content to also tweak aspects of content pieces (words and imagery alike) to appeal to a target culture. This can mean altering the message itself somewhat, so it is a good idea to convert it back to English to ensure brand managers know exactly what is being said.
2. Avoid Idioms: Idioms are essentially the equivalent of cultural “inside jokes” that do not translate well between languages and cultures. They’re those phrases like “don’t spill the beans” or “jump on the bandwagon” that have figurative meanings that don’t always align with their literal meanings, making it difficult to convey accurately in a foreign language. Once, while in Russia, I was told some sort of joke about an eskimo, an igloo and a TV that made no sense at all in English, but in Russian it was apparently hilarious… I’m pretty sure idioms were the culprit. Or it was just a bad joke. Regardless, if your message will be translated, it’s best to avoid them entirely.
3. Consider Spelling and Dialects: Do not fall into the trap of complacency when writing for audiences that speak the same language you do… Keep in mind differences in dialects and alternate spellings. Consider, for instance, “British English” versus “American English,” substituting an “s” for a “z” in words like “optimization,” and realizing that in Europe, “checks” may be “cheques.” Similarly, remember to account for specific dialects spoken regionally (Québécois French versus Acadian French in Canada, for example) to most resonate with your audience.
4. Contemplate Color and Imagery: Optimizing content for a foreign audience means looking beyond words to account for colors and imagery connotations, too. There is a whole field of color psychology devoted to studying the effects colors have on emotion, and the feelings brought about by different colors can vary by culture, too. In Western cultures, for example, we might associate yellow with “cowardly” or “hazardous,” but in India or China, it can be seen as sacred, royal or masculine. In Burma, or Egypt, yellow is a color of mourning, but in Europe it can represent “happiness.” And don’t just stop with colors: The imagery you choose matters as well. Use photos of people, settings and activities to which the target audience can relate.
5. Develop Numerical Awareness: When we think about translation, we’re usually concerned with letters and words, not numbers. Numbers, for the most part, look the same across cultures. That doesn’t mean they’re thought of in the same manner, though. Think about “unlucky 13” in the United States and Europe, for example. Some people are so superstitious (or are sensitive to others who are) that they’ll avoid listing the 13th floor in elevators. In China, however, 4 is deemed undesirable, bearing a similar sound to the word for “death.” In Japan, 9 is deemed to be bad luck. And the list goes on, as this handy infographic shows. Smart brands know to account for these cultural inconsistencies in instilled numerical meaning, and are very careful when using numbers in images, pricing, phone numbers, addresses, product names/versions and even dates of contract signings.
Developing content for a global audience may have its challenges, but in a world where information consumption (and product/service consumption) is increasing drastically in developing countries, getting it right can mean a major win for your company. Being aware of cultural differences, even if you don’t know exactly what they entail, is a great start. Beyond that, help is available to ensure your content resonates.
Have any great stories of successes (or failures) from which you learned while communicating cross-culturally? We’d love to hear them!
Lukas Treu is Content Architect at AKHIA.