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Designing Cross-Cultural Digital Experiences: 1 of 6

Cross-Cultural Communication Strategy

A few decades ago Chevrolet had a much publicized failure rolling out their model the Nova in Mexico. It turned out that “no va” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. Not really an ideal name for a car. Years later in Italy a campaign for Schweppes tonic water translated the name into Schweppes toilet water. Sales were unimpressive. These two marketing blunders have become somewhat legendary in the annals of cross-cultural marketing and communication.

With globalization becoming a seemingly permanent element of our society, the importance of navigating the complicated maze that is cross-cultural communication is becoming more important than ever. And not just to large global brands and firms, but to smaller organizations who through happenstance or necessity find themselves in the position of trying to sell their products and services to a broader, more international audience. In the past, most firms simply translated their American (or home country) marketing collateral and message to their target countries language and called it a day. This approach rarely yielded the desired results, but most firms lacked the know-how and wherewithal to do better.

It turns out that there were several models available to try and optimize these cross-cultural marketing and communication issues, but they resided in a completely different field and hence were unknown to most marketers. The field of cultural anthropology utilizes multiple models to explain and understand communication among and between different cultures.  This field has identified that cultures have unique and different ways of looking at the world, varying attitudes towards accepted behavior, differing ways of expressing personality, and perhaps most important to this audience, different ways of negotiating and communicating.  Each of these differences affects the customer experience in unique and interesting ways and needs to be considered when a firm is branching out and attempting to do business with new nations, cultures and regions.

It is my belief that extending and applying the theories from cultural anthropology to digital communication can yield positive results and create a framework from which to approach cross-cultural communication in the digital realm. A few of the largest global brands and firms appear to have begun incorporating these concepts into their digital mix, but for most organizations these connections have yet to be made.

1. Cultural Context

The first concept is referred to as “cultural context” and was pioneered by the anthropologist Edward Hall. He basically divided the world between “low” and “high” context cultures as a way to broadly describe the cultural differences between societies. In this structure, “high context” refers to societies where people make connections over a long period of time and where there is an implied commonality of views, knowledge and experience that are frequently communicated in non-verbal ways. These cultures tend to focus more on relationship building than deal making. High context cultures include China, Japan, France and much of the Muslim world.

By contrast, in “low context” cultures people generally make many connections but they are of a shorter duration or for a specific purpose. In these cultures, cultural behavior and beliefs are often more clearly spelled out. Often the language is more precise and as a result written and verbal communication are paramount with non-verbal forms of communication de-emphasized. These cultures are often more deal than relationship oriented. Examples of low context cultures include Anglos (Americans, British, Australians), Germanic cultures and Scandinavian societies. There are many different attributes ascribed to both high and low context cultures that impact communication and customer experience. In a future article, I will detail these attributes and show how they can be best represented digitally.

2. Chronemics

The next construct from the field of cultural anthropology is called Chronemics.  Chronemics is the study and use of time in non-verbal communication.  Across cultures, time plays a significant role in the communication process and is a learned behavior.  Chronemics divides societies into two camps – polychronic and monochronic. 

Monochronic cultures are characterized by a focus on short term relationships, independent work and strong respect for rules and privacy.  These cultures tend to handle events sequentially. The model of success in these cultures is completion.  Other attributes include placing a value on promptness, meeting deadlines, working on one thing at a time and following plans.  These cultures tend to be low context. Examples of monochromic countries include the USA, northern Europe, Israel and Canada.

Polychronic cultures, by contrast, take a much longer view of things generally.  As a result, they are much more relationship focused than monochronic cultures.  These cultures are more likely to attend to multiple events or actions simultaneously.  People are more natural “multi-taskers” in these cultures and prefer to do multiple things simultaneously.  People are more likely to work in teams and base promptness on their relationships. Time commitments are viewed more as aspirational than required. As a result, progress, rather than completion, is the metric for success. Plans change often in these cultures and distractions are common and accepted. These cultures also tend to be high context.  Examples of polychronic cultures are most of Spanish speaking Latin America, the Arab part of the middle east and most of sub-Saharan Africa. 

Issues are frequent when members of these two cultures interact. You have one camp that values long term relationships, team work and has a casual definition of the word “done.”  The other prefers to work more independently, follow a rigid schedule and views completion as the primary hallmark of success.  Creating a communication approach to satisfy both of these seemingly divergent cultural perspectives can be a daunting task.  But understanding the underlying issues and attributes of these cultural differences can enable one to build a framework capable of bridging the gap between these varying cultural perspectives.

3. Time Orientation

The next framework we can use is called “Time Orientation.” The time orientation of a culture reflects a preference toward past, present, or future thinking. It effects how a culture values time and believes they can control it. In this theory, societies communicate their values by the focus they place on the timing relevance of things.

For example, American culture values a focus on the future. The America belief that we each control our own future contributes to our shorter perspective on time. Americans believe devoting large amounts of energy to our future will create a desired result. Future planning is mandatory in America. Many people question how one can sit around and not plan when they control their own destiny.

By contrast, many Asian societies are past-oriented and revere their history, and as a result their elders.  These cultures trend to place great importance on the care of the elderly as the key link to their past. They tend to be more concerned with preserving the past than building the future. India is an example of a society that is oriented toward the past.  This causes India to be focused on traditions and longer term commitments.  Many reasons for time orientation preferences in India exist, and a major one is the belief in time sequencing as communicated in the Hindu traditions. 

It is difficult to emphasize the impact of time orientation differences—-the American culture believing the future must be self-guided and India’s culture believing the future has already been designed by past action.

And there are some societies, particularly in the Muslim world, that are both past and future oriented.  These societies want to simultaneously return to a sacred time in the past, while also looking to the future.  So holidays happen earlier in the year each year to be past looking, but there is also a great emphasis placed on the young as the future.  The “sandwich” generation often has it tough in these societies, having to care for both the young and old alike.  Often these distinctions can be uncovered when looking at the imagery within a culture.  Many past-oriented societies feature imagery of their elders, while future-oriented ones have lots of imagery of children.  These distinctions can become especially important in the digital space where imagery and verbiage are the primary communicators of a firm’s products, services or value proposition.

4. Collectivism vs Individualism

The final approach from cultural anthropology than can be leveraged for use in the digital space is the notion of collectivism versus individualism. In collectivist societies, teamwork and the needs of the whole are paramount. Individual needs are subservient to the society at large. The organization is more important than an individual worker. The state more critical than a specific firm or organization. The “greater good” reigns supreme. China is a classic example of such a culture.

Individualistic cultures, by contrast, place a great emphasis on the individual. Each is enabled to pursue their own path regardless of the impact to society at large (within the existing legal framework.) Most of the English-speaking world follows this paradigm.

When taken together, these four frameworks can provide a strong roadmap as to how to shape communication across cultures. And with the advent of the modern content management system (CMS) there is now an infrastructure that can accommodate communication across and between these varying cultural constructs in a systematized manner. Leveraging a robust infrastructure but tweaking the copy, imagery and message to account for the cultural differences discussed above can cause a “local” brand to quickly be recognized as a global player. And it can enable a global brand to connect with myriad “local” audiences.

In my next few articles, I will go concept by concept and show the attributes of each cultural archetype and provide examples of how they can be utilized in the digital space.  Combined these concepts will create a powerful framework that any firm can use to improve its cross-cultural communication and increase its global message, reach and business.