Localizing for Cultural Differences
What to Do When You're Not in Kansas Anymore

The world seems smaller than it once was due to globalization. It is faster and cheaper than ever before to travel vast distances. This makes it easier to use suppliers and resellers far removed from your location. The Internet has also opened up the world and given us, as customers, a much broader spectrum of products and services to choose from. However, with globalization comes the difficulty of knowing exactly who your customers are and what cultural expectations they have.

Image via Ivan Walsh, flickr creative commonsVery simply, culture means the common experiences, beliefs and accepted social behavior we share within a community. When we try to understand something new, we filter the information through what we know and believe. A community could be a country, a region, age, gender, education level, language, sexual orientation, social standing, lifestyle or religion. As such, a person often belongs to more than one community. You could be born into a working class family, work hard, become very successful, and end up leading a very different life from those of your parents. However, those core values you learned as a child will always be with you even if you change your lifestyle or where you choose to live. You could now say you are part of two communities, that from which you came, and the one you moved in to. You have expanded your knowledge and now filter new information through your collected experiences. Culture is how you make sense of the world.

When we meet another person and strike up a conversation, we communicate through both verbal and non-verbal cues. The spoken words themselves make up only around ten percent of what we actually communicate. The other parts are our tone of voice, which accounts for about thirty-five percent, and our body language, which makes up as much as fifty percent of our total communication. This shows you how important it is to know as much as possible when you want to do business in another country.

Eye contact - In some countries, eye contact communicates that you are an honest and trustworthy person, while in others it’s considered disrespectful or aggressive. In most western countries a certain amount of eye contact is expected. However, holding one’s gaze for too long can make people feel uncomfortable. In Arab countries, people expect you to keep eye contact, by not doing so you could be regarded as a having a lack of respect of the other person. However eye contact between men and women can be seen as flirtatious or threatening. Men of these communities do not make eye contact with women, and vice versa. In South Asia, eye contact is considered rude. In Sweden, not making direct eye contact will be interpreted as a lack of interest in the person you are speaking to.

Personal space - We all have our own rules about how close we like to stand to another person. This space can be bigger or smaller depending on who we are talking to, the situation, and our cultural upbringing. We vary our distance because we want to keep away from someone we dislike, make sure we are not suddenly attacked, be intimate with someone, communicate more easily, or to threaten someone by invading their space. The amount of personal space people expect varies from country to country – if you are not sure how to behave, its always a good idea to look around to see what the locals do.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask someone if you want to act according to local customs. Most business people have been in the same situation you are and know how hard it can be to do the “right” thing. In general, people like telling foreigners about their own culture. It could make for an interesting dinner conversation.

Words - Words are amazing - they can get people to buy things, convince them to vote for a certain party or engage in an number of other behaviors. But to get the desired results, you have to know how to use words correctly. This is hard enough in your own language – to achieve the same meaning in a foreign language is even tougher. Most of us have encountered some baffling translation in manuals or advertisements. Don’t depend on Google Translate or your hazy memories of high school German classes -- always have a native copywriter look at your text and rewrite the message localized for that particular country.

Symbols and numbers - Remember that images can have different meanings across different cultures. Make sure to contact a native person or localization specialist before any big campaigns are launched. Symbols and numbers can also have different meanings in different cultures. Shooting stars symbolize death to a Chinese person. For Koreans, the butterfly symbols masculinity. In China, Japan and Korea, the number four symbolizes death. In China, the number 8 is associated with prosperity and fortune.

Colors - When writing the name of a living Japanese and Korean person, never use red as it is used to write the names of the diseased. You should also refrain from typing a business letter in red ink as it signals the end, or death, of a relationship. The use of white space in design has been argued cross-culturally for quite some time now. Generally, northern Europeans value white space more than North Americans.

Scandinavians prefer a subtle color choice where as South and North Americans like a fuller color palette. White is the color of purity and innocence in the West, but in East it’s a sign of funerals and mourning. There’s much to learn about how to design and behave for the best business results in different cultures, and there many online resources that may help. But perhaps the best way to learn is through personal experience and sharing information with people around the world. Why not start your own networks to swap experiences and learn from each other?

(images via IvanWalsh.com and ToGaWanderings, flickr creative commons)