It can be easy to forget that the Web is a truly international phenomenon and that people visit and view our sites from every continent and from all over the world.
While this is a truly amazing thing as it means that our message and our information can, quite literally, spread all across the globe in the blink of an eye, not everyone comes to your site with the same mindset and background. In fact, every person who approaches your site brings with them their cultural, personal, political and even religious background.
This means that, even if we completely ignore or overcome the language barriers that exist on the Web, no two people read the same piece of content the same way. Everything we read is colored by our background and the same holds true for each of the other 6 billion people on the planet.
This can create a very serious problem. What might be simply hilarious to you and your friends could be brazingly offensive to someone in another country. While this might be fine if you’re trying to be somewhat offensive with your humor, it can be disastrous if you’re trying to get information across or win people over to your viewpoint.
This alone makes cultural differences and important problem to be aware of and a pitfall that is critical to avoid.
These types of problems usually happen very innocently, starting either with a simple joke or a choice of words that is simply offensive to someone else, another group or even a large portion of the population.
Even if you didn’t intend for something to be offensive, if someone else takes something you’ve written, a picture you’ve posted or something you’ve uploaded personally, it can lead to huge problems. Flame wars often ensue over such incidents and, in extreme cases, people protest online or even go to (virtual) war over perceived infractions.
These are, at the very least, unwelcome distractions when you’re trying to write and convey a message. Placating or otherwise dealing with angry people not only takes time away from what you want to be doing, but it also means your message, as good as it might have been, went unheard and completely missed its mark, making the previous effort a waste.
However, this pitfall doesn’t always manifest itself in the form of angry mobs or even upset users. Rather, it more commonly appears as readers who don’t “get” what you’re trying to say. This leads them to silently miss the point of your posts or, at the very least, get bogged down in elements of your posts that they can’t understand.
So even if you don’t have a virtual mob at your door, you could still be finding yourself running afoul of cultural differences and turning off your readers to your message. The problem is, you might never know about this, that is, unless you stop to think about what could do it.
How to Avoid it
There is an old saying among journalists and journalism professors that goes like this:
The key to good writing is not to write so that you can be understood, but to write so that you can not be misunderstood.
On the Internet though, this is incredibly difficult. With so many people reading content from such a variety of backgrounds, there is virtually no way to guarantee that everyone who sees your site gets the same, or even a similar, message.
That being said though, there are some things that you need to watch out for, obvious stumbling blocks that can cause your message to get lost or, even worse, anger your visitors that you’re trying reach out to.
- Cultural References: When using cultural references either for humor purposes or for making a comparison, example, etc. it’s important to ask if everyone, or reasonably close to everyone, will understand it. For example, if you say a site is “Like a Walmart”, would all of your audience understand that? What if you said, “Like a Costco?” or “Like a Macy’s?”
- Humor: What’s seen as funny in one culture might fall flat or be offensive to someone else. For example, self depreciating humor tends to go well in some circles, but is seen as a sign of weakness elsewhere. Likewise, jokes about religion are acceptable in some cultures, but definitely not in others. Use humor with caution.
- Label Choice: Though it can be nearly impossible to choose a completely non-offensive word in some situations, especially to describe a race, religion, cultural group, etc., it’s important not to choose words that might be seen as intentionally offensive. Even if you can’t be perfect, it’s better to not to make things worse.
- Jargon: Jargon might not seem like it could be extremely offensive, but mess up certain science fiction jargon and you might see otherwise. However, even when it isn’t offensive, it’s confusing to those who don’t understand it, making it important to not use jargon that you audience isn’t certain to know.
- Political Implications: Finally, it is important to note that you can often indicate your political stance on an issue just by how you define it. For example, whether you refer to it as “Single Payer Healthcare” or “Socialized Medicine” might be a good indication in the U.S. on how you feel about the topic. These terms can sidetrack a good discussion and important message into a political debate you didn’t want.
All in all, there’s no real magic to avoiding cultural, political, religious and other pitfalls. It mostly involves being aware of the potential dangers and reading your content through the filters other people might apply to it.
If you can do that, you will most likely avoid the worst of the potential issues in this area.
In the end, it’s important to remember that, no matter how hard you try to be sensitive to these issues, you will never succeed completely and, in many cases, it probably isn’t very important.
Sometimes writing something well requires writing something that someone might misinterpret. It requires taking some risks. One of the reason modern cinema is often viewed as being so dull is because it has to be written for international audiences, meaning it has to appeal to the lowest common cultural elements. This greatly limits what one can do with the medium.
Still, there’s no point in upsetting or losing people needlessly. If you can avoid making culture-related blunders, it is best to do so. Not only will you spend less time keeping angry mobs at bay, but you’ll be able to keep more of your audience and that, in turn, will help you grow your blog.
That alone makes this an issue worth consider, but perhaps not one worth obsessing over.