Cultural Differences

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There are countless examples of global marketing campaigns that have failed because of unforeseen cultural issues. Every aspect of your communications must be examined for cultural sensitivities. We can identify potential faux paxs before they reach the market.

Ideas, concepts, idioms and slang don’t always convert cleanly into another culture. Some expressions may be inappropriate; others won’t express what you mean; still others simply don’t exist and have to be created.

As an example, in a recent marketing piece we did for a client the expression "Like Father, Like Son" appeared. In Chinese, the phrase could have been translated literally, but it would have made very little sense. The Chinese would use the phrase, "Tigers Do Not Breed Dogs," to express the same meaning in their culture.

Scribe Consulting’s skilled linguists draw from extensive experience in advertising and marketing to their native cultures. They translate your ideas as if they were originally constructed for the local culture.

Alternative Meanings

Be certain translations of your ad copy or product name don’t prove an embarrassing faux pas and jeopardize business. Unfortunate examples abound. Chevy Nova, for instance, didn’t go over well in Latin America because "No va" means "doesn’t go" in Spanish. "Come Alive With Pepsi" haphazardly translated into Chinese as: "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead." Not very humorous when it costs you money.

Common Practices

The following list provides some of the items that should be changed during internationalization.

  • Date formats (including calendar settings and day/month names)
  • Time formats (12-hour vs. 24-hour clock etc.)
  • Currency formats and other monetary-related information (taxes etc.)
  • Number formats (decimal separator, thousand separator etc.)
  • Fonts (names, sizes etc.)
  • For fonts, it is best practice to use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) whenever possible. CSS allows fonts to be changed for all the pages in one place, and there will be fewer tags within the text for the localizers to sift through.

Other issues for consideration include:

  • Address formats (postal codes, states etc.)
  • Name formats
  • Telephone number formats
  • Units of measure
  • Paper sizes
  • Use of color for meaning (e.g. red = stop)

Symbols and other design elements

As part of the Web site design, it is necessary to avoid culture-dependent symbols that are not clear to an international audience. A classic example would be an American mailbox with a little flag to indicate that there is new mail. This symbol is used on many sites to indicate e-mail but people outside of North America don’t necessarily recognize the mailbox. For a web site, a better symbol would be an envelope, which is universally understood.

For example, we once saw an Asian Web site that used a GIF of a pair of shoes instead of a house to represent the home page. For that market, a pair of shoes had more cultural resonance to the user than a house.

There are also many symbols that may have different meanings in different cultures. If there are any doubts regarding the hidden meaning of some symbols, it is better to use words instead. As a general rule, the following should be avoided in any graphics used:

  • Hand gestures or body parts
  • Graphics with multiple meanings (e.g. a "pillar" to indicate a "column")
  • Religious symbols such as stars, crosses etc.
  • Shapes that are tied to culture (e.g. stop signs, sports, mailboxes etc.)

Sort Order

Sort order is not the same for all languages, particularly for languages that do not use the Western alphabet. In Swedish, for example, some extended characters (e.g. å) get sorted after the letter Z. In many Asian cultures, characters are comprised by a prescribed tradition of brushstrokes and characters are sorted by the brush stroke order. Also, after localization, the first letter of the word might change, changing its position in the sort order list.

To build an internationalized Web site, it is necessary to either find a way to automatically sort the items (this can be a very difficult task) or ensure that the localizers can change the sort order of the list while they are localizing the code. The optimal method for the end user is to allow the localizer to personally sort the list.

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