As anyone who has done diversity and inclusion training will know (and these days, that’s most of us), the most dangerous preconceptions we can hold are those we don’t even think about.
Unconscious bias is absolutely poisonous from the perspective of intra-company harmony, with very practical implications: not considering that those things you take for granted might be different for others isn’t just unfriendly: the harm done to working relationships can be fatal for efficiency and workflows. The effects on relationships with clients and vendors can also be disastrous.
We all know that making assumptions is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, and doubly so when it comes to the culture and background of people we work with. We also know the huge benefits of making the people around us feel respected!
But the direct impact when you are addressing demographics in other regions and cultures is not always considered carefully enough – and it’s not always within our power to do so, however hard we try.
It’s fairly common for businesses to expect there to be some differences in foreign markets: a different language is just the tip of the iceberg. There are different brands, celebrities, laws, memes, and different etiquette.
We all know the old cliché about whether it’s ‘good manners’ to finish your meal (indicating you really enjoyed it) or to leave something on your plate (to show that your host has been generous with their portion sizes). The right answer depends on whether your culture values quality or quantity as the main point of pride!
Linguistically there are well known examples too. Ask a Brit how they are, and you’ll hear the typically understated reply, ‘Not too bad.’ In other cultures you’re more likely to hear, ‘Amazing!’
But while everyone wants to think of themselves as the ‘respectful visitor’, some things may be so ingrained and basic that even an open-minded researcher might not consider them, and there are facts you wouldn’t even think to check.
Or how about the survey we were presented for localisation regarding the use of flush toilets, which neglected the fact that its target audience did not use Western-style toilets at all?
Even things as basic as good manners can be completely different between regions and countries. Westerners are traditionally taught that eating with the hands is bad manners, whereas people from other backgrounds are taught from a young age the ‘right’ way to eat food with breads, or even with how to use their fingers and rice without getting them covered with food.
No matter how well-travelled and worldly you are, there will always be some kind of blind spot when it comes to addressing another culture, unless you have years of experience there – and even then, you’ll probably never think completely like a native.
That’s why we always use the services of native linguists who are embedded in the culture you’re addressing, who could no more miss a cultural ‘wrong note’ in your piece of work than they could forget how to tie their shoes.