Off the Map: Comparative cultural values

Whenever we travel to or experience other cultures, our ever-comparative brains look for similarities and differences and then weigh those against any potential emotions, memories and ideas we may already possess about a specific culture. The fact that we all do this is completely natural, and it’s built upon an innate sense of curiosity that we all possess in childhood and hopefully carry into our adult lives.

Most of us absorb these observations and store them away as interesting, entertaining or enlightening pieces of knowledge that help us appreciate the diversity of human culture while helping us reflect upon our own. Unfortunately for some people, such observations are a means to judge, divide and create hierarchies of “us versus them,” “haves versus have-nots” and so on. Throughout history, some of the worst aspects of human nature have revealed themselves from this perspective. 

So what does this have to do with content production and localization? Quite a bit, actually. Our keen ability to observe and compare is the same force that can really open doors to localized and culturalized content or very quickly close them. The core issue is that of expectations and values, and how one’s set of cultural expectations is automatically compared against any kind of information. We make a value judgment in terms of what aspects of that information do or do not fit with our personal and broader cultural norms. When the assumptions contained in the content are juxtaposed with our cultural expectations, it’s often easier to perceive how certain information or cultural norms in one context may conflict with the expectations for what fits in another. Thus, if a product or batch of information contains content that doesn’t fit with a person’s or culture’s expectations and is blatant enough to disrupt the intended experience, then the stage is set for potential problems.

When we produce content for global distribution, we must be keenly aware of this human propensity for value judgment, as it can certainly influence the effectiveness of our information. I’d like to illustrate this point with a couple of examples, particularly ones where Western culture tends to differ from much of the rest of the world.

One of the preeminent issues of Western culture of late has been the ongoing debate over the degree to which systems of faith and belief should or should not be integrated with systems of government and public administration. In the United States, this embroiled discourse is labeled “the separation of church and state,” and it has continued to polarize segments of the population. Indeed, this has also been a discussion echoed in many other Western nations. However, my interest in this example isn’t the debate, but rather how the interaction of faith and government may affect content development and distribution.

As I’ve mentioned previously, we as content creators and localizers must be especially sensitive to the underlying dynamic forces of the cultures into which our products and services are distributed. If a certain culture has a more obvious faith-based approach to its daily activities and public administration, then the guidelines regarding acceptability will be different from a culture based on a more secular approach. Generally speaking, a society based on faith tends to be less flexible to the context in which information appears because there is a higher standard to which it is adhering. In such cases, if something potentially problematic appears in any context, there is higher potential for local backlash.

This whole issue came to mind once again on a recent trip I took to Thailand. During my extended stay there, I was fascinated to observe how this notion of the division between faith and government stands in sharp contrast to the debate raging in Western countries. In Thailand it doesn’t hold much meaning. To provide more context, Thailand’s population is approximately 95% Buddhist while the country has historical influences from Chinese and regional folk beliefs. Buddhism manifests itself overtly in Thai society, with a great many temple complexes around the country and the prevalence of large stupa monuments — mound-like buildings containing Buddhist relics. On a local level, nearly every household and business maintains a san phra phum or spirit house, which is meant to serve as a shelter for the building’s guardian spirit, usually known as Chao Thi or Phra Phum. Offerings of flowers and food are often given at the small shrines, which are typically located near the front of the property.

Faith is overt and pervasive in Thai society, but it also extends to the government as well; it’s not just a cultural institution but one that has become entwined in political life. In actuality, there was a movement in Thailand as recent as 2007 to revise the country’s constitution so that Buddhism is established as the official religion. However, this defeated proposal was quite controversial and ignited a significant debate that even garnered the attention of Queen Sirikit, who expressed her concerns against it.

Nonetheless, the government is infused with aspects of Buddhist belief. One example is the use of the figure of Garuda. Garuda is a bird-like humanoid figure in Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that serves as a vehicle for the god Vishnu (Figure 1). This character of Garuda can be seen in many religious contexts, but it’s interesting in Thailand that Garuda has a political connotation (Figure 2). The figure, which is known locally as the Krut Pha, can be seen on the exterior of many businesses bearing a royal endorsement, and it is also used on all official documents issued by Thailand’s government. As a Westerner, this blatant mixing of religious imagery with government function was surprising to see as my own cultural context doesn’t maintain this expectation.

Another example from the Western perspective is the concept of “diversity,” as related to ethnicity. In the United States and many Western countries, diversity is a critical consideration in many areas of life and work. Sometimes it has been taken to extremes in either direction, but most people accept the need and value of both cultural and ethnic diversity in our societies. And yet, this concept can be pretty foreign in non-Western locales — let’s consider Japan as a case study. The Japanese population is 98.5% ethnic Japanese, leaving a small 1.5% minority of non-Japanese, about 1% of which is Chinese and Korean. With such an unsurprising dominance of ethnic Japanese given the geography and history of the country, it’s reasonable that such a culture hasn’t had to deal with the issue on a grand scale.

This isn’t suggesting that Japan is free of diversity issues or that the subject is ignored — far from it. The country has long dealt with issues of internal gender diversity as well as social class disparities, and in more recent times it’s had to confront the issue of ethnic and cultural diversity as its shrinking population growth requires increased immigration to maintain a competitive economy, a trend many Western countries are facing as well. In the West, diversity has become such a fundamental element of modern business and society (not without its complications still), while in other locales such as Japan it’s slowly emerging as an issue requiring broader consideration.

In 2009, Microsoft was criticized over an image used to market its business productivity tools. The image included three figures in the United States — an Asian-American man, an African-American man and a Caucasian woman. However, in Poland, the African-American man’s head was sloppily replaced with that of a Caucasian man. Once this difference was discovered, a debate over diversity ensued and accusations of racism arose. Was it racism or the adapting of content to fit local expectations, when Poland, like Japan, is dominated by one ethnic group (96% ethnic Poles)?

It’s easy for Western cultures to make assumptions about other locales and impose our values, especially when certain aspects of our societies have become so ingrained or polarized. While we can’t help our propensity for comparison, the development and the distribution of content require us to step beyond our personal context and find some level of objectivity. Our function is to observe the differences and then out of respect for local expectations to adjust our strategies without making a value judgment, unless a company is intending to make a point of imposing its own cultural values, which usually doesn’t go over well. In the course of localizing and culturalizing content, we need to be mindful of these differences and address them sensitively and appropriately.