Off the map: Not all boundaries are geographic

Several years ago, I was attending a conference in the United Kingdom where the attendees represented a broad cross-section of global cultures. The occasion was focused on geopolitics and various issues around international law, and thus you’d think that most of the individuals attending would be sensitive to discussions around history, politics and so forth. I was taking part in one particular conversation that just happened to involve attendees from Germany, Italy and Japan.

We were having a cordial conversation when a fellow attendee from the United States joined the group and a new round of introductions ensued. Upon learning the background of the other group members, this US attendee blurted out “Well, this is really cool, I’ve never met the Axis Powers all in one place before!” After uncomfortable laughter and feigned smiles, the discussion was fortunately saved only by the grace of the next round of talks starting. Maybe this is too blatant an example of “Ugly American” syndrome, but sadly it still happens.

No doubt we’ve all experienced similar moments of discomfort in conversations between people of varying cultures. Sometimes we’re exposed to such incidents early on in life by family members, such as grandparents who come from a different context of what is historically and culturally acceptable. Other times it might be through friends or colleagues, such as a former coworker of mine who was probably the most extensively traveled person I’ve ever known and yet seemed to have nothing positive to say about any culture he’d ever visited.

Whenever we encounter new cultures outside of our experience, whether it is through travel to the locale or people from those cultures visiting us, we face a dilemma. There is an innate desire to connect and communicate, to find the common ground experience that may lay the foundation for a long-term relationship of some variety. Certainly there are topics that are common to all of our humanity — family, friends, work, recreation and so on. At various levels, we also collectively experience issues with politics, economics, various forms of disparity, inclusion, exclusion and so on. What defines the boundaries of proper topics? Who writes the rules of context for when a discussion about, say, a government action against its citizens is acceptable and disclosure of one’s annual income is not? And of course, why does this matter to our practice of content localization and culturalization?

Looking from a cartographic perspective, most boundaries on a map are the end result of a long process of historical evolution through hard-fought wars and long-negotiated peace. If boundary lines could speak, every segment that divides one country from another would be able to describe volumes about their origin and about the cultures that shaped them. The boundary lines between cultural contexts are really no different, only more subtle and less well-defined, as they are not demarcated on the social landscape by some kind of boundary marker. Unfortunately, a magic formula for discerning the context for what is appropriate just does not exist.

Usually cultural boundaries are discovered through trial and error, or more positively, through proactive understanding based on the experiences of those who have gone before us. For example, much of the foundation of classic geography (stretching back to the likes of Eratosthenes) was based on travel narratives in which the observer recorded the local reactions and practices, and then many who followed also recorded their observations and thus created a body of empirical evidence.

What’s critical to note about that process is that contextual boundaries between cultures are not static — they’ve changed and will continue to change. Fortunately, the accumulated body of knowledge via observation over the centuries points to some patterns we can anticipate when it comes to sensitive topics. The short list would be as follows:

1. History

2. Religion

3. Internal politics

4. External politics (geopolitics)

5. Ethnicity/nationality

6. Economic disparity

Let’s look at how these topics are handled in some specific cultures so we can get a better sense of the similarities and differences. It may be an easier example to cite, but China is well-known for being particularly sensitive about several of these areas. Discussions around the sovereignty of Tibet or Taiwan are strictly off limits, as any questioning of the territorial integrity of China may be perceived as subversive. The spiritual group Falun Gong is also a very sensitive topic, as the Chinese government perceives them as a potential threat. History can likewise be sensitive, such as China banning the first two Hearts of Iron video games because the games didn’t show Tibet and Taiwan as Chinese territory. The irony is that the games take place during World War II, before the People’s Republic of China even existed. In 2008, the automobile company Citroën raised the ire of China when it defaced the classic image of Mao Tse Tung with a modified wry smile, as if he’s smirking at their latest automobile.

In adjacent Russia, similar topics can be problematic in a conversation. Historical references to the Holocaust can be quite sensitive, as well as making references to the Czarist eras and former monarchy. Ethnic minorities and regional differences around ethnicity are potential flashpoint topics given Russia’s significant diversity and the continued tensions in various locales (such as Chechnya). Even a seemingly simple act like making comparisons between Moscow and St. Petersburg can be viewed as an attempt to highlight a negative contrast.

India reflects these topical sensitivities in a variety of areas. The geopolitical dimension is pretty blatant and obvious, with the ongoing Kashmir dispute and tensions with Pakistan and China. It’s no surprise then that the Cadbury chocolate company was hit with significant backlash after it leveraged the Kashmir dispute in an ad campaign in India for a new chocolate bar. Touching upon the historical caste system and related issues of economic disparity is also an area best avoided; it’s not that people aren’t very conscious of the reality, but it’s not something considered tactful to address, particularly from people external to the culture.

And on the point of the temporal context in some topics, in France it can be inflammatory to discuss religion, particularly in regard to the growing percentage of Muslims in the country and the various tensions that have increased as a result of the cultural mix. So sensitive was the topic that the French parliament passed a law in 2010 to ban the concealment of the face in public, including the burqa, a full body garment worn by some Muslim women.

Going back to the anecdote at the beginning of this column, I should mention that people in the United States seem to have a reputation for being willing to discuss almost anything in an open manner. While that’s not completely true, I think it’s fair to say that most people from the United States are eager to be friendly and gregarious, particularly with people from other cultures. Oftentimes that honest curiosity is framed by bringing up topics that may seem tactless, too forward or simply rude. Part of this is a simple issue of a cultural value, but the other is a lack of cultural knowledge to understand the potential boundaries.

All of this relates back to the consideration of content in commercial products as being the true ambassador for a company, much in the same way that a curious citizen traveling abroad is a de facto ambassador for his or her country of origin. As such, we need to apply more scrutiny to the topics we employ to build bridges between cultures. While we realize that we in fact have so much in common as human beings, our cultural boundaries are significant enough that we can’t ignore them — whether it’s a simple conversation or the implementation of product content.