Off the Map: Regional differentiators

When you last heard someone use the term America when referring to the United States, or tossed out the name Middle East for the region around the meeting of the African and Asian continents, did you give it a second thought? Most likely not, for the usage of regional terminology has become pretty ingrained in widespread media and few of us ever consider these terms that are used so colloquially.

The reality, of course, is that regional differentiators like these often carry as much potential sensitivity as the issues that people typically consider more sensitive, such as disputed areas between two or more countries. The need for regional labels is straightforward; in the course of time, it’s always been useful to have a name to apply to various areas — it’s a natural part of the evolution of geography and the use of toponyms (geographic names). So instead of saying “that area north of the Mediterranean Sea and south of the Arctic Ocean but west of the Ural Mountains,” we simply say “Europe.” Much easier!

However, it’s not so simple when it comes to some of these terms, because they carry so much socio-historical, political and cultural context. Because of this, they hold diverse meanings to different people and thus we need to be careful about how we use them.

Probably the most common problem is that some of the terms carry with them an inherent geocentrism that is long outdated, meaning it reflects a term from days past when the person applying the label (usually in Europe) needed to reference distant lands. Various terms from this approach have survived and are still used to a degree, with perhaps the best examples being the labels Near East, Middle East and Far East. The first and obvious question is: “East of where?” Why, east of Europe, of course! In this case, more specifically the United Kingdom, as these terms are primarily artifacts of the British Empire and have remained persistent over the past century or so. Near East, referring primarily to Turkey but also the Levant area (Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan and so on) has mostly fallen out of use. Far East is still used at times but is not as prevalent as East Asia today, and there’s a growing awareness that it’s as outdated as using the retired term Orient (which still seems to find a place when people are romanticizing travel). However, the term Middle East has proven to be amazingly resilient, and it easily remains the most common term for its intended region, and is still commonly used even within the region itself. In order to help get past the geocentrism, alternatives such as Southwest Asia were pushed for a couple of decades toward the end of the twentieth century, but they just were not able to usurp the strong use of Middle East.

But this raises another issue related to regional labels, and that’s the question of what the label actually includes. Let’s take the Middle East as an initial example — the countries that comprise the region will depend upon the factor by which you’re forming the definition. If it’s the traditional geographic definition, it will include: Egypt, Cyprus, Iran, Turkey and the entire Saudi peninsula. But if it’s considered from a cultural perspective, the definition broadens to include much of north Africa, and then eastward with Afghanistan and parts of central Asia. Many people seem to adopt the notion that the Middle East means “Arab countries and Israel,” which is closer to the classic definition and colloquial usage, but again, it depends on the scope intended by the person using the term. I’ve seen some erroneously use Middle East to mean “Muslim countries,” but that would exclude many countries beyond the actual region, including Indonesia (the country with the largest Muslim population).

For many countries, the issue is very sensitive when it comes to regional inclusion/exclusion. This is one key aspect of Turkey’s ongoing desire to join the European Union (EU), citing that they are a European country because of their foothold on the Balkan peninsula. Politically, culturally and economically, Turkey remains primarily aligned with Middle Eastern countries; this doesn’t mean the country can’t change and it is trying to do so, as the EU has requested in some areas before accession is allowed. Some Turks can be sensitive to whether you say their country is European or Middle Eastern. This is also true at times for the Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, so the term Eurasia has found some prevalence when referring to Turkey and these areas (or for country/region lists, the countries are placed both in Europe and Asia categories). Similarly, citizens of Mexico may protest if their country isn’t described as being in North America, which fits the classic geographic definition. It’s often erroneously included in Central America, which usually only includes the countries south of Mexico and north of Colombia. However, if using the cultural region Latin America, then Mexico will certainly be found in this region while the United States and Canada are outliers.

And this brings up yet another issue: the simple use of America and Americans as a synonym for the United States and US residents. The term America geographically refers to anywhere in the western hemisphere and so it follows that Americans should refer to anyone living within the region. Yet through time and historical usage, the terms America and Americans have become almost exclusively synonymous with the United States, both within the country as well as to the rest of the world. From a broader regional perspective, this can be quite offensive! Think about it another way through analogy: imagine that the terms Asia and Asians had historically become associated solely with China, so that whenever in Japan or Korea you heard the word Asians, you knew that someone was referring only to Chinese citizens. Do you think that maybe those of you in Japan or Korea or elsewhere in Asia might be somewhat offended that your continental descriptor was hijacked by a single country? Transfer that sentiment to the western hemisphere and it’s easier to understand how this can be a sensitive issue.

Deciding which differentiator to use for which regions can obviously be a tricky task. You’d like to be sensitive to local concerns, but you also don’t want to use a term that won’t be immediately recognizable to the content consumer. So here’s some advice for handling these particular issues.

First, it’s usually your safest approach to start with the major continental labels and then apply directional adjectives to the area in question. So instead of Far East, it’s better to use East Asia, or instead of the antiquated terms like Iron Curtain Countries, use Eastern Europe (yes, amazingly I meet people who still use the term Iron Curtain). By this same rule, one would use Southwest Asia instead of Middle East, but that underscores the need to research if a particular term is still colloquial or not. So there will be outliers to this rule, but for the most part it’s by far the safest approach.

Second, when it comes to the regional term being applied to a specific country, try to avoid the usage as much as possible. For example, avoid the use of America and Americans when referring only to the United States; the terms are only appropriate when the intended meaning has a Pan-American scope. Similarly, I sometimes hear people use the term Britain to incorrectly include Ireland. Britain is a short form of Great Britain, which politically refers to the political union of England, Scotland and Wales and excluding Northern Ireland (because when including Northern Ireland, the entirety of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, also called simply the United Kingdom, is formed). The Republic of Ireland should never be included in Britain, which is a whole other sensitive issue.

Lastly, when in doubt, ask people in your target markets what they call the region in which they reside. You may get a variety of answers depending on the country, but usually this can help guide your response and placement of the locale within the correct regional differentiator. You might think that an issue as simple as a descriptor wouldn’t be much of a problem, but as we’ve learned, you can never underestimate the potential for any piece of content to be problematic.