Cross-cultural communication on the Web: this means you!
A few years ago I went to a terrific seminar on cross-cultural communication by Dr Carol Barnum of Southern Polytechnic in Georgia. I was shocked to discover that only a few of the audience were from the business world. (Most were directly concerned with cross-cultural issues—for example, they worked with refugees or lectured in communications.)
Why's that shocking? Because the topic is relevant to every web site—not just those for EFL teachers, ESL and ESOL teachers, refugees and immigrants.
Maybe it's just been too hard to figure how to communicate successfully to a truly divergent audience. Global English techniques are not widely taught.
Some web sites are legally bound to provide multilingual versions of identical online information: for example, those of EU government agencies. This option requires a heavy commitment to revise the content of every site consistently, and with equal attention to detail.
More commonly, a single site is intended for audiences from different cultures. This happens all the time. For instance, your local pizza outlet has customers who hail from Somalia and China as well as people born and bred in your city. Moreover, many people born and bred in your city also use a different kind of English and hold strong cultural values from a different culture.
That's the problem web site owners want to run away from—but web sites are for everyone.
Cultural communication variables
The world's cultures lie on a continuum for many variables that influence communication style.
At one extreme are the ACHO cultures: achievement oriented, individualistic, anyone-can-be-President, read-my-lips people. The US, Germany, and Australia are examples of cultures at the ACHO end of the scale.
At the other extreme are AFFLO cultures: they tend to have affiliation-oriented, hierarchical, community-minded, formal, read-between-the-lines people. Most Asian cultures tend towards the AFFLO model.
Say you come from an ACHO culture. You don't want your web site to alienate AFFLO readers... but obviously, you don't want to lose your ACHO readers either. Ideally, you will have a web site in the language of your target market. But on an English-only web site, what can you do? A few tips follow: steps you can take to globalize your web content.
- Style: Use global English.
- Photographs: favour group photos.
- Structure: no compromise—continue your good web habits! Don't risk wrecking usability, accessibility and findability by approaching a topic indirectly.