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May 15, 2023

Build cultural competency into content

Get cultural nuances right and your audience will not only engage with your content, but also appreciate the effort and brand behind it.

By Jackie Horne

In a globally connected world, we’re nearly all used to mixing with people from many different languages and cultures.

But when it comes to producing content, it’s still all too easy to disappear down a rabbit hole and confuse some of the audience. Building cultural competency into content is not easy.

And if you did a double take with the phrase “disappearing down a rabbit hole” in the sentence above, then that’s a prime example of what to avoid. For people who don’t speak English as a first language or aren’t familiar with the Lewis Carroll novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” may not understand what it means.

They are likely to start mentally disengaging from the content in front of them.

In this particular instance, the phrase is used to convey the sense of ending up in a difficult situation or somewhere strange. It is just as the lead character Alice does in the novel when she follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole and finds herself in an alternate world called Wonderland.

Here are a few key pointers to watch out for in building cultural competency into content:

1. Local idiom

In a sister article, we explained how humour rarely travels. And neither does colloquial language. When preparing content for international distribution, try to avoid or edit out local idiom or slang unless the context is clearly explained.

There are instances when the opposite is true and it can even be used to highlight cultural understanding. But the golden rule is to frame the meaning.

Example

Indians love the verb prepone, which means to bring something forward (the opposite of postpone). The word exists in global English-language dictionaries but is hardly ever used across the rest of the English-speaking world.

2. Double meanings

In linguistics, a group of words with the same spelling and pronunciation but a different meaning, are called homonyms.

English language examples of same-sounding words include plane (an aeroplane) and plain (simple). The word plain can also have multiple meanings from basic to a large area of land with no trees.

Using language to have fun with wordplay is very common. But unless someone is fluent in the one being written or spoken, the subtext can easily fly straight over their heads.

So, unless you are writing for an exclusively local audience, it’s best to do what the French did with the word double entendre in the late 17th century and stop using it. For while the term is used extensively across the English-speaking world to denote a risqué connotation (double meaning), it no longer exists in French.

Example

The Chinese language is full of homonyms. If you’ve ever been confused about why there is no fourth floor when visiting a Chinese building, it is because the words for four 四 (sì) and death 死 (sǐ) sound so similar.

3. Cultural references

As we explained in the intro, steer clear of references to books, films (movies to American readers) and pop songs to illustrate a point, unless the cultural context is required and clearly explained. Religion is nearly always best avoided. So are sporting analogies.

Example

“It hit them for six”. In British English and across many Commonwealth countries, this phrase means that something has come as a bit of a shock and had a negative outcome. It comes from the game of cricket when a batsman scores six runs from hitting a ball over the boundary.

“We’ve hit a home run”. In American English, this denotes success and comes from the game of baseball when the batter manages to hit the ball and then run round all four bases and back to home again without being knocked out.

4. Data

Good content uses data to illuminate a point. But that data needs to work for its intended audience.

English-language B2B content writers based in cities like London or New York can easily fall into the habit of citing data from their own countries since this is what search engines typically rank first. Digging deeper in search of data that fits the region or country in question, will pay higher dividends.

It’s also good to use data from different countries to benchmark and frame key points. This can serve multiple purposes. It helps to lead people out of cultural echo chambers, confound stereotypes about other parts of the world and provide valuable insights about how local thinking and patterns of behaviour fit into global themes.

Example

Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workplace Survey revealed that only 22% of global respondents felt comfortable living on their present income. However, delve into individual regions and a different picture emerges.

This not only reveals stark differences between regions, but a counter narrative to how the “cost of living crisis” has been documented across many Western media outlets.

Top globally, are the Australians: 55% felt comfortable on their present income. They are followed by the Americans and Canadians on 51%, then the Europeans on 42%. Second bottom, despite so many headlines about this being the Asian century, are East Asians on 13%.

5. Personal Surveys

Personal surveys and anecdotes can add cultural context to content. They provide valuable insights into how different cultures think about the same thing. Commissioning them also shows that the organisation in question is aware of and attuned to cultural differences.

Example

Employment Hero’s 2022 Wellness at Work Report asked respondents how they’d like their employer to prioritise emotional wellbeing.

Asian respondents wanted employers to promote collective endeavours reflecting societies that value the group over the individual. As one Singaporean commented: “I feel my company should do bonding activities to help raise the morale.”

Contrast this with the UK, a country which ranks highly on individualism. One respondent there suggested: “Encourage duvet days for when you don’t feel like coming into work.

6. Visuals

One of the fastest ways to repel or attract an audience lies in the imagery accompanying content. Most B2B marketers are highly conscious of this and often opt for very bland photos and illustrations, which are unlikely to offend anyone.

The downside is that such images often look staged and put readers off from venturing further into the text. The answer is to try and find more naturalistic imagery, while thinking carefully about whether they contain any inappropriate elements relating to clothing, or gestures, for example.

Example

In Asian countries it’s considered polite to give and receive gifts or products using two hands. And in some, it’s important to avoid using just the left hand, if only one is being used, since this is the hand used for ablutions.

7. Multilingual content

Translating content into different languages hugely expands the potential audience and demonstrates cultural awareness.

Google Translate and other AI tools offer handy translation options, but they do better with some languages than others. They also tend to miss subtext and wordplay.

Professional translators, on the other hand, can help to highlight content that does not translate easily. And the golden rule is that if it doesn’t translate well, then the chances are it won’t travel well either.

For more on getting cultural competency right, see our sister article, where we explain how understanding place is one of the foundation stones of effective marketing.