Will the social web fuel international cooperation or catastrophe?

international social media

I recently read the fascinating book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (highly recommended) and he provides some astounding examples of how subtle differences in human communication styles contribute to epic failures.

People from different regions have many subtle communication habits that combine to create breakdowns when styles collide. So should we expect this to happen as an everyday occurrence in our online world?

Inevitable cultural collisions

Gladwell’s book highlights research revealing the vast depth of these differences and the catastrophic implications when there are even small misunderstandings.  One case study illustrated how cultural communication differences resulted in a tragic plane crash when a South Korean style that is deferential to authority clashed with the style of busy New York air traffic controllers bossing people around. In fact, Gladwell points out that regional communication patterns alone might be the root cause for many deadly accidents.

I was thinking about how this remarkable observation applies to an online world where regional barriers have been removed and we have the opportunity to have daily communications with people from all over the world. If catastrophes occur in the highly-controlled world of air traffic control, what are the implications when people from other cultures try to connect and understand each other through tweets and posts completely lacking in context, tone, and cross-cultural understanding? Are we entering a world where international  collisions are the norm?

I’ve written about the optimism I have about the Internet being a unifying force for understanding, especially if we are talking in the global language of “Facebook.”  But after reading Outliers, I began to wonder about the massive disconnects that must be occurring … but do we even realize it?

We’re all ambassadors

About 50 percent of the readers of {grow} are from outside the United States and I am absolutely paranoid about offending somebody. Before publishing any post I try to sift through any obscure terms or colloquialisms that might be misconstrued or misunderstood. I try to filter my “humor” to some extent and examine my posts through a global lens before hitting the “publish” button.

But here’s the reality. I am almost certainly confusing and offending people no matter what I do because I’m not sure if there is really an effective way to “write global.”

As we propel ourselves into a world of increasing global communication collisions, don’t you think we could all benefit from a course on how to be effective Internet citizens?  It seems like anybody who signs on for a Facebook account or a WordPress blog site should be required to understand what they are getting into.

If the Internet is going to truly serve as a force for unity instead of catastrophe, shouldn’t we all take the time to figure out how to do it well? And what does that even mean? How do we create some buffer of understanding around us to minimize the inevitable cross-cultural collisions?

The reference to Outliers is an affiliate link.

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  • A very intereresting and thought provoking post, as always, thanks Mark. As a hotelier in london of many years, I have experienced first hand the ease with which cultural differences can make something entirely normal for people of one culture deeply offensive to people fo another culture. I completely agree that we all have a responsibility to keep this very much in mind on the internet. I like the thought of anybody getting online having to take a course before doing so but the practicality of that is another matter – it may seem to entirely fly in the face of how people see the inernet.
    At the end of the day, I think all that anybody can do is to consider those you know to be in your audience, which itself can be hard enough even on a domestic level. As a presidential election looms, your domestic audience becomes increasingly polarised and it becomes ever more challenging to think what you could say that would not offend one camp or the other. I have recently found myself taking this factor carefully into account when posting on the Facebook and G+ pages I run for a client with serviced apartments in London and strong in the U.S. market.

  • Fascinating points Matthew. I’ll bet you really get a lot of examples of this in a cosmopolitan city like London! I agree that that idea of anything mandatory on the web is fanciful but as far as i know there is not even an option. Many thanks for the comment.

  • Sed6erz

    Mark, very interesting article indeed. A few years ago, I read books from Edward T Hall about culture and he very well explained how people behave and interact is highly influential when people from different culture meet. An office closed as a different meeting for a German guy and a French one for sure.
    In a social media environment I am not sure that you can be ready for these potential culture shocks/clashes. I guess that you can expect them and as you do, proof read yours posts, but are we all going to do this? Are we all going to think twice and alter our posts until they are blend? I don’t think so.
    All we can hope for is that awareness of the differences will help us understand that we need to look at the big picture and that we should avoid knee jerk reaction at all cost.

  • Michael Gass

    Excellent article that will help create more understanding regarding international communications and social media.

    I was recently working with an international agency group which met in London. The network director of the group commented on how social media was facilitating relationships among members from various countries that didn’t get a long together very well. Social media allowed for relationships deeper than just business.

    Social media is certainly fueling more positive international relations than ever before here in the U.S. and helps better understand the culture and communication differences.

    I have a significant readership from overseas and have found them to be very gracious and forgiving with any of my communication blunders.

    Thanks for sharing Mark. I always enjoy reading your articles that tend to open up these important discussions. Safe travels!

  • Different words can have a drastic change in meaning in different cultures. What one might think is a very innocent post here in the United States, might offend someone in another country because it can end up meaning something entirely different. I spoke with Blair Singer, author of “The little voice mastery”; he said this exact thing happened to him in another country. (It may have been Singapore) The meaning he had intended for a word meant something entirely different overseas. His audience was upset and he didn’t know why. This is indeed a problem, one of which I would like to know the answer.

  • Well said. It’s quite a challenge, isn’t it? Thanks for the comment!

  • I think that is an important point Michael and I agree with you. The opportunity for good and unity FAR outweighs the risks. Thanks!

  • I have been extremely hesitant to accept consulting jobs outside the U.S. for this very reason. How can I possibly be an expert in these subtleties? Always best to go with a local I think!

  • Barry Wallace

    I read your words, Mark, and my immediate reaction is one of defensiveness – why should I censor myself in the words and expressions of my own language, just to avoid possibly offending someone who might misinterpret their meaning?

    I think we’re all familiar with the example of what a thumbs-up means in the US, verses in other parts of the world – that’s a gesture with an immediate polar opposite interpretation that can be an insult as well as an affirmation. I get that, and can see the point. But would I hesitate to put a picture of myself, on my blog, giving a thumbs-up (not that I ever would because that would look pretty goofy, but just suppose), on the chance someone would see it and misinterpret it? It’s my blog, written by an American, in America, to a (mostly, in my case) American audience. I know you say your audience is 50% American, 50% foreign so maybe that makes more of a difference.

    I just see a risk of us dumbing down our idiom vocabulary to the point where, at the risk of offending someone, we resort to caveman speak. “Me like new Batman move. Ugh. Bane good.”

    I think we need to trust our readers to understand that if they see an expression that offends them, they should have the maturity to look past the idiom (or try to understand it) and read the actual meaning of the statement.

    But then, I say all this not having read “Outliers” and lacking a firm frame of reference or individual examples of misinterpretations. Maybe if I saw specific instances where these offense occurred, I might think differently.

    Again, i am afraid that the more we feel our own expressions might offend those not in our culture – even when used in our own cultural context – the more we risk losing them, and the colorful variety they bring to our own language and culture.

  • Well, my primary business blog involves teaching English to speakers of other languages – so 100% of my audience is international / not native speakers. I don’t find it too difficult to write in a simple, clear style without sacrificing my own voice – although perhaps that’s due to my experience teaching English in the classroom, where I have to modify my speech a bit.

    Don’t shy away too much from idioms, though – one of the best ways for non-native English speakers to learn commonly-used idioms is by seeing them in context! (as opposed to memorizing their definitions from a list or dictionary).

    I don’t think you have to be “absolutely paranoid” about offending people – from what I’ve read, your writing has a friendly and reasonable tone (as opposed to the more “edgy” or controversial styles adopted by some other bloggers) and as Barry said, most fair-minded people would put their initial offense aside and try to understand what you, the author, meant.

    Although this isn’t an online example, it’s a common culture shock for Americans who move to Brazil (where I live) among other countries – the fact that many Brazilians make comments (like “You’ve gained a few pounds” or “You don’t keep house very well, do you?”) that would be seen by Americans as a complete lack of tact. It’s easy to get offended or at the very least shocked! But other Brazilians handle these comments just by acknowledging them or joking about the matter. They’re not meant to be rude, they’re making an honest observation.

    Of course, I would always advise people “when in Rome…” – that is, if you go to the U.S., be careful about saying things like that. But in your own house / country / blog, I think you can be free to speak with your own voice… and the visitors who really don’t like it will simply leave.

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  • Mark, I am an Indian and my position is the opposite- my target audience is US based tech companies. My analytics figures tell me that the majority of my readers come from the US.

    I haven’t received any hate mail yet, or even something indicating that I am doing or saying stupid stuff. But maybe that’s because of the ubiquity of American culture compared to other cultures. If I were to target German or Belgian markets I would have to do a lot more homework, and my hit to miss ratio when it comes to connecting emotionally might be a lot lower than now

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  • Thanks for the dissenting viewpoint. Certainly a very valid perspective Barry. If your audience is mostly American, i see no reason to worry. But I was writing from a perspective of anyone trying to connect globally. From my own experiences (I have visited 45 countries) I see firsthand it can be to communicate in some places — now, limited it to just words on a page without tone or gestures. Very difficult. That was my main point. Thanks for your very valuable contribution to the conversation!

  • Really fantastic comment Shayna. I really appreciate your international perspective. And hey, it doesn’t look to me like you gained any weight at all : ) Great perspective.

  • Very interesting Bhaskar. I had not considered the constant drip of American culture. Please tell me you DON’T watch Jersey Shore. : ) Thanks very much for sharing your wisdom here today!

  • Interesting post and interesting comments. But, I wouldn’t get to intense about it.
    I understand your position, Mark, and the idea of a course might be something, but it’s just common sense that you need.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I know what to write and what not. Of course you need to proof read and make sure it’s on par, unless you intend to offend.., of course.

    Also, it’s your personality and attitude which will offend people, or not. You (Mark) can easily do a consulting job here in western Europe.
    You’re a nice guy, couple that with common sense and you’re good to go.

    Writing, of course is different; “without tone or gestures”.
    Agreed, that takes a certain finesse… But, you write about social media, not politics or religion. How offensive can you possibly be…

  • Haha, no Jersey shore for me. No reality shows, no Honey Boo Boos or nothing related to that Kardarshian clan.

    I am taking about Hollywood , comic books and other pop culture moments that Americans can identify with. There is plenty of material to work with that helps me connect viscerally with my audience. Conversely, some of pop culture elements that I am a huge fan of- say Doctor Who- finds less usage because the Doctor is not that known.

    Oh, and there are other resources that helps me vault over the culture barrier- reading your country’s news, following hot button issues and last but not the least, Urban Dictionary.

  • The fact that you can identify Honey Boo Boo is deeply disturbing. What a world. ; )

  • HA! You would be surprised. Somebody takes a whack at me in one for or another almost every day : ) Part of the territory and always entertaining! Thanks for your sound advice Rogier.

  • I read that it’s a show about a kid and her family. Neo
    Beyond that I’ve no clue

  • Nice piece Mark always like your gentle personal non intrusive writing style it serves you well and is in itself a meme in the social world. Who knows what the future holds other than deeper social connection with global friends. A least it will be good for our pension tour retirements if we make it there and can afford it of course.

  • Ha! Let’s hope so Thomas. Thanks for the support and your kind words.

  • The best way to educate ourselves about other cultures is by interaction with them. Since, we can’t be travelling all the time the social web offers a terrific avenue for engagement which should lead to better understanding between the different cultures. You clearly do not have a track record of writing offensive material but if someone does take offense then they have the comment section of the blog to express their opinion and get a response (you are very good at responding to comments 🙂

  • Really great point Abdallah and I have enjoyed getting to know you through the blog!

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