Making your communication more geographically inclusive

During the seven years that I’ve worked at WooThemes/Automattic and while living outside the U.S. and in the Southern Hemisphere, I’ve noticed several pitfalls in communicating with employees and customers that are a tell-tale of a bias towards your own geography.

I’ve never encountered an example where this was a deliberate intention to exclude someone, but at the same time, they are all situations that are fairly easily avoided altogether.

Time zones

Don’t expect your customers to have a wall like this at home (Photo by Vince Veras on Unsplash)

Meetings across time zones are a mission to schedule, so try to make it as easy as possible by including a time zone that everyone can relate to. Whenever the invitation only uses Eastern Standard Time or Pacific Standard Time, I need to Google and convert it to my time zone. I don’t know of the top of my head how late that is. Given that the country where I live doesn’t have daylight savings, how many hours I need to add also changes twice per year.

If the time is read by people in multiple time zones, either include all of them, or make sure you include UTC. Coordinated Universal Time is the easiest to convert because almost everyone who works in an international context knows that their time zone is UTC+2 (or whatever it is).

✒︎ Tip: Include UTC times when setting up a meeting.

Dates

Is it 11 December or 12 November that we’ll have our call? I honestly don’t know if I see 12-11-2022. Other than the U.S., the dd-mm-yyyy format is used, but if you’re working from a U.S. perspective, you may be using mm-dd-yyyy.

✒︎ Tip: Use clear date formats that include the month in text (even if abbreviated). “11 December ’21” is not going to confuse anyone.

System of Units

U.S. citizens use pounds, miles, Fahrenheit. Basically, whenever there was too much logic involved in the units, it was ditched for a more complex system. While I can do a rough and quick calculation of miles, I struggle a lot more with a temperature in Fahrenheit or a weight in pounds. Vice versa, I would expect a U.S. citizen to struggle with kilograms and Celsius (even though the metric system actually makes sense).

✒︎ Tip: Whenever you use metrics, make sure that everyone can understand them. If necessary, use a few different formats to avoid confusion.

Local terminology

Polaris: not seen here, where this post was written (Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash)

A well-known concept in business circles is that you need to find your North Star as a company, so you don’t lose track of where you’re headed. In the Southern Hemisphere, we can’t see Polaris. The unintended implication is that to make sure the company is headed in the right direction, you need to live in the Northern Hemisphere.

There’s a myriad of terms that are geographically specific. If I use the word “braai”, I need to assume that my colleagues don’t know I’m talking about a South African barbecue. If my U.K. colleague uses the word “pub”, its meaning is foreign to many others in the world. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using country- or region-specific terms, as long as you do this scarcely, and you’re aware that some of these terms may have unexpected implications.

✒︎ Tip: If possible, use terms that do not need explanation. If a local term adds flavour, make sure to season with caution. Too much of it might leave a nasty after-taste.

Seasons

Many companies will offer a Fall or a Summer sale. Well, your sale probably is six months too early or too late for us in the Southern Hemisphere. And for those living close to the equator, probably not relevant at all.

✒︎ Tip: Rather than using seasons in your marketing, focus on shared experiences, such as “end-of-year”*, “March”*, “7-year anniversary”.

*Note that some of these aren’t used by everyone in the world.

Holidays and events

The same goes for pretty much any event that is not celebrated across all of your customers and employees: Christmas, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Eid, to give just a few examples.

Furthermore, while we may share some holidays, their celebration might be characterised differently. While everyone in South Africa will understand the relationship of snow and the festive season at the end of the year, our summer holiday is marked by Santa Father Christmas hats and cocktails on the beach.

✒︎ Tip: Here I think there are two things you can do. You can follow the same approach as I shared under “Seasons”, but you can also make sure that you add diversity in your communication. If you want to celebrate Christmas in your marketing, share different perspectives. And also include Hanukkah and Eid.

Your tips

Have you experienced a geographic bias from a company (either as customer or employee)? What was it? How could they have done this better?


7 responses to “Making your communication more geographically inclusive”

  1. This is such a great topic! Thanks for writing this amazing post!

    The one that bothers me the most is seasons, not just because not everyone has the habit of indicating time period using seasons, but also because it’s usually the opposite for me too, as someone living in the Southern Hemisphere.

    One other interesting point is images! Sometimes we use an image or GIF that might be very local to you, usually also season related, and even add something like “happy fall”. By the way, that Santa at the beach is amazing, hahaha.

    • 💯

      Often, GIFs do not require knowing where it came from (like my dad recently sharing a party GIF of The Office — I’m so sure he’s never seen The Office). But too regularly to enjoy the GIF you need to be able to relate to it.

  2. Great post! For me the issue is with timezones and seasons. As you said, everybody working internationally should know their time in UTC 🙂
    And seasons too. It is very common to hear people saying “this fall” and you are lost about the month they are talking about.

    • Fully on board with that. Especially for file naming. I also don’t think this format is as confusing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone use a yyyy-dd-mm approach.

  3. Timezones are hard. One tip: if there’s a meeting give everyone enough time to read emails. Don’t arrange a meeting early morning and expect staff to have read emails that arrived during the night. I found this an issue when meeting online with colleagues who are ahead of my timezone. And don’t send meeting requests in the middle of the night for a meeting in a few hours time ….

    • Great addition! I used to be the only UTC+ person in my division leads group. The others would sometimes start and conclude a discussion after I have ended my day and before I started the next one. Frustrating, especially on topics I wanted to weigh in on.

      We now have the habit to at least guarantee a 24h turnover for big decisions, unless there’s an emergency. Our weekly agenda goes up a whole 3 days beforehand, and anything that should be read before the meeting, needs to be passed on 24h before.

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