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