multicultural marketing strategy
Marketing Content Strategy

The Value of Culture Shock in Your Multicultural Marketing Strategy

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According to Oxford Dictionaries, culture shock is “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” In my experience, the “shock” in culture shock is due to what we learn about ourselves, which is important if you’re about to implement a multicultural marketing strategy.

When you live in an environment that you’re accustomed to, there are certain things that you take for granted. In general, you probably know what people your age will think is funny, what tone of voice is appropriate for certain situations, and what is considered offensive. Those are general cultural norms that you don’t even know that you know, so when you’re suddenly in a new environment, whether it be a different region in your own country or another country entirely, you might think:

  1. Why don’t I understand what people think is funny? What tone of voice is appropriate in this situation? What’s offensive?
  2. What does this mean about what I think is funny, the tone of voice I think is appropriate, and what I consider to be offensive?
  3. These things must be different everywhere!

As a traveler and citizen of the world, it’s your responsibility to be self-aware and observant when visiting other countries in order to learn cultural norms. In my opinion, what you learn about yourself from the initial culture shock that you experience will be helpful when you’re working with colleagues from around the world to develop a multicultural marketing strategy.

The following are two key lessons that I’ve learned, and how they relate to your global professional relationships and content marketing strategy.

Communication is about more than words in a multicultural marketing strategy1. Stop Saying Thank You (Communication Is about More than Words)

In his 1976 book, Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall offers a spectrum for classifying different cultures according to their communication styles. In high-context cultures, most meaning can be taken from the context of a situation rather than the explicit verbal or written messages themselves. In low-context cultures, meaning depends on explicit verbal or written messages and the literal meaning of words.

The concept of “politeness” in the US is a great example of a low-context culture. In the US, messages of politeness are expressed primarily through explicit gestures; the context of specific situations is usually not enough to avoid a misunderstanding. For example, I often overemphasize and repeat “thank you” to waiters in restaurants, or in college I would thank a professor for handing me an exam. It is also anticipated that one apologizes for accidentally having crossed into a friend’s personal space. For example, I put my coat on this morning, and it hit my friend’s arm. Even though it was obviously not intentional and didn’t cause any injuries, my explicit “Oops, sorry!” was probably expected. In other words, the implicit cues and context in these situations are not enough to not be considered impolite; concrete actions and words are necessary, even if their meaning is already obvious.

In Spain, on the other hand, the expression of politeness depends on more than just words; it is implied in situations through tone and body language. While I lived in Granada, a small city in the southern part of Spain, I developed a close relationship with my host parents. When I went back to Spain years later, they invited me to stay at their home for a weekend and insisted that they cook a typical Spanish lunch for my friend and me. I repeatedly said “gracias” every time they brought something new to the table, and finally, my host dad said “¡Deja de decir las gracias!”—meaning—”You can stop saying thank you!”

I didn’t really understand why he told me to stop saying thank you until I was in class one day, and my professor was handing out exams. As we each received an exam, we responded with a “gracias,” not thinking anything of it. She started laughing and explained that in that specific context, students from Spain wouldn’t always thank her for an exam, because it is their job as students to take the exam and her job as a professor to provide it. She explained further that in restaurant settings, for example, repeatedly thanking waiters each time they refill your water or bring you food is not expected because it is their job, and that in certain situations, thanking may actually put a negative distance between you and whomever you’re speaking to.

2. Your Preferred Communication Method Isn’t Always the Most Effective

In his book, International Business Communication, David A. Victor outlines the ways that high- and low-context cultures value various forms of communication. According to Victor, high-context cultures rely heavily on non-verbal signs to communicate and place little importance on verbal and written messages, while low-context cultures rely less on non-verbal signs and place relatively high importance on verbal and written messages.

High and Low Context Communication

In accordance with Hall and Victor’s theory about low-context culture and communication preferences, I rely on the literal meaning of words and prefer to correspond via email than over the phone. In my own emails, I use a lot of words to express the specific tone that I want to convey in the message, which is something that a high-context individual might express verbally or via body language. To some, my emails may come off as long and drawn out, even if they are just a short paragraph. Different than my own style, I frequently receive emails that are about four to five words long that still express the message necessary.

Key Takeaways

  1. Because messages are expressed differently throughout the world, conveying politeness, respect, urgency, or disagreement can easily be lost in translation, even if you’re speaking the same language. These cultural nuances mean that when you’re working with colleagues from around the world, it is even more important than usual to meet in person (or at the least, video conference). Talking over the phone and emailing can’t replace face-to-face interaction.
  1. You can’t meet with your client in person every day, but you can still do your best to have effective correspondences by adapting your communication style. Understand when to avoid writing longer, “fluffy” emails as opposed to short, bulleted ones. If you notice that your longer emails don’t get a response, be more direct in the structure and wording of your messages. Also, don’t underestimate the value of calling the person directly. Even if they don’t answer, you can at least refer to it the next time you reach out via email.
  2. Don’t take things personally. If you write a long email and you get a five-word response, don’t assume that the sender of the email was angry. If somebody makes a joke that you personally find offensive, try to remember that concepts like political correctness and politeness are relative to different regions.

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