How to Be Globally Appropriate, Locally Relevant (and Avoid Cultural Mistakes)

How to Be Globally Appropriate, Locally Relevant (and Avoid Cultural Mistakes)
November 8, 2017
Michele Coady, Microsoft's Director for Global Readiness, has a lot to say on what companies can do to keep their communications from inadvertently offending disparate cultures. Hint: One way is to make sure you don't miss this fascinating episode of Globally Speaking.
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Michael I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato I am Renato Beninatto
Michael And today on Globally Speaking, we’re trying to find out what happens when you say something that offends people.
Renato Yeah. The cultural effect is very interesting because companies have to put elements in their localization process to avoid mistakes.
Michael Right. So the burden isn’t just on translators getting the words right, because sometimes words can be translated correct, but the concept could be completely wrong.
Renato Absolutely. And in communication it’s not just only translation, and we’re going to hear in the fantastic podcast stuff about music, stuff about images and gestures and a bunch of other things that are also part of the communication process, but they’re not necessarily translated in the right way, translated in a script or in the strings or the subtext.
Michael Companies have invested a lot of money to make sure that they are not offending and are meeting the cultural appropriateness of their audience. They’ve even created organizations within their company. Our guest today is responsible for one of those organizations. She’s here as a friend of the podcast, not necessarily representing her company, but to talk to us about some of those issues.
Renato Yeah, and what we want to know is fun stories. So this is not an official statement by the organization, but experiences that we have had in our profession.
Michael And there are plenty of the fun stories. Enjoy.
Michele My name is Michele Coady. I’m the Director of Global Readiness for Microsoft. I have a degree in cultural geography, and I’ve worked at Microsoft for 18 years. I started as an international tester. I moved to a localization project management role for many years and then, a few years ago, I started in my current job, which is the geopolitical specialist for the company.

My job, basically, in 100 words or less is that my team and I make sure that we have awareness of global geopolitical areas and issues, and can analyze and communicate them effectively to the company so that Microsoft products and communications are globally appropriate and locally relevant.
Michael Wow!
Michele That’s how I explain this to my parents.
Renato Very good! And do they understand that?
Michele Parts of it!
Renato The “locally relevant” probably.
Michele Yes!
Renato I think that one of the things that I find fascinating is that you were able to put together a group of other companies that discussed these issues. This is not a Microsoft initiative only; there are other companies that address this problem. Tell us a little bit about this initiative.
Michele About two years ago, one of the localization groups, industry groups that I belong to, suggested that we start a sub-group that was focused completely on geopolitical topics and issues. This has proved really successful. We meet, conference call, every two weeks, and we talk about anything that has happened in the last two weeks around the world from a geopolitical perspective. It ranges from who showed the wrong flag at the Olympics to who gave the wrong kind of hand gesture at the Oscar awards; everything is fair game; it’s a great group; we have somewhat of an agenda but we often go off topic.
Michael Was there anything two years ago that led to the forming of this group?
Michele I think actually what kicked it off, the discussion of why this group should be created was the Crimea incident, if I can call it an incident, with Russia and Ukraine.
Renato Well, that’s a classic geopolitical issue because from our US perspective it was an invasion. From the Russian perspective they probably use a different word over there to describe what they did.
Michele Exactly, and since maps are something that we are concerned with and related geographical topics like time zones, we were involved from the very beginning on how to handle this. It was a very interesting exercise.
Renato It’s so interesting that you mention the wrong flag at the Olympics because it happened in Rio de Janeiro; I was recently in China, and the moment our guide… we went to the Great Wall and the guide that took us there, the moment she found out that I was Brazilian, the first thing she talked about was how offended the Chinese were about the Chinese flag that was wrong, that we used the wrong angle. And then she gave me a lesson on how to design the stars, the four stars that are around the big star in the Chinese flag. Amazing how these things really affect cultural sensitivity, and this has nothing to do with the United States, it’s China and Brazil, and it never appears in our news there in the United States.
Michele Flags are an emotional topic. Any image is an emotional topic because everyone looks at an image and sees something different depending on their environment, their cultural upbringing. Flags are typically a very tough topic for my team because flags can change; new flags, if a coup occurs, or as in the vote of New Zealand, we thought we were going to have to change a flag there. If anything happens with Scotland, with the UK, we might have to add the Scottish flag as one of the national flags. So, this is something that we spend a lot of time on.
Renato How did the story in New Zealand end? I remember that they were voting, there were five different finalist flags, and I haven’t heard a follow-up on that.
Michele I don’t know if they made the final decision. I think they did. I think it was the one with the star, and I can’t remember the exact design, but I think they did make that final decision.
Renato Okay, so they did change it?
Michele I’d have to check on that, I don’t know for sure.
Michael These are very complex issues that you all get together and discuss and talk about the business implications for. What are some of the challenges on getting the different companies, perhaps in different industries, on the same page? Do you use similar terminology; are there different ways that companies talk about what’s happening geopolitically?
Michele That’s something we have struggled with because we do use different terminology. For example, globalization is a very common word that we use to describe something in a product that we want to make sure will work anywhere in the world, even if it’s not translated, it doesn’t have anything to do with localization.
Michael Can you give a specific example of that?
Michele For example, if you have a product that is English only, but it’s still going into most other markets, you want to make sure that the user can still change settings like regional formats to reflect their own calendar, their own currency, but it still may be all in English. That’s what we consider as globalization. Other companies use different terms for that, market customization, internationalization, and then there is the issue that, of course, globalization has become sort of a dirty word around the world. It means a completely different thing to governments, for example.
Michael Yes, it’s tied to trade and tariffs and such things.
Michele Yes, and what shouldn’t be happening.
Renato So, you mentioned that this group doesn’t include only technology companies. So, who else and what kinds of issues do companies that are not in the technology space have related to the cultural elements that your group covers?
Michele Well, I won’t mention companies, but we have sports companies, we have quite a few tech companies, different kinds of technology, some vendor companies, and if you look at something like a sports company, they still, if they are a global company, have to think about translation, how they make their resources ready for translation, the localizability aspect of it. And then the geopolitical awareness part, and that’s why we started the group.

Basically, you think about a sports company that is global, they still do not want to offend anybody in the world if at all possible, so a lot of the topics that we talk about, maybe not flags but a lot of other things, would be applicable to any company in the world.
Renato Yes, but you bring up the flag story. I mean, I know, I lived in seven countries so in some countries you don’t want to have your sports shoes with the color of your flag. In the United States people wear the flag colors all the time; in other countries it’s very normal. But, in some countries it’s bad taste. So, is that something, do you have a map or a list of the countries where, well, in Italy it’s fashionable to use the Italian flag colors; in Azerbaijan it’s not. Or something like that?
Michele Yes.
Renato Oh, you do?
Michele Yes, that’s a good point. What we do is we keep track of where we shouldn’t use the flag in any other way than how it should be displayed, you know, especially certain direction. Saudi Arabia is a good example that the flag of Saudi Arabia has text from the Qur’an on it; it’s very, very important and could be illegal if that flag is hung in the wrong direction. There’s a famous example of the United States Military distributing soccer balls with flags all over them, in the Middle East. Unfortunately, one of the flags on the soccer ball was the flag of Saudi Arabia with that Qur’an text on it. It caused a huge uproar because it was obviously to kick the flag that had Qur’an text on would be very offensive.
Michael Mhm. And the flag flying in the wrong direction, I remember hearing a story of exposing a Western power setting up a building, and they knew that it was not a genuine local building because the flags were on the wrong side of the building.
Michele Exactly. Flags are… and any image. Saudi Arabia, to take another example from that country because we do have a lot of examples of ways we have to be very sensitive is any image that shows females, we are very careful about how we do that. We try to be very respectful in the clothing that females wear; things that would not only be offensive but, again, could be illegal for content that we would display in that country.
Michael How do companies in general, this isn’t specifically about any that you’re on this group with or where you work, but what are some things to think about and how much to push against cultural norms and how much do you just sort of accept them because, hey, you’re trying to do business in that locale?
Michele That’s a great question because that’s the balance we have to figure out. That’s the fine line we walk. So, it depends, of course, on a lot of things. It depends on what the product is; if it’s an Xbox game that’s rated mature, it’s going to have possibly a lot of violence, possibly some sexual images that might not be appropriate in some places but, depending on the rating, depending on what country it’s going into, we decide if that’s going to be appropriate.

There are some countries that some games just can’t go into because of content. So, we look at content, we look at what the product is, we look at the market. We look at a lot of different things before we figure out if it’s appropriate or not.
Renato We talk a lot and I think you mentioned a couple of times, Saudi Arabia, must be one there at the top of the countries with lots of no-nos. What are the countries where you don’t have to worry about anything because anything goes? Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum.
Michael Oh, it’s got to be Brazil!
Michele Actually, in Brazil, I’m trying to think, we do have… well, current events there, I have to say, Renato, we are very careful there with anything that might be political in nature, I’ll go as far as that, I won’t go any further.
Renato Yeah, yeah, well.
Michele But, we certainly do not worry about clothing too much on females in Brazil. But, United States, let’s take the United States, even in the United States we have to be sensitive. We would not…we have a rating system for games, obviously; we have to be sensitive and think about what topics we might not want to display in any of our communications, marketing campaigns. I think a good example right now just for companies in general is that with all the natural disasters that have hit the United States, there have been some companies that have gotten negative publicity because they have accidentally shown images of the Virgin Islands, for example, St Thomas, a beach picture, where that beach is no longer there.

And of course, a campaign is planned months in advance and that campaign all of a sudden showed up. The same thing has just happened with companies with the Napa and Sonoma fires in the wine country in California. Marketing campaigns were planned, they showed up, they shouldn’t have showed up at that time but there was just no way of knowing. Of course, natural disasters are unpredictable, and you can’t always plan for something like that.
Renato It’s interesting. We were talking earlier about Brazil and the example of the flag. The Brazilian flag is the only flag with Latin characters on it, so if you put it upside down or you put it in the wrong direction you can’t read it correctly. So there is that element too. There must be a place where there is more freedom than that!
Michele Well, the United States is another good example for the flag because if you read the flag code you really shouldn’t be putting it on clothing or putting it on hats or putting it on shoes or doing a lot of different things with the flag. But, it happens all the time. Advertisers… I mean, you can find flags, the United States flag, on any piece of clothing, probably. It’s just not enforced but it is actually in the flag code of the government.
Michael So, there are some instances where the actual formal code will vary from the practice of what’s happening in the culture or companies who are selling in that culture.
Michele That doesn’t make it right. And you still have to be very sensitive to that and think about what you’re doing before you do it, I think.
Renato So, is this group of companies that you lead just a group of American companies that are concerned about geopolitical issues internationally or is it an international group because you have sensitivities between other geographies that are not involved in the main, let’s say, Northern Atlantic area. So, you will have – I don’t know – conflicts between two African countries or neighbors. Usually neighbors are very… there are lots of idiosyncrasies between neighboring countries because they have a very close relationship and there might be this love and hate relationship. Is that something that you keep track of, also?
Michele We do keep track of it. And the group is actually, all the companies are headquartered in the United States but they are all global companies. So, these kinds of topics, especially border disputes or questions about how one country might be upset with another country is certainly something we talk a lot about.

One of the things I do is spend the first one to two hours of every morning just reading, researching what has happened around the world in the last 24 hours, and when the group gets together we talk a lot about current events.
Renato Where do you study…
Michael That was going to be my question too, what are your favorite resources to pull on?
Michele I have a lot of people asking me that. Everything; anything I can find. Of course, the web just makes it so easy to be signed up to get instant alerts for anything that happens around the world. I am signed up for everything I can find besides the major newspapers around the world, including China and Russia. I want to hear viewpoints, different perspectives; I don’t just read the United States and the UK newspapers, for example, I try and hit all around the world. I’m always searching for more. I can never get enough information.
Renato And do you keep a database by country, by geography, by language, by image? How do you sort this information, how do you search for that?
Michele Exactly, it’s a database. Obviously a very big one, and we throw as much information in there as we can because you never know what you will need. One of the things that we do also look at is history. It’s not just current events. When we’re going into a new market or a new campaign we want to make sure we have a good, solid understanding of what’s happened in that country 100 years ago, 200 years ago, because an image, and I’ve seen this happen in many companies, they will display an image of a beautiful location, but it will turn out that location has some geopolitical sensitivity for some reason, a border dispute, or some massacre, you never know what’s happened, so it’s just something you have to be very, very careful in how you research before you present any, especially, images.
Michael Are you leveraging local professors, some subject matter experts in that area; is that how you get that information?
Michele We do a lot of subject matter expertise. Again, the web is a huge help. You can find so much. You have to be careful but you can find a lot of information. When necessary…
Michael It’s verifying the information is correct isn’t it!
Michele You have to verify, that’s the secondary part of this, verifying that what you’re saying, what you’ve found, is correct. And, yes, we go to local people around the world, basically, Microsoft offices, to verify things, whatever is necessary.
Renato So, one of the things that we love here is juicy stories, right? They don’t need to be your story but tell us something great that happened, let’s be positive. Then, tell us something horrible that you know about. We can keep the players anonymous.
Michele Okay, good! Well, actually, for a good, successful story I am going to use Microsoft because I’m very pleased with this, and it’s a very recent campaign. If you are familiar at all, if you’re a gamer, or you use avatars in any shape or form, you may have seen that Microsoft recently came out with diversity avatars, and they are inspiring. There is a female that is missing an arm, has an artificial arm; there are people in wheelchairs, just doing normal, everyday things. And we’ve had … I think that’s been a very successful example of the company working together to reflect our values of diversity and inclusion. So, that’s just a success story.

We’ve also done a lot of things that we have found that it’s really, really important to…talking about research and making sure that we validate sources; games that might have characters from different ethnicities, we have gone to great lengths to make sure that those… we have gone to the people that are those ethnicities and checked out costumes, symbolism, language, all sorts of things to make sure they’re authentic.
Renato Gestures, also, right? I think that gestures is a big thing.
Michele Gestures is a huge thing. I have, probably, four books in my office on hand gestures, feet gestures, body parts, things that when you go to a different market you need to think about. I try and make sure to never do a hand gesture if I’m in a different country because I never can remember what I should and shouldn’t do.
Michael Right. And when you have characters in games who are doing things and responding, and all that, that can be very sensitive. I love the part about the avatars and the accessibility and that being played out. I’m giving a talk this week to people who are non-localization people about the importance of linguistics and localization. And one of my final points is it matters because this is an accessibility issue which then becomes a justice issue at some point. And to see that reflected in large companies, and playing out and products, that’s inspiring. It’s great. It’s a great example.
Michele It is. I’m very pleased with that. So, a juicy negative story…
Michael Yeah, now we’ve got all that positive stuff out!
Michele Let’s see. There are several. We have so many examples of other companies, and it will have to be anonymous, obviously. There’s a lot right now with companies that are making mistakes, not using common sense in my opinion, around racial topics, especially white and black. Something happened in the last two weeks, if you have seen the white and black, some of the white and black topics. So, the racial topics are very, very tough and …
Renato There was a Volkswagen campaign that was launched in the United States and was translated as “White Power”, and then they had to pull it out because nobody had paid attention to the fact that it had a completely different connotation than what they planned. They were showing a white car that was very powerful.
Michele Exactly. And there have been quite a few of those examples in the last year, specifically white/black wordplay, and so this is just something we’re very, very careful on how we use those two words, if we do, they have to go through a lot of review.
Renato I love a story that I heard a few years ago that Hewlett Packard received a complaint from a client because their ink cartridge had written “negro”, which is black in Spanish, and somebody called complaining that they were racist because they had negro there. No, they had to explain, it’s in Spanish and that’s the right word. No! They must have another word. No, they don’t, that’s the word. So, you can’t be right all the time.
Michele No, you can’t, and it is a balance. It’s everything we look at is the risk that even if we are using something that might be a little edgy, we have to balance out the risk and decide how far we want to go with things.

Other examples, there was a company that did a commercial about eating meat, eating more meat and the graphic that they used was a Hindu God that was vegetarian, so that was a great example. And, again, it’s just someone didn’t do the research, didn’t think about it, didn’t use common sense, and it’s just one of the reasons that it’s so important to do all of those things.

The United States Military made another mistake recently where they released—I think into Afghanistan—propaganda leaflets that had Islamic text, maybe from the Qur’an, I can’t remember, that was superimposed over an image of a dog. And dogs are a sensitive topic in Islamic countries, and so it was taken as a very offensive act by the United States Military, unfortunately.
Renato It’s hard for people to imagine because usually, we’re multicultural here, we’re talking and our audience is very multicultural, but you have your biases and you don’t realize. So, very often you will tell somebody, using dogs in Islamic countries, or a cow, for the Hindus, is offensive, it’s regarded as a negative thing. But, think about our culture, I mean, imagine doing the same thing with a rat or with a spider which are animals that usually cause some consternation and reaction from people in our culture. So, it’s the same thing. It’s offensive, it can be disgusting, there are many reactions that we cannot fathom because we’re not in their place. But if you look at the things that are repulsive for us or that are offensive for us, you can relate better to this.
Michele That’s a great point. And the cultural bias, everybody has a different cultural bias and I think that’s a large part of the world’s problems right now is because people don’t do what you’ve just said, think about how we would react to something that would be equally offensive for our cultural bias.
Michael In a lot of companies, they are working to have a thoughtfulness about how they’re engaging, and then when they make mistakes there has to be a thoughtfulness in how they respond as well, that’s equal to the mistake they made.
Michele That’s very true.
Renato So Michele. Let’s transform this conversation into something practical to our listeners. Many people in our community are translators, individuals who are working on text. We have, also, project managers, translation company owners, buyers of translation and localization services; is this type of service something that is provided by third parties, is this something that needs to be controlled in-house; what kind of advice can you give to our listeners about the type of job that you do?
Michele Well, since I used to be a localization PM and worked a lot with translation companies, I found that the companies I worked with were very good about already having this kind of mindset, thinking about geopolitical topics and in their own culture and in their own language. So, when they were doing translation services, often, they would come back to me and say “you know, this is not going to reflect well in our language and in our market, could we work with you to come up with a different kind of text?”

If they were working with an image with text in it, which, of course is not a really good thing, sometimes they would say “you know, this image isn’t going to work in our market; in fact it might be a problem.” So, they already had such an open mindset and could, were very helpful and supportive in this kind of work, and so I think my advice would be just that’s great, that’s what you should be doing; listen to your translators and don’t be afraid to have them give you that kind of guidance for their market.

I have vendors right now, not for translation but just for other kinds of things, and we do the same thing. I listen to them. If they come and say “you know, this just isn’t going to resonate or be sensitive to our market.” I listen.
Michael Yes, giving the voice of the translator, the people who are doing the research on the end, is very important. And then other companies develop guidelines from what they hear over the years and have those that they are able to reference and publish.

And you mentioned a bit of a hack for companies that may be smaller and not have the resources, at the moment, to be working with outside vendors, and that is check with your employees who are from the countries that you’re marketing to and get their feedback because that could catch some of the more glaring, obvious offensive material that would go out.
Michele And that’s very important because our company, for example of course, is very, very diverse from around the world, and we do take advantage of that as well.
Renato And I think that one way that we could conclude this conversation is you telling us how we can get listeners that are interested in joining this group of companies that have these conversations, other big buyers of localization services, if they want to join how can they reach you, do you have a website or something like that for this group?
Michele No, we’re not that formal. Actually, this is something we’ve been talking about in the sub-group, and we’re thinking of expanding the way we communicate so that other companies can. Right now it’s sort of a closed group because it’s a sub-set of a bigger group that is a closed group. So, this is something I think we’ll be thinking about, and we could certainly come back to both of you and talk about it more.
Michael That would be great.
Renato Wonderful.

End of conversation

Michele Coady

Michele Coady has spent 18 years at Microsoft specializing in international engineering and global readiness. She is currently a director for the Microsoft Global Readiness group and drives company-wide geopolitical awareness, compliance and risk management.

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