International Business: Globally understood training avoids many culture-specific references

Published: Friday, June 3 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

A baseball analogy or the image of an owl may not be understood in other cultures as they would in the United States. Developers of e-learning and in-person training programs must account for that fact.


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A training course in the United States might use the image of an owl to reinforce the concept of wisdom; however, the same image could be misunderstood in some parts of Asia where owls symbolize stupidity. Imagine how well U.S. learners would react to being taunted with the image of a dodo bird, a common Western symbol of low intelligence.

Developers of e-learning and in-person training programs must account for the fact that many educational courses will not be understood in other countries as they would in the United States, and that understanding of varied culture is not just an obstacle for translation.

Avoiding region-specific cultural references can help training courses to be more universally understood with limited country-specific adaptation. For example, visual representations of physical gestures — like an “OK” sign — can have inappropriate connotations in other cultures and may be avoided altogether so that a standardized course might be better understood worldwide.

As previously discussed in this column, not only images, but also colors, have different meanings in other cultures. In designing a user interface, an e-learning developer may benefit from choosing blue over another color because blue is often considered “the safest global color,” with positive — or at least neutral — meanings and connotations in most countries.

Jeff Welch of Langevin Learning Services recounted an experience that one American company had when conducting a training workshop for one of its training divisions. “The trainees were from several Asian countries, including China and Japan,” said Welch. “In an attempt at cultural sensitivity, each trainee’s name was printed on their name tag in both English and their native script.”

“However, several of the participants refused to wear their name tags. Why? Their English name was printed in black ink, and their native script was printed in red ink. In certain Asian countries, namely China and Japan, it is considered taboo to write one’s name in red.”

Cultural references are not limited to just images and appearance. The text of a course may also contain idioms or analogies that will not be understood by other cultures, even by some others who speak English. For example, if an instructor wishes to use a sports analogy in a lesson, most of the world will understand a soccer analogy better than a distinctly American analogy from baseball or American football. Conversely, how well would an American understand a British cricket analogy?

In Nancy Foy’s book, The Sun Never Sets on IBM, a veteran of IBM’s operations in the Asia Pacific region told of one visitor from the tech giant’s headquarters who asked,

“How do you like the training stuff we are sending out from New York these days?”

“Some of it is OK.”

“What do you mean ‘some’? We are putting a lot of work and money into that stuff. Don’t you appreciate it? How about our September selection of aids for the Fall Kickoff Meeting?”

“First of all, the word in English-speaking countries out here would be 'autumn', not 'fall'. And below the equator, it is coming up to spring, not autumn. Finally, the word 'kickoff' relates to a uniquely American sport.”

IBM’s internal message was lost in translation because strong cultural references were not properly adapted or avoided. The company may have benefited from naming the training after the fiscal quarter instead of the season, and they probably could have used a more generic word than kickoff to describe the start of that quarter. Even when the general idea is understood, learners often tune out the message when they perceive that improperly localized courses may not be as relevant to their local situation.

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