Understanding Cultural Differences OnlineBack in 1984 I moved from a radio job at WBVP in Western PA to a radio job at WLPA in Lancaster. As a news anchor and reporter I was quickly thrown in to reporting on local news, sports, and politics. That meant that I was talking about a lot of local communities which were new to me. I’d never been in, or heard of, most of them.

In addition to talking about local towns like Paradise, Blue Ball, and Intercourse, there were a few names that had a distinct local flavor when it came to pronunciation. I remember one particular moment when I turned the mic off after a news report, only to have the DJ on the other side of the glass press the talkback button to inform me of the correct pronunciation of one of the township names.

Doh!

I hadn’t heard anyone pronounce it, and in my mind, I pronounced it the way it looked. But think of the listeners. The moment they heard me talking about this township and mispronouncing the name, there is only one thing they could have thought:

Outsider

With that one word I had announced to the local world that I was new to the area; I was an outsider. And an uneducated outsider, to boot.

I have the same reaction when I hear someone mispronounce the word “Lancaster”. You see, around here, the proper pronunciation is “Lang-kiss-ter” as opposed to the more popular “Lan-kas-ter”. It’s one thing for tourists to say it wrong, but another thing to hear it in a radio or television commercial for a local business. When I hear that, I know that they sent it to an out-of-town agency to be recorded, and they didn’t take the time to inform them of the proper pronunciation.

It stands out. In a bad way.

As we market our businesses online, we are moving beyond our local culture and entering other cultures. We may be engaging people in other countries or regions who don’t think the same way we do about things. For instance, recently I wished everyone a “Happy 4th of July” on my Facebook page, knowing that I have fans and followers all over the world. For my many readers in other countries, the 4th of July is just another day. In fact, I have a lot of friends up north in Canada, and for them, the 4th is just another work day.

In our online global communities, we need to understand that we’re engaging and communicating with people from a variety of cultures. We can’t just assume that everyone thinks like us, or celebrates the same holidays. We’ll often say things on Twitter or Facebook with one context in mind, but our readers might be approaching it from an entirely different context.

Now, there is really no way to make sure you have all of your bases covered. At the radio station, I didn’t have time to study all of the local pronunciations, so I learned under fire. If you make a mistake, own up to it, make the correction, and move on.

The best way you can prepare is to just be cognizant that differences exist, and that what you say might be misinterpreted by someone from another culture. If you are intentionally entering another culture, you’d be wise to do your homework first. But just like my son who is in the midst of a five-month internship in the Czech Republic, most of the learning occurs while you’re immersed within the culture.

Study the culture beforehand, then learn from within.

Your little small business is no longer local the minute you go online. Be ready for the culture shock.

Have you had any interesting or surprising experiences as you’ve engaged with others online across cultures?

This post was inspired by a suggestion from my friend Liz Jostes, whom I’ve had to teach how to say “Lancaster” properly.