Tiptoeing across the cultural minefield

Being 'culturally sensitive' is crucial to most of us. If we're not, we can easily get close to the box labelled racist. And yet if we don't acknowledge the difference between cultures, can we really serve everyone around the world equally well? People who work on the World Wide Web (read the words carefully) need to be more aware of that than most.

An e-consultancy piece headed 'Why do Chinese websites look so busy' trod the line well. It produced many practical reasons why this undoubted truth was so - most to do with the way the Chinese is written. But where he gets onto asking why there is so much animation, the author says, with a small apology, 'it seems that the Chinese are simply less bothered by flashing graphics that Westerners are, so what seems busy to us seems normal to them'.

I'd be interested to get informed comment (ideally from Chinese people) about this, but it would be odd if there weren't culturally-specific things that give websites national characteristics. 

When we advise international organizations on their look, we suggest they avoid a one that is too 'country-specific'. Jumping feet first into the stereotypical minefield, here are some ways we can tell what country gave birth to a site:

  • Germany: A preponderance of dark blue and white - rather austere.
  • France: Pastel colours - often pretty, but why do so many of them look the same?
  • US: Bold primary colours, people with wide grins and perfect teeth. Lots of capital letters.
  • China: Very busy ...

It is of course perfectly reasonably to say that we are proud of our country and its values, so we are very happy if people know immediately where we come from. But let's take Germany, with its rather austere blue and white look: Volkswagen corporate or Linde for example. Apart from the VW problems, there will be those (for example in pastel-coloured France), who find the look a bit, well, cold. And there are probably Germans who find the French look a bit, um, frivolous (try Engie or Danone).

I'm not going to be dogmatic - that would be culturally inappropriate - but it seems to be that a good starting point is to work out what the stereotypes are for your country, and see if you can avoid them. To do this, ask a foreigner. I'm British - the one sort of website I can't recognise is a British one. But I bet if I asked my friends round the world, they would come up with a handy list of things for me to avoid. 

- David Bowen