Many years ago I spent my first (and to date only) Christmas in Europe, where I experienced the winter-themed decorations adorning the streets and shopfronts in their original context for the first time.
As I write this, just two weeks out from Christmas, the mercury is peaking at 38°C here in Melbourne, a far cry from that Christmas Day when I watched snow fall on the streets of Montmartre. And yet the decorations outside our office window still feature stylised images of pine trees, snowflakes and reindeer pulling a sled.
Some cultural references are universal. While there have been some attempts to replace Santa’s reindeer in Australia with ‘six white boomers’, we have largely embraced the seasonal iconography of the northern hemisphere for the festive season.
All this made me think about cultural references in written communications. When I worked in Dublin, I helped an e-learning company create online resources for US high school students.
A lot of energy went into making sure the terminology was relevant for a North American audience. Think imperial rather than metric measurements, sidewalks not pavements, parking lots not car parks, diapers not nappies, jello not jelly… It goes well beyond changing the language of your spell-checker in Word.
As with most written communications, it’s all about context. I have never understood why the editors insisted on changing certain terms in the Harry Potter books for the US edition when the story is so quintessentially English. In other contexts, a failure to recognise the cultural associations of a particular word or phrase can be highly offensive, as this extreme example from one of our earliest posts shows.
It’s not always about cultural references, and the differences aren’t always international. We recently worked on a document to assist people in a particular industry meet their health and safety and environmental obligations. The document has a national distribution, but the relevant regulations differ between states and territories.
Our response was to recognise that diversity in the readership, and to ensure that the text acknowledged their different requirements. It’s an approach I’d recommend for most communication projects.
Image via Pixabay