Avoid culturally specific references

January 27, 2009

One of the tenets of good technical communication is to avoid culturally specific references, especially if your material is to be translated into other languages. But what’s a culturally specific reference? In simple terms, it’s a word or phrase that has meaning for members of a cultural group, but has limited meaning, no meaning, or some other meaning for people outside that group.

Culturally specific terms are typically those commonly known within one country but not another. Within a country, it can refer to terms known to one region but not another, or words spoken by different ‘tribes’ (e.g. differences in terms used in generational groups, industry groups, ethnic groups, etc.).

Some culturally specific terms are easy to identify — names of foods and beverages, for example (pop, soda, coke, soft drink…). But other times they’re not so easy, especially if you don’t even realize that the term or phrase might not be known by others. Time spent visiting and living in various parts of the world helps in understanding such differences, but is only a start. The best way to identify culturally specific terms is to get someone from outside the expected audience demographic to read your material — look for people from different age groups (if generational language may be important); from different regions, states, countries; from different educational levels; from different ‘tribes’.

Sometimes what appears to be a common term to you, is not so common to others or in other contexts.

An example of a culturally specific term that I encountered in someone’s email to a global audience was ‘water cooler’. The context was using it in a mission statement — “To provide a virtual water cooler for an international community of [occupation] …, where they can share ideas, solutions, technology, professional support, and encouragement.”

My response to that suggestion was:

I believe that ‘water cooler’ is fairly US-centric as a term. It’s not commonly used in Australia, for example (I can’t speak for the rest of the world, obviously), though it’s gaining currency as we take to bottled and filtered water more and more — and as Dilbert and friends reach a wider audience. While many offices and homes now use such things, most would still use tap water.

I can recall visiting the US for the first time in 1985 and being amazed (and quite horrified) that friends had these large water bottles and coolers in their own homes. For me, drinking water had always come out of a tap and I couldn’t understand why you would get your drinking water any other way. For much of the developed world, that’s how it still comes — and for other parts of the world, it might be the village pump (which I guess is a very early version of a ‘water cooler’ community).

So, much as I personally like — and relate to — the term, I’d be interested to hear how others respond to a term that may be specific to either a geographic region or to a particular socioeconomic class.

One technique I use to check terms I’m not sure that a US audience would be familiar with is to have a ‘buddy’ in the US — a friend I can email or ping (‘send an instant message’) with really quick questions about language I *think* may be culturally specific (hi Char!).

Find yourself a buddy — they’re an invaluable resource!

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