Posts Tagged ‘language’

The Culture Code

The Culture Code

The Culture Code

The Culture Code: An ingenious way to understand why people around the world live and buy as they do.
by Clotaire Rapaille

Having spent substantial portions of my life in 3 very different cultures on 3 different continents (US, UK, Korea), I found “The Culture Code”, very insightful, entertaining and surprising.

The Culture Code. as defined by the author, is the unconscious meaning we apply to any given thing – a car, a type of food, a relationship, even a country – via the culture in which we are raised.

The author uses the Jeep Wrangler as an example of how different cultures have different codes when relating to it: Chrysler didn’t know what direction they should push the Wrangler, and asking people hadn’t helped. The author didn’t ask what people wanted, he asked what their earliest memories (“imprints”) of Jeeps were. Many recalled open land, going where no normal car would go. This reveal the code for Jeep in America is “horse”. Hence Jeep didn’t need luxurious touches, such as soft leather seats. It needed removable doors, and an open top. In contrast, the code for Jeep in France and Germany is “liberator” since many associated the Jeep to the liberation of Europe during the Second World War.

It had always puzzled me why Americans love carry their coffee around, drinking it on the go – on streets, in cars. I would see American exchange students on campus in Korea, faithfully carrying their big travel mugs heading to class. Only American students seems to do this. A sure sign of an American student was his/her coffee, backpack, sandals and large water bottles.

This, I learned, was because Americans equate health with movement, (the American code for health is “movement”) and that Americans have a strong ethic for work and getting things done and have no patience for taking a backseat or enjoying things for its own pleasure. Therefore consumption of coffee (= productivity), on the go (= movement, efficiency) makes practical sense to the common American where it would puzzle your average European or Asian.

The books goes on to explore various codes for love, beauty, fat, health, youth, home, work, money, quality, alcohol, shopping and towards the end the code for America itself.

The book was somewhat therapeutic for me. I never imagined that a branding/marketing book would end up being a self-help book. It helped me understand how growing up in different cultures informs the way we think and helps explain some of the differences between my wife who grew up in the States and I who grew up in the UK. Why I read instructions and she doesn’t.

The study of how Americans perceive quality was also informative. American code for quality is simply “it works”. What this says is Americans prefer basic function over design. American are very forgiving towards design as long as it performs it expected function (How else would you explain the abundance of such bad car designs coming out of Detroit). In the mobile phone industry, this attitude is perfectly exemplified in the Verizon ads with the bespectacled man who goes around simply saying, “Can you hear me now?” In comparison, Koreans, Japanese and British people are far more conscious about the way cell phones look.

The author bring all the observations around cultural differences to a conclusion about global marketing:

Global strategy requires customizing for each culture, though it is always important that the strategy embrace “American-ness.

The author suggests that branding needs to be tailored to cultures however when a brand is global, it is always in its best interest to project an image of its local roots:

Cultures perceive globalization as a direct attack on their survival. If the world becomes truly flat and we all exist under one huge planet-wide culture, then we lose the individual cultural identities that have defined us. When brands extend themselves into the global market by championing their village of origin, they accomplish two tasks at once: they perpetuate their own culture and they celebrate everyone’s cultural identity.

Think Mini Cooper. They are owned by BMW, but they are branding (rightfully, successfully) as a British icon. Think Evian or Levi’s. These are global brands, but still have something very local about them. Evian is water from the Alps and Levi’s is the icons American apparel.

In the end I had to wonder about Korea. How Koreans perceive themselves. Also how Korea is perceived by others outside Korea. What is the code for America in Korea? How should Samsung, LG, Hyundai be market themselves? What is uniquely Korean about these brands?

On this heels of one book that explores the differences between cultures comes another: I just started reading: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why. This book promises to be more of an academic read.

Do You Dream in Korean?

My 6 year-old daughter has now spent a total of 9 months in Korea. She now speaks fluent Korean, but I often wonder whether she thinks and dreams in Korean or English.

The other day, she hurt her finger on a toy and screamed, “Ow!”

At least I know at a reflex level, she’s still English-wired. The expression of pain in Korean would have been “A-ya!” (??!)

Strategies for Globalizing Korean Websites

I wrote an article for my company’s December email newsletter sent to clients. The intended audience of the article was upper-management types and web managers in Korea corporations, who intend their websites to reach out to a global audience.

Due to some internal restructuring at my company which resulted in the company splitting into three independent corporate units, the newsletter never made it out. Which, in my mind, if for the better. It was my first article of any substance in Korean. If you want to torture yourself with my awful Korean penmanship, you can download the Korean PDF at your own peril. Here I present the translated English version:

* * *

The World is Not Flat: Guidelines for planning websites that serve overseas audiences

In his 2005 book, The World is Flat, New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues that the Internet and Netscape contributed to the leveling of the global market playing field. The technology enabled industrialized countries and developing nations compete for the same markets. This allows us to order from from Korea, and find out the latest news about the recent unrest in Burma through our internet browsers.

This may be an oversimplification. It is true that the internet affords us many new market opportunities that had not existed. But simply because we have the same tools, that does not a level-playing field make. The internet is the new kid on the block when it come to communications tools, but it is still subject to the same cultural forces that have shaped regions for thousands of years.

To say that cultures are different is to state the obvious. Language alone acts as a barrier. A short trip to the States also reveals deeper differences in communication, cuisine, and culture. The internet with all its power will not be flattening these differences any time soon.

Parties in America are open

Parties in America are open

Parties in Korea are private

Parties in Korea are private

Let’s take the example of party culture. In the US, the host invites her friends and colleagues to her home, and people stand around in small groups sipping wine or beer, meandering from one group to another looking for more interesting people or topics of conversation. A big purpose of a party is to meet new people.

In Korea, on the other hand, a party usually consists of people who already know each other. They sit around a table and talk about topics that they already have some history sharing. No one switches seats. The purpose of the gathering is to reinforce already existing ties. Outsiders often feel left out.

This type of social behavior is evident also in social networks sites on the internet. The US has the gigantic MySpace which is a virtual space to meet new people. The ties are weak and often it’s about the quantity of friends than the quality. On Cyworld, the massively popular Korean social networking phenomenon, you create “il-cheon” or family ties with people you already know, reinforcing already strong ties, granting them deep access to your content.



Cultural differences are also evident when you look at browser start pages. Koreans usually have portal sites, such as Naver or Daum as their start pages, whereas many in the US have Google. This reveals that Americans tend to be more task-oriented in their approach to the internet.

It’s not a stretch to say that Korea has one of the most extreme internet cultures in the world. Internet experts marvel at the internet services and communications infrastructure available in Korea and see it as a test bed for the future internet landscape. However they also understand and caution that specific conditions that only exist in Korea that allow for these services to exist at all. These special conditions include exorbitantly fast internet access, heavy penetration of mobile communications, heavy concentration of the population to Seoul and other major cities, early adoption of technology, convergence of mobile and internet services, and the monopoly of internet traffic to a handful of portal sites.

Living in Korea, it’s easy to take these conditions for granted but any Korea company, who is planning to create a site outside Korea, should keep in mind that these conditions cannot be generalized to other place around the world.

So, as a Korea company, how does one approach creating a site for global market? How can it overcome preconceptions and plan a strategy that takes into account conditions outside Korea?

First off, it’s important to understand who you are targeting the site for. You have to conduct user research to get a general sense of the user culture and the user preferences in the region the site is intended for. Armed with this research, you can then start to define a user experience that is appropriate to the local conditions. Without knowledge of who the user is, it is easy to fall prey to designing a site that meets your average Korean’s needs but not the needs or the expectations of the actual users.

In addition to some basic user research, it is also important to understand the web environment of the region the site is intended for. As an example I list below some of the factors that need to be researched to build a successful site. I use the US as a comparator but the checklist applies to any country or region.

Issue Korea US Observations
Web User Behavior Portal-oriented #1 site: Naver Search-oriented #1 site: Google US users tend to be more goal-oriented when using the web.
High tolerance for dense information Example: Naver Prefer simple layout Example: Google US users are used to Google’s simple design, and prefer homepage designs that have focus and follow the KISS rule (Keep it simple, stupid)
Tolerance for animated elements on web pages Intolerant towards unsolicited animated elements US users react sensitively towards animated elements. In general they associate animations with advertising.
Prefer sophisticated, “cute” designs Example: Cyworld Korea Prefer simple, clean designs Example: Facebook As an extreme example, Cyworld failed in gaining greater acceptance in the US due to a lack for user research. User’s first impressions were that the site was targeting teen girls, when it was actually targeting college students.
Browser Environment Internet Explorer 6.0+ (Win) Internet Explorer 5.5+(Win), Safari 1.0+ (Mac), Firefox 1.0+ (Win / Mac) Users in the US use a whole variety of browsers and OS environments which need to be taken into consideration during design and testing.
Wide adoption of ActiveX ActiveX not used ActiveX is not a standard environment in the US.
Wide adoption of Flash Web Standards movement: HTML 4.0, XHTML1.0, CSS AJAX There is a strong movement to make browsers web standards compliant in the US. Flash has limited usage, with CSS and AJAX usage becoming more prevalent.
Internet Access Environment High penetration of super high-speed internet access Limited penetration of broadband access. What in the US is referred to as “broadband” internet is less than 10% of the speeds users in Korea are generally used to.

The key to success in building a website intended for an audience outside Korea is performing some simple research about the culture, users and web environment, and reflecting these in the site’s design.

Intuitive: definition

In his thoughtful article, Intuition, pleasure, and gestures, Jonathan Korman of Cooper crafts the most elegant definition of the word “intuitive” I have ever come across:

Intuitive: Easy to explain, powerful in its implications, impossible to forget.

How do you say “It depends” in Korean?

In my 6+ years as a consultant, "it depends" has been the favorite in my phrasebook since I first heard it from Lou Rosenfeld back in 2001. It is a phrase that has served me well and in most cases squarely meets hardest questions that are thrown at me by clients. It disarms the question, and gives both me and the clients pause for thought. It also removes the burden of providing a simple answer to what usual are very complex questions.

So I was asked a question from one of my colleagues yesterday:

"In an SMS interface, should the user be presented with the to field first or the message text field first?"

I wanted to say, "it depends", but I was stumped by the fact that this simplest of phrases is pretty hard to translate into Korean. That’s a problem. My best consultant weapon had been taken away from me. If you translate it, it goes something like, "you have to consider multiple factors":

Ugh. Not as simple or self contained as "it depends".

So I replied with the next best thing: "The answer is simple: both!" 

Your ability as a consultant rests on what you follow "it depends" up with. What does it depend on? You have to quickly analyze the variables that can shine light on the problem. What are the factors that make it a complex problem?

In this case, the variables seem to be, what do the users prefer doing? Some prefer the enter whom they are sending the message to first (me), but others want to type the message first (my colleague). So an interface that allows the users to do both easily is the solution.

Market research seems to suggest that users will get used to whatever the telco provides them with: SKT (#1 in Korea) has the message text first, LGTelecom (#3 in Korea) you enter who you are sending it to first. No help there.

The usage scenario this problem arises in is when the users is writing a new message. In most cases I assume that users are replying to messages that they have received, so making it easy to reply to a message is also key (in this case the user only needs to type the message). Clearly defined multiple paths are important here, and answering the question with an A or B answer seems to defeat this fact and reduces the restricts the experience that the users expect.

Now back to the bigger problem: I just need to find the Korean phrase for "it depends" before I face a real client.

UPDATE (2007-10-19): After asking an old friend who has been a consultant in Korea for the past 9 years, he told me that there is no really good way to say "It depends" in Korean. In Korean this may actually sound arrogant and offputting. He says the best way to assert yourself is by saying, "In my opinion, it depends on these factors…"