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Avoiding cross-cultural gotchas


Continuing the discussion from Pricing and multiple currencies… I was remembering some things that only occurred to me when moving to South Africa.

When I first moved here I was still doing a job flying around Europe, the Middle-East and Africa for a US-headquartered software company. Being in product marketing we would plan campaigns and the US team were constantly pitching things like “The Summer Promotion”. Before I moved into the southern hemisphere I hadn’t even considered that it’s only summer for half of the world at any given time! I was able to push back on some of these campaigns and push for more locally-applicable deliverables.

The currency debate got me thinking again, what other things should be watched out for when selling to a global audience to ensure you minimise alienation, given the constraints of time when a few person bootstrapped company?


Don’t get me started on the “It’s summertime” promotion fiasco. Too late, you did.

I’m a member of Internations, which is supposed to be a forum and social meeting group for international people, and they are ALWAYS writing, “Summer is here and it is hot hot hot” or “Time to snuggle up somewhere warm for Halloween,” both of which are absurd for South Africans, Argentineans, Australians and New Zealanders who do everything upside down, and who (AFAIK) don’t know much about Halloween except that it features in American TV yearly. Then there is the 40% of human population who live in the tropics and who experience two seasons: “hot and dry” or “hot and wet”.

And people who expect me to care about this thing they called football here in Europe, but which I know of from childhood as a marginal sport called soccer. It’s either cricket, rugby, or sailing for us. Half the world’s population live in countries where “football”/soccer is a marginal sport.

Two things I can advise:

  • avoid trying to be topical with marketing by using something that is in the news/advertisting/cultural season of your local environment.
  • ask ex-pat friends to sit in front of computer while you are watching, and ask them to speak aloud while they go through your web workflow. Listen as they say things like, “why does it say it is summertime? there is snow outside.” and “I get frustrated when the price is shown in USD…what’s that in Ugandan schillings?”

PS: In America? The rest of us are slightly puzzled by Thanksgiving, Halloween, American elections cycles and circuses (actually completely puzzled by that one), maybe Valentine’s Day, baseball, your version of football, and the Kardashians.

Edit: I just got a “30% discount for Halloween” offer via e-mail…sigh.


Cross-cultural issues are a fascinating minefield. A few random ones I remember:

Mailboxes vary across the world, so it’s better to show an image of a letter than an image of a mailbox.

If your app can work in multiple languages, provide a way to manually set the language. Some companies may be in country X but use language Y.

In the pre-SaaS world, a product launched as version 1.1 because it was felt European companies would not buy version 1.0 of a product. Don’t blame the messenger; just passing on what I was told.


I just got a Halloween promotion from Aweber, irrelevant to where I live. Being an email marketing firm, I suspect Aweber has the smarts to be able to offer a particular promotion to people based on geographical location…



If you collect people names and/or use them in some form, please know that not everyone has Firstname Middlename Lastname pattern. Here in Indonesia it’s not uncommon for someone to only have one word name. Also not uncommon for someone to have an aposthrope (’) in their name.


@patio11 wrote a good one about names:


I generally just have one text field for names and leave it at that.

Another small gotcha you see here and there is “flags for languages”. The problem is that the language-country mapping is not one-to-one. There are bits of Italy, for instance, where French and German are accepted, official languages. Using a US or UK flag - or even both - for English leaves out large swathes of the English speaking world. Spanish is in a similar situation, and so on.


I will mention that Ireland does celebrate Halloween and has done for years.

No end of Irish people named O’Whatever would agree.

Another one: Not all countries have a postcode/zip code. Ireland doesn’t. Many developing world countries don’t. Don’t make “postcode/zip code” a required field.


100% right, sometimes I think that the only reasonable way to ask for an address is a simple text area


Not making certain fields required is easier said than done when integrating with other systems that are less enlightened.

For example a lot of traditional payment providers have really strict rules around formatting address data sent to them. There is probably a nice article to write about coding around that stuff to try and preserve user experience while not getting tripped up at the PSP end.

I’m hoping that companies like Stripe entering the market will shake up some of the other providers in terms of their UX!