Culture, Language and the Online World

by on December 30, 2009 at 2:02 am

tg-icon-74x74In my teens, on two different occasions, I spent a few months living in each of two countries (outside my native US), learning the predominant language and picking up the culture. Every once in a while it smacks me in the face that this makes me significantly different from many people in the US.[1] And it often affects how I react in both business and personal situations.

In northern Mexico, as a teen, I learned first hand how teenage boys functioned in a society that was moving from poverty and religious conservatism to modern urban life. In Québec City (Canada) I studied at the largest French-speaking university outside of France, and learned the pride a community takes in its native language and culture.[2] And I became aware of some of the movements working to preserve the language.[3]

franceSo when one of the Traveling Geeks became somewhat stuck to the tar baby of how the French are going about world brand-building all wrong[4], I um kinda felt it in my gut more from the point of view of the French than the American. Robert might be right about what has to be done to build a world-wide brand, but maybe these companies weren’t about building world-brands, at least at this moment. 

English was the language of the conference (LeWeb) we attended, but our French blogger friends customarily blog in French, not English. For a French-speaking community. The language of the country is French. The culture is French. We’re in Paris. The language of much of north Africa is French, and French is an official language in Canada and the predominant language in the province of Québec. We’re not talking about just a tiny part of the world. The French-speaking are technologically advanced and the net is no stranger to them. The majority of web sites around the world may be available in English, but that doesn’t mean the majority of the world does things (or should do things) the way the Americans and the rest of the British colonials do.

So the controversy caused me to step back and think about basic orientation. I think the Twitter issue (namely that all French companies who want to build a brand need to be on Twitter) is the core issue, and that’s the one that set off the debate in the first place. Other issues were piled on top as it went along. But it’s an indicator of the underlying cultural and linguistic factors (and drift).

photos by
Renee Blodgett

Let’s start by examining the assumption that French entrepreneurs want to make it world-wide. Well, they’re starting from a different base than Americans or Brits would. Sure, they’d love to be rich and successful, but the investment climate in France  focuses more on 1) investment in French entrepreneurs and not cross-cultural or cross-border entrepreneurs; and 2) much of the world (not just France) has a cautious and failure-averse approach to entrepreneuring. I am by no means bashing the French here—I just think this is a natural culture-driven approach that allows preservation of French language and culture while succeeding in a broader online world. The driven-to-succeed behavior that we see from so many US entrepreneurs is tempered, in France, by a desire to work from French culture rather than submerging it in a mishmoshed English-language environment. And to me this feels more relaxed and natural…and suited to the French.

Certainly people want to use their own language, rather than switch to English in the course of a single generation. Why should acceptance of English language and culture be required in order to succeed online?

Telling the French entrepreneurs they need to be on Twitter (and I know they will be on Twitter soon anyway), is OK because they do need to be there, but the French-speaking community — their initial customer base — just isn’t on Twitter yet. Well, of course there should be a vibrant French-tweeting community, shouldn’t there? The French used text-messaging long before Americans did, and where’s our recognition of that? Give ’em credit — if text messaging had died for lack of use, there would be no Twitter at all! Without the French and other Europeans there might be no texting! And we learned in our interactions at Orange’s research facility in Paris that the French are coming up the ladder of Twitter and beginning to use it. So don’t take them to task for not using something that isn’t core to their linguistic online community. You can’t blame companies for not using a tool that doesn’t reach their clients.

Some of the other Traveling Geeks had things to say about the culture, investment and entrepreneuring:

The bottom line is that I suggest that we all need to be aware that the online world is a confluence of many, many factors. It opens us to other cultures, and we have to remain aware there are numerous and somewhat compartmentalized areas (and linguistic cantons) all over the place. And we have to respect that choice.

[1] Local practice in the US would be to say “Americans,” but technically everyone from Canada to the southern tip of Chile is an American. In Mexico I became acutely aware of this, and sensitive to the broader use of the word “American.”

[2] I am reminded occasionally, when I’m in France, that the Québecois are more “purist” about the French language than even the Parisians — particularly when I say something that the Parisians react to by noting “that reminds me of how my grandmother spoke.”

[3] One current such being Organisation Internationale de la francophonie. On their web site they have a really nice map that shows the extent to which French is spoken (or at least is an official language) in countries around the world. That big orange Canada up there probably overstates its importance, but it is certainly an important part of the francophone world.

[4] I was going to say “doing social media wrong” or “doing marketing wrong” or any of several other expressions, but the criticism was pretty much that they were doing it all wrong. Look, when Scoble explains why he came down on the French entrepreneurs so hard I understand and follow some of the logic of his explanation, but I couldn’t agree that there was anything necessarily wrong with what the local entrepreneurs were doing. The French have made different assumptions than others might have — and honestly I do kind of like some of their assumptions.

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