Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What's Appropriate? Understanding Cultural Cues

It's amazing what people *think* is appropriate.

We all have our ideas about what is, and isn't appropriate, and they're usually based on context. When a guy would ask my then college-aged sister to dance, her response would be "that's not appropriate." That usually had them backing away, confused. Why is that not appropriate? (And how do you respond to that, anyway?) As it turns out, she just liked dancing by herself.

Knowing that our individual sense of what's appropriate, relevant--and that behavior or those words which send the same message we're intending to send--can vary within a culture, just imagine the mistakes that are made when working cross-culturally.

I'll never forget about a beautiful gift of flowers my Japanese friend received. Her all-American boyfriend surprised her with an impressive bouquet of fresh mums. She was less than pleased, and that was confusing to me because it was a lovely, considerate gesture. (If only all guys were so inclined, I thought!)

Turns out, chrysanthemums are funeral flowers in her native Japan--an important piece of knowledge for anyone courting someone from Japan, I'd say!

And speaking of Asian cultures, I just read a novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (a surprising view into the wartime treatment of Seattle's Japantown residents, a subject that just wasn't taught when I was a kid growing up here). Samantha, a Caucasian engaged to Marty, a Chinese American, is trying to win over his father. She goes to Uwajimaya to buy ingredients for traditional Chinese dishes like choy sum and black-bean crab, to which the father smiles approvingly. Then she announces the green tea ice cream she purchased for dessert. Pregnant pause.

Green tea ice cream is not Chinese, but Japanese, but based on her earlier victories the father tries to let it go.

If you are marketing to a specific group and truly understand what makes that demographic tick, you can capture their hearts--much like Samantha captured her future father-in-law's heart by preparing traditional Chinese dishes that he remembers growing up with. Then, even if there's a slip, consumers may maintain loyalty based on your history of "victories."

Of course the contrary is true as well: Companies can easily push away their consumers by not doing their homework and learning about what truly captures the hearts and minds of their target demographic.