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A Road Warrior Dilemma: Using Metaphors in Different Regions

by Andrea Di Maio  |  June 11, 2010  |  6 Comments

Over the last two or three years I have discovered to be one of the top travelers in Gartner, spending in excess of 100 working days a year (plus travel days and a fair amount of week ends) in different countries where I meet clients in different situations: large conferences, local briefings, small workshops, round tables, one-on-one or one-to-few meetings.

In many cases I happen to use one or two slides, if not an entire presentation, to explain a concept, make a point or elaborate on a client specific issue.

When I was in India this week I noticed that one slide that I could have used to discuss what it takes to implement effective centralization of government IT services depicted Moses with his ten commandments. This was to exemplify the need for top-down commitment to implement centralization. Great metaphor for a Western audience, but I thought that it may not go so well in India, where very few people are Christian and the top religions are either polytheistic or refer to different commandments.

I usually try to be sensitive to local culture and habits, but on hindsight I had already made a mistake when visiting countries in the Gulf region and used the term “crucified” as a metaphor for “heavily criticized”. Once more, quite a common term for somebody with my background, but alien and potentially not respectful for somebody whose history includes wars fought against that very symbol (Crusades are indeed a very controversial part of Western history).

I posted on Facebook  my doubts about whether using the Moses metaphor was appropriate, and this sparkled a very interesting conversation between two of my friends.

I quote below part of the dialogue:

Frank. Do it I would say. If people are offended, it is their problem. The most valuable thing you have to offer is sharing your cultural elements. And if others share theirs, it is equally valuable. So don’t wish people “Happy Holidays” (as the American PC police wants you to), but wish them the best you have: “Merry Christmas”

Andy. “Where I come from” it’s the speaker that has to adapt to the audience and if they do not understand it’s his problem, not theirs. The PC side is just one (not a minor one, since once people – one way or another – get annoyed they hear but they do not listen to the message anymore. The important side is that some metaphors just might not apply. You could use Zeus instead of Moses, still probably something that is easily recognized by a western audience means nothing to people from a different background. If a Chinese speaker would come up with very nice metaphors based on their history and philosophy we would not understand (just as much as you don’t understand insiders’ jokes if you are not in the circle). So I would not do if the goal is to help communicating something. Otherwise, if the goal is to show off our “culture” go ahead and, by the way, in the coffee break you could offer bacon burgers, so that you equally offend Indus, Muslims and the occasional Jewish-Indian participant

Frank. Excellent discussion! The problem with adapting to other cultures is that you always do it wrong, not getting the subtleties. So showing true respect to other people’s cultures, comes from sharing some of your own, and see if there are similarities. So either shy away completely from metaphor etc, and your story becomes bland, or trying to enrich both sides… Perhaps truth is in the middle? Test on a colleague if there is a comparison, and use both analogies?

I tend to agree more with Andy. As I am a guest on foreign soil and have the privilege of our busy clients’ attention, I feel I should be very sensitive to their culture and traditions. Unfortunately I am not always sufficiently prepared on those, or have little time to prepare. In some client situations I may have to pull out a slide that talks to a particular point and find out too late that it contains something that may sound ambiguous, not respectful or just meaningless to the client. On the other hand, the use of metaphors makes a presentation more lively and help getting a point across.

It would be ideal to be able to use metaphors that have the same meaning to all audiences and respect their feelings and traditions. On the other hand lots of metaphors have strong regional connotations.

How about using examples about marriage? Well, saying “Always do what your wife tells you” may not work in places where you are allowed to have more than one wife.

How about sport? Baseball analogies are a mystery to almost anybody outside the US.

How about politics? Can you use those juicy  stories about conflicts between different tiers of government in countries where there is only one, or stories about the dynamics between legislative, executive and judiciary powers in countries where they are the same?

When it comes to joking about tax compliance – something I do often since my country is one with record levels of tax evasion – one cannot really connect with audiences in countries where no taxes are levied.

So what I have found out is that the only topic that resonates with all audiences in any country is human greed. It does not matter where you live and what your beliefs are, when it comes to making more or spending less money, all the world is the same.

So sad, so true.

Category: e-government  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
19 years at Gartner
33 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies, open government, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio

Thoughts on A Road Warrior Dilemma: Using Metaphors in Different Regions

  1. Jack Santos says:

    Excellent post. Today’s Wall Street Journal (stateside) has a related article that you may be interested in on Dutch vs. Francophile sensitives in Belgium . I would suggest that a good measure of the quality of a guest speaker is understanding where he/she needs to be sensitive to their client, and where they can introduce foreign concepts and ideas — without that exchange the world would truly be a very sad place, and collaboration/progress would come to a stand still (not to mention cultural understanding). The world is much richer when that happens.

    As for your perception of “greed” being a common denominator, it is a fine line between humanity’s interest in self improvement/ambition and greed…I prefer to look at it as the former, rather than the latter.

  2. I have been living in Brussels for four years, so I am quite used to whether to use English instead than French in the capital’s surroundings, if you do no speak Flemish (don’t call it Dutch, they may feel offended, or the Dutch might).
    On self-improvement vs greed, indeed it is a fine line. Yesterday I had a conversation with a couple of Indian clients and they confirmed the same trends we see in the western world. As soon as you climb at a certain level of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it does become greed.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrea DiMaio, Ilias Kastritis. Ilias Kastritis said: A Road Warrior Dilemma: Using Metaphors in Different Regions: […]

  4. Nice post. I guess your audience is mostly educated people with reasonably good understanding of the Western culture. Of course, one should try to avoid evidently offensive and/or obscure (for the public) metaphors. Other that that, IMHO one should trust his/her audience. Too much of political correctness is as harmful as too much of anything else :)

  5. frank says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the frank guy 😉

  6. Tasi says:

    Anyone with any doubt about the best strategy, should go back and read “The Ugly American” (or check it out in WikiP). Our ethnocentricity makes us targets: the rest of the world may ‘like’ us because they want we have, but they don’t really *respect* us.
    Andrea, I am sure you have lots of friends. Put them to work researching different cultural takes or values related to the major concepts in your presentations. Clone your PowerPoint presentations times the number of cultures. Use the background themes in PowerPoint offers. Color-code the presentations by culture. Add in the cultural modifications. (Save an extra copy as templates for the future) and presto, chango, you can go native with the best of them. Yes…a lot of work upfront, but you’ll reap dividends in good will & most importantly, $.

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