Cultural sensitivity: a key success factor on Twitter

May 27, 2016


By Katharina Balkmann

How can I communicate effectively when my target groups come from a variety of cultures? For communications professionals, globalization is increasingly posing this challenge – especially when it comes to online communication channels such as Twitter.

The globalization of the world economy is primarily being driven by the Internet, which allows communications beyond the limits of space or time. International companies are tasked with establishing a consistent global image and strengthening their relationships with stakeholders in all their key target markets. Yet the demographics have changed: Whereas the communications arena was once filled with homogenous, national groups, in the digital age companies face a heterogeneous and diverse global population. Not only in terms of nationality, but also in terms of cultural imprint, which is of particular importance in communications.

It seems reasonable to assume that this is because communication is bound by culture. We all know of examples where gestures and words are interpreted differently in different cultures. While in Germany it would be unpleasant, yet acceptable, for a superior to reprimand an employee in front of their coworkers, in China this would be a huge affront and the ultimate humiliation. But where did this different interpretation come from? It originates from the values embedded in all individuals of a specific culture. They shape our thoughts, perceptions, and, ultimately, our actions. So it is only natural that our cultural imprint also has a significant impact on how we communicate.

What applies to cross-cultural communications between individuals may also be true of international corporate communications: Since people with a specific cultural imprint are responsible for the communications of international companies, we can assume that cultural idiosyncrasies also influence their work and communications activities. To explore this more closely, 7,506 tweets from 28 companies in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Germany, England, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, and USA) were examined as part of a pilot study. The study took Geert Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions as its basis.

Geert Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions

  • Power distance index describes the unequal distribution of power and the extent to which less powerful members of society accept this.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism defines the underlying relationship between individuals and groups in societies.
  • Uncertainty avoidance index describes how a society deals with ambiguous or uncertain (future) situations.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity is the degree to which certain gender-specific values prevail in a society.
  • Long-term orientation is the extent to which traits such as persistence and perseverance are key features of a society’s people.

The results: In four of the five cultural dimensions, the tweets indicated the cultural imprint of the communicator’s native country. No evidence could be found for the power distance index dimension. For the dimensions individualism vs. collectivism and uncertainty avoidance index, the following tweets showed differences in form and content.

Individualism vs. collectivism

In tweets from individualistic cultures such as the US and Australia, it is clear that a person’s self-image is defined by their own sense of identity and not by external factors. Individuals are the clear focus.

  • Your #Walmart is a remarkable company, and it’s because of every one of you. – Holley#WMTshares
    (Walmart Stores)
  • Noble Laureate Dr. Heinrich Rohrer, IBM Fellow who opened the door to nanotechnology, dies at 79.
  • Spark and ambition helped Wattrix Electrical founder, Adam Farrugia, wire his #business for success.
    (Commonwealth Bank)
  • Multiple job vacancies for talented individuals across Westpac in the ACT.
    (Westpac Banking)
  • From Navy pilot to GE financial analyst, watch the inspiring story of Melissa Fay […]
    (General Electric)
  • Passion inspires a Sydney-based cookie lover to become an #entrepreneur […]
    (Commonwealth Bank) 

By comparison, social groups seem to be at the heart of tweets from collectivistic cultures such as Singapore or Brazil with the focus on aspects such as family, neighbors, or other interpersonal relationships. And that’s not only at a personal level; in business too, success should be based on alliances and partnerships rather than going it alone.

  • TGIF all! Today is “Eat With Your Family Day”. Enjoy your time with your family!
    (Singapore communications)
  • Nominations for this year’s Good Neighbour Award are now open! Win up to $500 in vouchers and a trophy.
    (Singapore Press)
  • Vale invests in the sharing of knowledge through activities such as its Exchange Program with Mitusi.

Uncertainty avoidance index (UAI)

Tweets from countries with a strong UAI, such as France or Brazil, allow conclusions to be drawn about the perceived uncertainties of life. Established structures are intended to meet the demand for clarity and the deployment of automated technological solutions, and ensure that everything goes according to plan.

  • We’ve installed 400 sensors at various points throughout Porto de Tubarão to follow our operations even more closely!
  •  Are you safe from the many things that could go wrong when designing and #manufacturing a product?
    (Schneider Electric)

In contrast, tweets from the USA and England – cultures with a weak UAI – show hardly a trace of uncertainty or fear. Innovations are welcome and there is huge demand for solutions which aim to revolutionize the world.

  • The only thing separating you from #science should be a pair of protective goggles.
    (General Electric)
  • From science fiction to science fact, the #driverless #car has come a long way.
    (General Electric)
  • Highlights of IBM’s ~67,000 patents over last 2 decades [infographic]
  • Could future medicines be based on electrical impulses? We think so, and we`re going to find out how #bioelectronics
  • Finding the unexpected: how research into cardiovascular disease uncovered a genetic switch in a rare cancer.

The results of this pilot study are undoubtedly a snapshot. With the development of technologies such as the Internet enabling truly global corporate communications, it is astonishing that there are (still) such enormous cultural differences in the tweets of international companies.

 International corporate communications revisited

Although the audience for international corporate communications is more heterogeneous than ever before, international firms have not yet fully adapted to these changes. Tweets, which reach a global audience via corporate Twitter channels, still reflect the cultural imprints of the senders – and in the long term, this could cause acceptance issues with different cultures.

To optimize their Twitter communications, international companies have a number of options:

  • Invest in country-specific Twitter channels. This allows cultural imprints to be retained, without causing problems for target groups in other countries.
  • A global corporate Twitter channel is a must, and the secret to its success lies in tweet composition.
  • Within the communications departments of international firms, a certain sensitivity is required to ensure that tweets work on a cultural level as well as a contextual one.
  • Cultural aspects should be considered early on when planning a Twitter presence, so that the entire spectrum of cultural differences can be addressed.

For all these reasons, our recommendation would be a combination of local and global channels: country-specific Twitter accounts support more culture-specific communications, while a global account covers broader topics and serves diverse cultures. In doing so, cultural sensitivity can become a success factor on Twitter.

(In a cross-cultural study, Katharina Balkmann (Junior Consultant at JP|KOM) and Prof. Dr. Christoph Moss (Professor for Journalism and Media Management at BiTS Iserlohn) examined 7,506 tweets by 28 international companies, looking at the cultural imprint of the countries they are from. The study was featured in “Handbuch Sprache in der Wirtschaft” (De Gruyter publishers) in 2015).

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