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The a11y Monthly: Language and cultural background in an inclusive international community

The a11y Monthly: Language and cultural background in an inclusive international community

Last update: 29 June, 2018

Two weeks ago, I’ve attended WordCamp Europe in Belgrade, together with many colleagues from the Yoast team. As usual, it’s been a great event and also an excellent opportunity to think about what an inclusive event is. In this post, I’d not like to talk technical accessibility, but share some personal thoughts about what I think is a possible path to improve inclusiveness in a global community.

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The language of the WordPress community

The WordPress community does a lot to be as inclusive and accessible (in a broader sense) as possible to everyone. Sometimes, different languages and different cultural backgrounds are a barrier though.

English is the international language. In the tech industry, everything is in English. I guess we all do our best to communicate in decent English. Programming languages, specifications, documentation; everything is written in English. That’s perfectly fine and I’m OK with that. I read a lot of English and I try to write in decent English, but I have few opportunities to actually speak and practice English.

As a non-native English speaker, that’s a barrier for me, especially during live events. For example, I can’t fully show my personality when I speak English. My skills are limited, so I have to simplify my communication, and sometimes that’s frustrating. All the richness of meaning, nuances, and elegance I can express in my native language are lost. I’m not able to fully express myself in English. I guess I’m not alone and this is something many of my European and rest-of-the-world friends have experienced too.

But that’s fine, I enjoy trying to improve my English skills to improve myself. In the WordPress community, I’ve always met native English speakers who perfectly understand I struggle with my language troubles and a lot of people are happy to ignore my broken English. I’ve always felt at home, and I have to thank all these people for being the way they are.

At WordCamp Europe in Vienna, in 2016, Siobhan McKeown gave an excellent talk about language and communication. The talk mainly focused on online communication but it was inspirational to me, and led me to think about what participating in a global community means.

Some years ago, the WordPress community was mainly based in North America. Since then, many things have changed. In 2014, the non-English WordPress downloads surpassed the English downloads, and this number has very likely increased in the following years. WordPress is now a global community, with lots of contributors and active community members from non-English countries.

Language and cultural background

While speaking English in a global community is perfectly fine, I’m not sure this automatically implies the community should adapt to a predominant English cultural background. If we want to embrace diversity and be an inclusive, accessible, community, then I tend to think there shouldn’t be a predominant cultural model.

So what cultural values should a global community refer to? What can we do to improve? Well, those are good questions and I’m not sure I have the answers. The WordPress community has already established solid, shared values we all love and embrace. Inclusiveness is one of them. Respect and care between the community members another one of those values, as well as embracing diversity. Probably, there’s no need to change anything in the values the WordPress community embraces.

However, as a European and as a person whose cultural background is not English-centric, there are situations where I feel the community could improve. Let me make a few simple examples.

Idioms, local sayings, jokes, and puns

I like informal communication and irony. I’m usually ironic in my own language and I’d also like to understand irony in other languages. However, sometimes I got to be in a situation where I totally could not understand jokes or puns in English. Idioms, local sayings, or irony based on some local tv show or local politics that are specific to a US or UK culture are extraneous to me simply because I belong to a different cultural background. I can’t understand irony if people refer to their own local culture. That excludes me from the conversation. And as I said, I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of people from non-English cultures in this community.

Sometimes I can value humor in some GitHub comments. That’s lovely and I love funny people but if you do that, please spend thirty seconds of your time to explain the irony to people from a different culture. Otherwise, you’re excluding them and that’s not the best way to be part of a community that aims to be inclusive.

What is polite and what not

Politeness varies depending on local cultures. While mutual respect and good manners are, hopefully, a universal and shared value, the formal ways politeness is expressed may vary across different cultures.

I have been contributing to the development of WordPress for over four years now and sometimes I’ve faced some misunderstandings (sometimes big ones) not so much because of the different language but because of the different cultural background.

An example

I’d like to try to clarify with an example: in my own culture, if I say something like “Dear X, that’s a bad idea because {argument one here}, {argument two here}, blah blah…” that’s not considered impolite. Most of the time, no one gets offended or shocked. I’ve implied that it’s my personal opinion. It’s a direct way of communicating but I’m also explaining why I think it’s a bad idea. Without any argumentation, that would be considered impolite and unacceptable in my country too. I’d admit, as Italians, we tend to like long debates and passionate discussions just for the sake of making intellectual entertainment and exercise. We like confrontation. But that’s another story.

Instead, other cultures avoid any type of confrontation at all costs. Especially in the US and UK culture (Australian too?), a direct communication like the one above is often considered impolite. That’s fine, it’s not my intent to blame one culture or the other. I like to invite everyone to consider that, in a global community, we should accept different cultural backgrounds and not pretend everyone adapts to one specific culture.

Of course, if I lived in a foreign country, I’d feel the ethical need to adapt to the local culture as a matter of respect for the country that hosts me. But, during international events like a WordCamp or when taking part in a global community like the WordPress one, I honestly think no one should feel obliged to adapt and everyone should be free to express his or her own personality bringing in their own culture. Of course, embracing the general principles the community shares is paramount.

Dutch directness

You may have noticed I work for a Dutch company :) If you google for Dutch directness you will find a lot of posts of people telling their stories and how much they were shocked by such directness. They often perceived that as “rude”. Sometimes I find those stories very funny, but they’re a very good example of how different cultural backgrounds can have an impact on communication between humans, even in Europe where we live all together, a few kilometers away, and we have a shared history since forever.

As an Italian, I must say I’ve never felt offended or shocked. To be honest, I haven’t payed so much attention to this dreaded “Dutch directness”, maybe because it’s just normal to me. Of course, even in my country there are people who might feel embarrassed from very direct communication. The perception of communication can differ even within the boundaries of the same country, where local cultures can differ a lot.

I guess that’s exactly the point. We live in a diverse world. Diversity is richness. Are we ready to set apart the idea of a predominant cultural model in our community? Are we ready to improve inclusiveness and make our beloved WordPress community accessible to everyone? I’m ready. What about you?

Read more: The a11y Monthly: Contributing to WordPress to spread accessibility culture »



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