Cultural Sensitivity in Ecommerce: Beyond the Language Barrier

Oct 7, 2023



In an era where digital commerce breaks geographical barriers, understanding and embracing cultural diversity becomes paramount. While language is undeniably an essential facet of this understanding, cultural sensitivity in ecommerce transcends linguistic accuracy, especially if you aim to appeal to an international customer base. Although striving for neutrality in your content and marketing is admirable, it’s easier said than done. What will engage and convert in Europe may cause a negative reaction in the Middle East or Asia – and vice versa. That’s why it’s crucial to adapt a sensitive stance. A deeply respectful and empathetic outlook on cultural sensitivity will help your brand resonate with customers all over the world.

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines cultural sensitivity as “awareness and appreciation of the values, norms, and beliefs characteristic of a cultural, ethnic, racial, or other group that is not one’s own, accompanied by a willingness to adapt one’s behavior accordingly.” So, eCommerce seller, a huge part of expanding globally is the willingness to adapt your product listing to the different cultural, ethnic, or racial values, norms, and beliefs of your target audiences across the globe.

Let’s take a magnifying glass to the often overlooked aspects of cultural symbols, colors, practices, and taboos that profoundly impact purchase decisions.

The Crux of Cultural Sensitivity in Ecommerce

To appreciate the depth of cultural sensitivity, imagine ecommerce as a global party where every guest speaks a different language and follows distinct customs. To be the perfect host, you’d not only have to speak multiple languages but also be well-versed with each guest’s traditions. Similarly, a successful ecommerce platform needs to cater to the linguistic needs while being attuned to cultural nuances.

When customers feel that a brand respects their cultural norms, it fosters trust. This trust is the cornerstone of consumer loyalty, which, in turn, fuels conversions and brand reputation in the digital marketplace.

Put it this way – your product listing is where the party is at. Let’s curate your party carefully so everyone has a good time.

Navigating the Minefield of Cultural Taboos

Imagery & Symbols:

In the vast tapestry of global cultures, symbols that are revered in one might mean something totally different in another:

  • The lotus flower in Buddhism and Hinduism symbolizes purity, enlightenment, and rebirth. In Ancient Egypt, the lotus was recognized as a symbol of rebirth and the sun, because it closes at night and opens again in the morning.
  • Probably thanks to Christian influences, the rabbit is associated with Easter, and symbolizes rebirth and resurrection. In some Native American tribes though, rabbits are often trickster figures. In Chinese culture, the rabbit is one of the signs of the zodiac, and is associated with gentleness and luck.
  • In Egypt, the Eye of Horus/Wadjet represented protection, royal power, and good health. You might see the eye in home decor or jewelry to ward off evil. In the West, though, similar eye symbols – with a triangle, though that veers away from the exact Eye of Horus – is a symbol of the illuminati or overarching surveillance, and other conspiracy theories.
  • In the West, the owl is considered a symbol of wisdom and knowledge – probably thanks to Greek mythology, and the bird’s association with the Greek Goddess Athena. In some Native American cultures, the owl can be seen as a symbol of death or an omen of something bad to come.
  • In Western cultures, the skull often means something negative: mortality, danger, even piracy! But in Mexico, the “calavera” or sugar skull is a beautiful part of Dia de los Muertos, and is used as a form of tribute to those that have passed away.

Hand Gestures:

  • Thumbs Up: In many Western cultures, like the United States and the UK, this gesture means “good job” or “okay.” However, in parts of the Middle East, West Africa, and South America, it can be seen as an offensive gesture similar to giving someone the middle finger.
  • V-Sign (Peace or Victory Sign): With the back of the hand facing outward, this gesture means “peace” in the U.S. and “victory” in the UK. However, with the back of the hand facing the person you’re gesturing to (especially in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand), it can be an insult similar to giving the middle finger.
  • OK Sign (Circle formed by thumb and forefinger): In the United States, this means “okay” or “all is well.” However, in countries like Brazil, Germany, and Russia, it’s an offensive gesture. Additionally, in Turkey and Greece, it’s a gesture that implies someone is a homosexual, which can be used derogatorily.
  • Hand Chop: Moving the hand horizontally forward, palm down, like you’re chopping the air can mean “stop” or “enough” in many cultures. However, in China, it’s a friendly gesture meaning “thank you.” Conversely, in some African countries, it can be deemed rude.
  • Finger Snap: Snapping one’s fingers to call attention or hurry someone up is considered rude in many cultures. However, in parts of West Africa, especially in countries like Nigeria, snapping fingers can be a dance move or even a way to call a waiter in a non-offensive manner.

Color Interpretations: A Palette of Meanings

Colors are powerful. They evoke emotions and hold symbolic meanings that can vary wildly across cultures.

  • White:
    • Western Cultures: Typically associated with purity, peace, and innocence. Used in weddings to signify purity and in funerals for peace and heaven.
    • East Asian Cultures (e.g., China, Korea): Traditionally a color of mourning and is associated with death. It’s common to wear white at funerals.
  • Red:
    • China: A symbol of good luck, happiness, and prosperity. Commonly used in festivals, weddings, and other celebrations.
    • Western Cultures: Often symbolizes love, passion, and sometimes danger.
    • South Africa: The color of mourning.
  • Black:
    • Western Cultures: Typically associated with mourning, death, and formality. It can also represent sophistication or elegance in fashion contexts.
    • Africa: In some cultures, black can be associated with maturity, masculinity, and wealth.
  • Green:
    • Western Cultures: Often symbolizes nature, growth, freshness, and sometimes envy.
    • Middle East: Represents Islam, strength, and fertility.
    • Western Superstitions: Considered unlucky in some contexts, such as the racing world where green cars are considered bad luck.
  • Blue:
    • Western Cultures: Calm, trust, loyalty. It’s also the color often associated with baby boys.
    • Middle East: Symbolizes protection and is believed to ward off the evil eye.
    • Ukraine: Represents national pride due to its presence in the country’s flag. However, in colloquial language, “feeling blue” often denotes sadness in many Western cultures.
  • Yellow:
    • Western Cultures: Represents happiness, warmth, and sometimes caution (as in traffic signals).
    • Egypt: Color of mourning.
    • Russia: A colloquial expression denotes being “yellow” as a cowardly person.
    • China: Historically associated with royalty and power, as it was reserved for the Emperor.
  • Purple:
    • Western Cultures: Often associated with royalty, luxury, and sometimes mystery.
    • Brazil and Thailand: Purple is the color of mourning and grief.

Decoding Cultural Practices for Ecommerce Success

Some of these might come in handy when you’re traveling to different cultures – but we’ve decided to outline a few cultural differences here, because we firmly believe that context and nuance are a huge part in maintaining cultural sensitivity. What might seem totally innocuous to you in your culture, could actually be offensive to another! That’s why it’s a good idea to have your images localized as well to be sure you’re not employing photography or imagery that might inadvertently cause offense in another culture. (Check out our Ultimate Guide on Amazon Infographics to know a little more about localizing your images!)

  1. Tipping:
    • USA: It’s customary (and often expected) to tip service workers, especially in restaurants, bars, and taxis. Not leaving a tip can be considered very rude.
    • Japan and South Korea: Tipping can be seen as an insult, suggesting the worker doesn’t earn enough from their employer.
  2. Eating Customs:
    • Burping: In Bahrain and some parts of China, a belch after a meal can be seen as a sign of appreciation and satisfaction. In contrast, in Western cultures, it’s often considered rude.
    • Using Hands: In many countries, including India, Ethiopia, and parts of the Middle East, it’s customary to eat certain foods with one’s hands. In Western contexts, this might be seen as uncivilized or messy.
  3. Shoes Indoors:
    • Scandinavian countries, Japan, and Korea: It’s customary to remove shoes when entering someone’s home. Wearing shoes indoors can be seen as very disrespectful.
    • USA and much of Europe: While some households prefer shoes off, it’s not a strict cultural norm, and guests might not automatically remove their shoes.
  4. Personal Space & Physical Contact:
    • Mediterranean countries, parts of the Middle East, and Latin America: People might stand closer to each other during conversation and greet with kisses or hugs.
    • Northern Europe and East Asia: People often prefer more personal space, and too much physical contact (especially between non-relatives) might be seen as intrusive or inappropriate.
  5. Punctuality:
    • Germany and Japan: Punctuality is highly valued, and being late can be seen as very disrespectful.
    • Latin American and African cultures: Time might be seen more fluidly, and it may be more acceptable, socially, to arrive a bit late to casual social events.
  6. Eye Contact:
    • Western cultures: Making direct eye contact is often seen as a sign of trustworthiness and confidence.
    • Asian, African, and some Indigenous cultures: Avoiding eye contact, especially with elders or superiors, is a sign of respect. Direct eye contact can be seen as confrontational or rude.
  7. Gift Giving:
    • China: It’s customary for the recipient to refuse the gift once or twice before accepting it to show humility.
    • Western cultures: Refusing a gift might be seen as ungrateful or peculiar.

The Roadmap to Cultural Sensitivity in Ecommerce

So, it appears that there’s no one-size-fits-all format to your product listing that will augur cultural sensitivity across the board. Or, sometimes it might seem that you’ll convert and engage one culture, to the detriment and offense of another. As Aesop famously said, “If you try to please all, you please none.”

Nevertheless, expanding globally means adapting your content to achieve a certain level of cultural sensitivity in your target culture. That would mean localizing not just your language, but also the messages,  key takeaways, and content in your product listing.

Here’s a handy guide:

  1. Deep-dive Research: Begin with thorough market research. Understand the cultural norms, holidays, taboos, and preferences of your target audience. Due diligence is key – find out more about it here.
  2. Holistic Localization: This isn’t about mere translation. Content should resonate both linguistically and culturally. It’s about presenting products in a context that the target audience understands and appreciates.
  3. Iterative Testing: Use A/B testing on your ecommerce site to gauge what resonates. Cultural norms evolve, and it’s vital to stay updated.
  4. Cultural Consultants: Consider hiring experts, especially when exploring a new market. They can guide you through subtle nuances, ensuring you avoid potential pitfalls.
  5. Prioritize Feedback: Constructive criticism can be a goldmine. Encourage reviews and feedback to continuously refine your approach.

Here are more tips to smoothen your way to globalization:

Wrapping Up: The Larger Picture

Expanding an ecommerce business globally is more than just logistics and marketing; it’s about building relationships. To forge strong ties with a diverse customer base, brands must demonstrate respect and understanding of cultural values.

In the end, cultural sensitivity in ecommerce is like a dance. It’s about moving in tandem with the rhythm of diverse cultures, understanding their pace, and respecting their unique steps. With the right moves, ecommerce businesses can create a symphony of trust, loyalty, and profitability. And remember, in this dance, it’s not just about speaking the language; it’s about feeling the beat.

Curious about which market to expand to? YLT’s AMOR report can help!