While the behavior of connecting is nothing new, doing it in a virtual environment gives rise to new and sophisticated challenges — especially when you’re connecting across cultures. Knowing how to navigate these challenges is essential to community management.
When I first discovered the Internet in 1996, I instantly fell in love. I was a bicultural, New York native who was pursuing a degree in international relations and was mesmerized by the various doors it provided to the international community. Phone communication to other countries was expensive, and letters took forever to arrive. The Internet was not only cheap and instant, but it was an organic gathering place for other open-minded, multicultural individuals.
Despite society’s growing attraction to the web, I was mocked by friends and family for my online behavior. Spending countless hours at the university computer lab dungeon talking to random strangers from across the globe was devious behavior for a young girl. While I felt privileged to be able to flex my cross-cultural communication skills, my “real life” community seemed scared for me. In their eyes, most people online were fake, dangerous losers who lived in their mom’s basement.
Nothing in my various online interactions ever proved that stereotype to be true. In fact, my online community seemed to share more similarities and interests with me than my “real life” one. However, thanks to my youthful fear of being judged, I quickly began to keep these two worlds separate, and shared less and less of my online adventures with the “real” world.
The Internationalization of Communities
Fast-forward 15 years later, when virtual diversity is the norm and meeting “real” friends online first has become commonplace. Whether you’re based in Dayton, Ohio, or Berlin, Germany, chances are you interact with numerous people across the globe on a daily basis, and you’re seen as normal for doing so.
Additionally, while so-called filter bubbles threaten to kill the diversity that made the Internet so great, most people, regardless of age, routinely meet up with individuals they met online, who may differ in age, religion, lifestyle or personal philosophy. In many ways, technology is allowing us to apply the village etiquette of our ancestors to the global, modern world, and in the process helping us discover paths and people we would have never discovered otherwise.
The best part in this scenario is that younger generations are growing up with a much more trusting view of the world, in which relationships are initially created based on interests and passions rather than characteristics such as nationality.
Community Management & Diversity
As society further embraces the Internet, the role of the online facilitator, or “community manager” has become mainstream. Community managers are bridges between the human and non-human, and the online and offline. Through various tools, they create an ambiance or environment for their particular community. However, because this type of job is relatively new for many organizations, some community managers don’t have the cross-cultural communication tools needed to be successful. The following are a few guidelines to keep in mind.
1. Watch Your Language
Language is understood in conjunction with context and body language — two things that are hard to infer online. This is also complicated by cultural norms and word differences. What is considered acceptable self-expression or appropriate words differs from region to region. Additionally, the fluency in the particular language of choice may differ from individual to individual. As a result, the best community managers keep their language simple, stripping it of any colloquialisms that are not specific to the community they are representing, or which are not fully explained. This pertains not only to specific cultures but any demographic. For example, for months one of my older clients thought I was a bit odd because I continually inserted what she thought was “love you lots,” or LOL, in my communications to her. What I really meant was “laughing out loud.”
2. The Golden Rule: Tolerance
Any successful diverse community usually ensures that all members feel comfortable to be themselves. This does not mean “exclusion” of topics but rather a focus on tolerance and civility. Not reprimanding instances of intolerance can quickly destroy any community, or transform it to a group of trolls and bullies. Keep in mind that even intolerant people want to be accepted.
3. Be a Good Mediator
Your community looks to community managers for cues on how to behave. In many ways, community managers are real-time concrete examples of the rules and cultural characteristics of a specific community. For this reason, the worst thing community managers can do is choose sides in a fight, unless the safety of the community is at risk. Instead, they should focus on honing their mediation and diplomacy skills. Not only will this increase the community manager’s respectability in the community, but it will also ensure that all members feel comfortable enough to approach the community manager for guidance or grievances.
4. Educate Yourself on Different Views
As someone who is native in two languages, I sometimes have what I call “spanlexia” moments. I’ll say something in English that is grammatically correct, but only makes sense in Spanish. Usually, only a close friend, a Spanish speaker, or a “diversity sensitive” person understands what occurred. Educating yourself on other cultures or tribes, ranging from punk rock to Japanese, will greatly enhance your communications skills.
5. Admit Weakness
If you recognize that you have to overcome certain obstacles as a community manager that pertain to cross-cultural communications, the best thing you can do is admit weakness. You will find that individuals from your own community will come forth to not only help train you on cross-cultural communications, but to educate you on their particular tribe. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Honesty and respect are really the only two cornerstones that 99 percent of all communities demand.
Sandra Ordonez is a web astronaut who provides diverse clients with digital strategy and website design. Her website, Collaborative Nation, focuses on web culture, community management, and collaboration. Currently, Sandra serves as Community Outreach and Technology Manager for Truthout.org and as External Communications lead for Joomla. She also is the founder of Bicultural and Multicultural People Rule and Virgins of NY. Previously, she was the Communications Manager for Wikipedia. She graduated from American University with a double degree in International Relations and Public Relations.