Language, Empathy, and Multicultural Work.

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Language, Empathy, and Multicultural Work.

By: Malena Lorito
28/08/2023

In recent years, being multilingual, bilingual, polyglot, or simply understanding more than one language has become relatively normal, especially among professionals in certain fields. This trend is evident in the rise of musicians incorporating multiple languages into their songs, moving beyond just a word or two.

I'm not attempting a linguistic study or analysis of terms that exist in one language but not another. There are already books on that topic. (If you're interested in the Korean language, "Hwaiting" by Florencia Kaneshiro is a beautiful illustration). However, as a bilingual or polyglot individual, I often find myself struggling to find the right word to convey something. Naturally, for most of us, this challenge arises most frequently with English, even if it's not a language in which we have great proficiency because it's integrated into our daily lives. For the children of immigrants, it's even easier. But this often results in a blend of "broken English" or two languages spoken incompletely and mixed within the same sentence. In the end, nobody fully understands us. I'll use my own example because it's the most tangible for me: Spanish is spoken at home (with my family), English at work (I'm bilingual in English), and my husband speaks Japanese with his family. Consequently, our home echoes with all three languages daily (both my husband and I speak Spanish, English at work, and Japanese).

The pandemic, remote work, and the internet have made this the reality for many of us. We had no choice but to adapt, and what's the silver lining? There are many, particularly from the UX perspective.

Knowing other languages helps us understand other cultures. Yes, that's true, but it's more than that. How languages structure thought impacts how we perceive the world, and vice versa. Not all languages grammatically organize sentences in the same way. For instance, in Japanese, the verb comes at the end of the sentence. And it's needless to mention all the terms that sound "better" or describe something more accurately in one language than in another. When it's said that learning another language bridges distances, it's no exaggeration. "Mochi mochi" in Japanese means "to knead" or "to soften." It's used to describe what one does with pillows or cushions before lying down. The term comes from "mochi," a traditional Japanese sweet made by pounding boiled rice until it turns into a paste.

As UXers, our "responsibility" or our skill and pleasure stem from understanding others, empathizing, and "putting ourselves in their shoes." When I speak of this "responsibility," I also mean it as members of a team. Understanding the roles we play within a team and how to deliver well-thought-out and designed deliverables for whoever the recipient is, whether it's the CEO, a fellow UX designer, marketing, or a client. Each one of them expects something different from us and operates with a different language. Similar to how different user typologies have their own mental models that we must research, understand, and replicate to ensure the usability of our product.

Becoming a UXer is no walk in the park, and it's true that there's no linear path. It's not easy to become a proficient professional in any field. People often ask me about the best method. Have you taken a course? Countless courses? Studied under mentors, team leaders, and colleagues from whom you've learned a ton? The longer routes are often the most efficient. Or rather, all complementary paths help us arrive at our desired destination. Want to work on empathy towards others? An "indirect" path, as there's no university degree in empathy, apart from trying to practice it in your daily life, is to study another (or other, if you're privileged) languages. This approach doesn't just bring you closer to potential users. Let's face it, most of us design products that extend beyond the borders of a single language; they transcend geographic and cultural boundaries. Moreover, understanding other languages helps you comprehend your clients and their needs, those famous pain points you're designing solutions for. It doesn't matter if you're involved in UX writing or not. Obviously, it's incredibly valuable if you are, but it's also essential for adapting to work with teams and clients with different backgrounds, even if you never attend meetings with them or have to speak to them. It aids in the development of empathy and questions any potential preconceptions or unconscious mental models we might have due to our own upbringing and environment.

One of the main issues that arise in the work environment is communication problems between development and design teams. Well, the same applies. You don't need to learn an entire language to communicate; you need to understand enough to communicate effectively. I wouldn't recommend someone who isn't interested in learning to program to study any programming language. However, learning enough to understand how they're structured, how content is organized, and how problems are solved is sufficient for effective communication. Any programming language is essentially like any other language: a structure of thought and organization; a logic.

In many job interviews, I've been asked why I took the product manager or growth courses or if I want to change fields. Not at all, I want to be flexible in how I approach and collaborate with other work teams. Depending on the project, it could be with the marketing department, the development team, or... who knows what's next. My role is to be empathetic; my role is teamwork. To be empathetic and work as a team, I need to understand what others need from me and how to interact with them. We want to be functional members of the teams we join.

So, if I'm a designer... What cultural differences should we consider when designing for Asian countries? For starters, every country is a unique world with its own culture; it's hard to generalize. But language is key, as is the mode of writing. The writing and reading style in countries like Japan go from top to bottom and from right to left. While Western writing and reading styles have gained significant traction lately, tradition remains. Moreover, Japan specifically has three different writing methods that often combine in the same sentence. This creates a visual difference that might be challenging for us, but for those accustomed to it, it aids in reading and comprehending the text. Words are not separated by spaces, so a straightforward way to distinguish between them is through writing style. Kanji is used for more "Japanese" terms, featuring their writing in Kanji characters. Hiragana is used for words without Kanji characters, like articles and prepositions, while Katakana is used for foreign words or adaptations of foreign words into Japanese. This visual hierarchy inevitably emerges.

Additionally, the cultural development of design took a different path in Asian countries compared to the West. Notions of "beauty" differ. For those specifically interested in this aspect, Tanizaki's book "In Praise of Shadows" is a must-read. The way "empty spaces" and "fullness" are perceived and appreciated differs. Japan developed a graphic design style early on: ukiyo-e, with defined outlines and colors that tend to be flatter, which wasn't the norm in the West at the time.

And if that's not enough, the development of graphic and advertising pieces in the early days, heavily influenced by culture, diverged significantly from the West. What might seem visually overwhelming to us might not be the same in the East. You only need to compare applications in both markets to notice this. Starbucks Home Argentina and Starbucks Home Japan, for example. There are many more examples like Starbucks.

Furthermore, as UX designers, we empathize with users. Users change demographically, geographically, in their preferences, etc. Culture inevitably plays a role. Our job is to empathize with all types of users, no matter where they're from. When discussing Japan, a culture often stereotyped, it's clear that certain usability aspects that aren't questioned in the West, such as steppers in forms, don't work as well in the Japanese context. Speaking only from my experience, when presenting a form to a Japanese user, it's better to give them the opportunity to see all the fields they need to fill out beforehand, so they can view them all before they start. If the form is divided into different steps, it's not that the abandonment rate increases; people simply don't complete it. The same goes for surveys. It's better to present all the questions from the outset. This challenge also applies to the customer experience area. Just look at how the Japanese (generalizations, of course) value products. If you're curious: [link to Instagram post].

This also translates to work teams, although this is a more well-known topic. In Japan, hierarchical structures are evident in the moments when you participate in meetings, for example. It's also apparent in the way proposals are presented—there's a vast difference between Argentina and Japan. But that's a topic for another article.

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