Cross-cultural digital road map for expats: how online chat can vary around the world

26 March 2019

Expats may be seasoned social media users back home. But once in your new host country, you may find that social media does not work in quite the same way. Language, culture and even government censorship can have an unexpected influence on how you use it.

Learning a new language

It’s one thing learning the language of your new host country. Social media takes it a step further. To the frustration of parents, scholars and non-users, social media has spawned an entirely new way of writing and communicating – whatever the base language in use.

Emojis, abbreviations and acronyms abound – the language of social media is littered with words and phrases that can be confusing to the uninitiated. So for a new expat, it’s not all LOLs and smiley faces. Finding your way around social media in a strange culture can be as confusing as navigating the city streets.

Say what you hear

Say what you hear

Misspelling or simplifying complex words is common online and can make a foreign language even more baffling. Often, these abbreviations stem from the actual sound of the word. Textspeak in France, for example, often uses the letter ‘k’ instead of “qu”, for example (“qui” becomes “ki”). How much time it saves is open to debate, but look out for this kind of simplification because it is commonplace in all languages.

In the same way that animal sounds are rendered differently in different languages, human sounds get the same treatment. So if you see “kkkk” on a text from a Brazilian friend, they are laughing. Be aware of it, and make sure they’re not laughing at you. :-)  

Here are some further examples:

  • A+
    A plus to an English speaker. But to a French speaker, it denotes “à plus tard” – or “see you later”.
  • 555
    Laughter in Thai (The Thai word for 5 sounds like “ha”).
  • g
    Funny to a German (stands for “grinsen” – ie “grinning”).
  • ggg
    Really funny to a German (“ganz großes Grinsen”).
  • XQ, XFA
    Spanish texters use this ingenious shorthand for “porque” and “por favor” – because the multiplication sign (X) is pronounced “por”.
  • BBB
    Portuguese slang for “a good deal” (stands for Bom, Bonito, Barato – “good, pretty, cheap”).
Picture speak

Picture speak

Some of the world’s first languages were described as ‘pictographic’ or ‘logographic’. That is to say that characters did not represent sounds (as modern alphabets do) but things. Whether scrawls on cave walls or Egyptian hieroglyphics, these writings were basic and cumbersome – and gave no indication of how something was pronounced. Although some languages (Mandarin, for example, spoken by over a billion people) are logographic at heart, they have evolved to address some of the shortcomings.

Ironic, then, that digital shorthand has taken us back to using pictures instead of words. (Although linguists will maintain that emojis are ideographs, not logographs, since they represent ideas, not items). But their online omnipresence is good news for travellers, since they transcend language.

A smile is a smile in any language, surely?

Yes – and no.

The cultural context is hugely important and emojis can be interpreted differently. Clapping hands, for example, signifies praise or agreement in Western cultures. To a Chinese national, on the other hand, it denotes sexual intercourse. Tread carefully...

According to Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code, emojis represent a fundamental change in the way we communicate – but expats would be well advised to use them with care when talking with those from very different cultures.

Here are a few traps:

  • The horn emoji
    Much used in Hispanic cultures can denote good luck or cuckoldry, depending on context
  • The waving hand
    Can represent a friendly goodbye. To Chinese users, it can mean breaking off a friendship
  • The thumbs-up emoji
    Can be a sign of agreement in many cultures. In Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is an obscene gesture.
  • Folded hands
    A sign of blessing or praying, but its original meaning in Japanese (a pictographic language) is “thank you”
  • Eggplants
    Innocuous vegetables to many, these are sexual references to others (e.g. Trinidad and Ireland)
Following the rules

Following the rules

The words and symbols used is a fascinating area. But expats also need to be aware of other conditions and rules that will affect the way they use social media in their new host country.

From a technical perspective, for example, your speed of connection may vary hugely. Expats in New York, Singapore or any other major city will be spoiled for choice with high-speed broadband and mobile networks everywhere. But in other expat destinations – more remote locations such as Luanda – they may find limited access. In such situations, downloading and sharing video files may be difficult and expats will have to adapt their social media usage accordingly.

Censorship is the other important factor. Although the Internet was conceived as an open electronic community, many governments do not see it that way, and expats may find they are unable to access favourite social media platforms. Government attitudes towards websites and social media platforms are notoriously fickle, but these are examples of recent internet bans around the world:

  • YouTube
    Banned in China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, Sudan, and South Sudan (source: BBC News)
  • Reddit, Telegram, Amazon Cloud and Google Cloud
    Banned in Russia (sources: Business Insider and Reuters)
  • Many Western websites
    Banned in China - everything happens on WeChat instead (source: BBC Newsbeat)
  • Instagram
    Banned in Iran (source: Tech Crunch)
  • Vimeo
    Banned in Indonesia (source: Jakarta Globe)
  • WhatsApp, Skype, SnapChat, FaceTime, and Telegram
    Banned in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE (source: ZD Net)
  • Wikipedia  
    Banned in Turkey (source: The Guardian)

In addition, expats should of course conform to accepted social behaviours – and be aware of cultural differences. For example, if ‘real-world’ nudity, blasphemy or homosexuality is frowned upon in some of the world’s more repressive regimes, you can be sure that any online references to them will also land you in trouble.

A watching brief

Since social media is largely international and many online communities and platforms are accessible around the world, expats can prepare in advance. Take the opportunity to browse around the most popular networks in your host country (assuming you can speak the language) and see how people are behaving.

Some homework – along with a healthy respect for the culture and attitudes of your soon-to-be hosts – will prepare you for what is to come.

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