Cultural Diversity

I would say that in most cases, I’m the worst person to talk about diversity as, like John Scalzi said, I’m playing at the lowest difficulty setting. There is a small exception to this when the matter relates to cultural diversity in a vastly USA-based environment, which is what I would like to spend a few words on this time.

Let’s start with language. For open source developers, working with people from different countries, and for which English is not the native language, is not uncommon at all — indeed, projects such as Gentoo and VideoLan tend to have overall more people for whom English is a second (if not third) language. There is a difference, though, when it comes to work environments such as my previous bubble, where you have to speak English a lot — impromptu, on the spot.

It took adjustment when I moved to Dublin, despite having spent most of the previous year in Los Angeles: on one side, South-Californian English and Dublin English are significantly different in tone and intentions, and on the other hand, it required “checking the gain” on what people coming from other languages meant with certain words. Again, not something totally new for those who spent time in various Open Source projects, but even IRC allowed you to take a moment to type an answer back, or to re-read what the other person said. And while the voice tone and body language help, it’s still harder to process, understand, and form a reply in your second (or third) language in real-time than it would be over asynchronous medium.

London was another kettle of fish altogether — maybe because I have listened to enough Radio 4 to grasp many Londoners expression fasters than I picked them up in Dublin, or maybe because I have built up the experience there. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard — indeed in my experience I found that British-born-and-raised people tend to be (unwittingly) less forgiving for mis-speaking, expecting every word used to having been carefully chosen by the speaker, including any obvious-to-them rude turn of phrase. This doesn’t appear to be my impression only — the FT’s Michael Skapinker wrote about it, more than once, and I would suggest reading his articles to both the English native speakers, and those of us “second-languagers” that find it hard to work productively with them.

Now, before somebody says that I’m painting the whole group of native English speakers with a single brush — that is certainly not the case. I already singled out the Dubliners before, and I have plenty of friends, colleagues, and ex-colleagues that have learnt not to assume that every word is perfectly weighted beforehand, particularly in spoken lines, and have asked me more than a few times if the word I used was meant to sound as aggressive as it did.

There’s another fun interaction that I learnt to appreciate: talking shop with people coming from cultures that are very direct, such as some of my Romanian friends — we can start cussing and repeat the word shit many times in a row, get excited, and maybe even disagree vehemently on concepts, solutions, and decisions, … and then go grab coffee together like nothing happened. At least once I’ve been asked not quite directly whether I have been a hypocrite — but no, it’s just that for me (us) technical disagreements among friends are just that… technical disagreements.

If all of this boggles your mind and sounds like me trying to justify my tone or behaviour, I would suggest you to read The Culture Map. The book is a fascinating read, and goes into a lot of examples of how different culture “baselines” differ — with repeated reminders that the fact that a culture baseline does not mean that everyone in that culture behaves exactly the same way, we’re not in a world of hats.

Another point that I feel should be spelled out explicitly is about general (popular) cultural references — they don’t really translate very well, under different axis. I have a friend who gets annoyed at Harry Potter references in documentation and service naming, because they didn’t actually care for the series, and so anything that feels “obvious” to a fan goes straight over their head, and I sympathise.

I know of similar complains with most other “big fandoms”: Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Dragonball, Naruto, … it’s a type of gatekeeping that is subtle, but still present: if you don’t happen to have at least dabbled in most of these, things will be slightly harder for you, and give you a feeling that you’re not welcome. Also it turns out that those who read/watched some of those big names in another language might be just as annoyed, because a lot of times names and terms got translated to something different, maybe closer to the target culture, that makes the reference even harder to grasp.

Also, let me be clear that this is not only a problem within the tech spaces dominated by white male geeky engineers. A few years ago I found myself having an argument over the fact that I missed the window of time to submit intern projects ideas, because I went on to check the old site, which was handily named “iwantanintern”, rather than finding out that they switched it over a new one named “redfishbluefish”. When I pointed out it’s a very opaque name to me, I was informed by a surprised HR person that they were expecting everybody to know the book by Dr. Seuss – which turns out it doesn’t even appear to be translated in Italian according to Wikipedia – and that it fit perfectly well with the companion Waldo website, named after the North American name of the protagonist from Where is Wally? As it turns out, I at least knew Wally as a kid, but most of the other children books I was given were either Italian or Disney, or both, so Dr. Seuss never figured into my upbringing.

So what’s the point of bringing up all of this? Well, I wanted to point out that there still is quite a bit of discrimination that can be felt among those of us that are otherwise well into a privileged class — with the hope that this can both make it easier to empathise with those who are less privileged, and as an answer – that I should have provided there and then, and out loud – to those I have heard before saying that I shouldn’t complain, since I can completely pass for British if I wanted to (cannot, and will not!) and so I have nothing to fear from drunk right wingers at a pub the day after Brexit deadlines.

Languages, native speakers, culture

People who follow me probably know already that I’m not a native English speaker. Those who don’t but will read this whole post will probably notice it by the end of it, just by my style, even if I were not to say it right at the start as I did.

It’s not easy for me and it’s often not easy for my teammates, especially so when they are native speakers. It’s too easy for the both of us to underestimate or overestimate, at the same time sometimes, how much information we’re conveying with a given phrase.

Something might sounds absolutely rude in English to a native speaker, but when I was forming my thought in my head it was intended to be much softer, even kind. Or the other way around: it might be actually quite polite in English, and my interpretation of it would be, to me, much ruder. And this is neither an easy or quick problem to solve, I have been working within English-based communities for a long while – this weblog is almost ten years old! – and still to this day the confusion is not completely gone.

It’s interestingly sometimes easier to interact with other non-native speakers because we realize the disconnect, but other times is even harder because one or the other is not making the right amount of effort. I find it interestingly easier to talk with speakers of other Latin languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese), as the words and expressions are close enough that it can be easy to port them over — with a colleague and friend who’s a native French speaker, we got to the point where it’s sometimes faster to tell the other a word in our own language, rather than trying to go to English and back again; I promised him and other friends that I’ll try to learn proper French.

It is not limited to language, culture is also connected: I found that there are many connections between Italian culture and Balkan, sometimes in niches that nobody would have expected it to creep up, such as rude gestures — the “umbrella gesture” seems to work just as good for Serbs as it does for Italians. This is less obvious when interacting with people exclusively online, but it is something useful when meeting people face to face.

I can only expect that newcomers – whether they are English speakers who have never worked closely with foreigners, or people whose main language is not English and who are doing their best to communicate in this language for the first time – to have a hard time.

This is not just a matter of lacking grammar or dictionary: languages and societal customs are often interleaved and shape each other, so not understanding very well someone else’s language may also mean not understanding their society and thus their point of view, and I would argue that points of view are everything.

I will make an example, but please remember I’m clearly not a philologist so I may be misspeaking, please be gentle with me. Some months ago, I’ve been told that English is a sexist language. While there wasn’t a formal definition or reasoning for why stating that, I’ve been pointed at the fact you have to use “he” or “she” when talking about a third party.

I found this funny: not only in Italian you have to do so when talking about a third party, but you have to do so when talking about a second party (you) and even about a first party (me) — indeed, most adjectives and verbs require a gender. And while English can cop-out with the singular “they”, this does not apply to Italian as easily. You can use a generic, plural “you”, but the words still need a gender — it usually become feminine to match “your persons”.

Because of the need for a gender in words, it is common to assume the male gender as a “default” in Italian; some documentation, especially paperwork from the public administration, will use the equivalent of “he/she” in the form of “signore/a”, but it becomes cumbersome if you’re writing something longer than a bank form, as every single word needs a different suffix.

I’m not trying to defend the unfortunate common mistake to assume a male gender when talking about “the user” or any other actor in a discussion, but I think it’s a generally bad idea to assume that people have a perfect understanding of the language and thus assign maliciousness when there is simple naïve ignorance, as was the case with Lennart, systemd and the male pronouns. I know I try hard to use the singular “they”, and I know I fall short of it too many times.

But the main point I’m trying to get across here is that yes, it’s not easy, in this world that becomes more and more small, to avoid the shocking contrast of different languages and cultures. And it can’t be just one side accommodating to this, we all have to make an effort, by understanding the other side’s limit, and by brokering among sides that would be talking past each other anyway.

It’s not easy, and it takes time, and effort. But I think it’s all worth it.