Cultural faux pas

Our business takes us to many cultures. No matter where we go, we continue to be amazed by projects that are out of sync in one or more ways with the local culture, including its values and traditions. Our current work in the Middle East has once again reminded us of this issue. We are currently conducting ethnographic research, including a series of focus groups on the design of a leisure project with women in a country in the Middle East. Our research is showing us that just about every project design currently in the country fails in many ways to match their culture and their needs.

It's not hard to understand how this comes about. Someone decides to develop a project, whether it is a restaurant, shopping mall or a leisure destination. An internationally known firm is hired to design the project, and the design firm uses a standard Western design, perhaps embellishing it with some local architectural materials and ornamentation. But the essence of the project remains Western. No effort is made to examine concept and each and every feature to see if it is a good match for the local culture.

The project succeeds, as it is probably the first of its kind, and then all its competition follows the same Western design paradigm - copies are made of the defective design. The locals don't know any better, and they adapt to the project. It might not really meet their needs, cultural and traditions, but they have little choice. So they frequent the project, but probably not as often as if it was culturally correct in design.

One example of this is restaurants in many Middle East countries where women traditionally cover their faces. Unlike Saudi Arabia, where covering is mandated, in many more moderate Islamic countries, the women are not required to cover, but rather chose to cover out of respect for the culture's traditions. Throughout these more moderate Islamic countries, you will find restaurant franchises such as Ponderosa, Chili's, Applebee's, etc. Some adjust their menus to match local food tastes, such as including humus, tabouli or other traditional foods, but when it comes to the restaurant's design, it is boilerplate. That means there is no privacy where a woman can uncover to eat. These restaurants typically will have family-only sections, but the seating is still open. Families and women will sometimes try to make the restaurant work for them, such as selecting a table in the back where the wife and older girls will sit with their backs to the restaurant, enabling them to uncover to eat. However, this is not an ideal solution, because they quickly have to cover if a waiter approaches the table, as almost all waiters are men.

If these restaurant chains (and their designers) had studied the culture and conducted ethnographic research, they would have learned about designing privacy booths for families and women. But no, the stock Western solution is deemed good enough.

Most of the cultural faux pas we see deal with designing for women, such as the example above. It's not only the designers who are at fault. A lot of responsibility rests with the owners, who are almost always men. And no different than in the West, the men are blind to the women's culture in their own country. So what you have is men hiring designers, almost all of whom are men, who are giving Western design solutions, most of which are male-biased, with the owners themselves, also men, not even being aware of what the cultural mismatches are.

So, what is the solution? It's not really that difficult. First, don't assume anything. Don't assume that the design features, even the very concept, is correct for the culture where the project is being developed. Second, conduct ethnographic research, including an examination of women's culture in the location. Third, have a large number of women on the design team so the female perspective does not get overwhelmed by male-bias in the design process.

These steps are just as necessary when working in different areas of the U.S. as when working in other countries. Tuning in to the local and women's culture only makes sense, as it results in a project far more successful than one of those stock male-oriented designs.

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