The Man Without A Country

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The Johnnies have asked me to write a monthly column about culture and concerns as they relate to cross-border user experience (UX), in Europe and beyond. This is an honour for someone born in Texas, USA (me) but probably seems odd to most everyone else (you). Let me share some background.

My father was Austrian. My mother’s family was German. The “Old World” wasn’t just a place in the memory of an aging grandparent and we certainly didn’t worship our ethnicity (as third- and fourth-generation Americans are apt to do). We travelled extensively every year (Rome and Florence were almost always on the itinerary). After university, I moved to Denmark to become a director at the Danish Royal Theatre and have remained in Copenhagen for 33 years. Here, I feel I’ve closed a cultural circle. Although our family tree has been pruned considerably, I’ve made sure the Reisses weren’t chased out of Europe forever. The Nazis have finally and definitively lost.

(Curiously, my father knew that he would never be returning to Vienna when the SS literally kicked him down the stairs of his gymnasium in March, 1938. Yet I have known since preschool that I was somehow destined to return.)

So what are you, Eric?

A New Yorker's view of the world. Sad but true...

A New Yorker

Well, my work ethic is clearly Central European (I focus on getting the job done). My politics are decidedly Scandinavian (socialized and empathetic). But I also believe in the American Dream (bootstraps and the rewards of hard work). My temper is Latin (no idea where that came from). And as a Texan, I cherish cultural identity but reluctantly accept that I am part of something larger. (In comparison, New Yorkers don’t really acknowledge the rest of the world. The Steinberg cover for the March 29, 1976 edition of the New Yorker sums this up admirably:

As to language, I sometimes feel like the crazy monk, Salvatore, in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Salvatore speaks “all languages and none”. Returning from Geneva recently, I realized I’d muddled through in seven languages that day: French to pay the hotel and manage my airport check-in, Danish and Swedish to the SAS flight crew, German to my seatmate on the plane, English to an inarticulate taxi-driver of uncertain nationality, plus greetings to two of my neighbors – diplomats from Egypt (Sabaa’h el kheer) and Serbia (Dobro jutro).

So much for the long-winded introduction. I hope you’ll follow my cultural journey. And I hope I can justify the faith placed in me by the Johnny Holland editors.

Note: I tend to say “we” and “our” about Americans, Europeans, Texans, Danes, Germans, Austrians, Chicagoans, and eyeglass-wearers. Please forgive and bear with me.

What is “Europe”?

Listen to CNN and you’ll probably conclude that Americans think the European Community is a funny-accented version of the United States (and 33 years of empirical observation on my part suggests that this is exactly how they think). But we (Europeans) know this analogy only serves to make “Europe” easier to understand to folks who aren’t terribly interested in understanding us to begin with. I guess we shouldn’t really care, but hey – North Americans have their own “defining the damned thing” debate. We might as well have ours.

Let’s face it, “Europe” exists on a map, but nowhere else that I know of. Honestly, when are we actually “European”? – except when we’re forced into a convenient stereotype by another geographic group (Americans and Aussies, for example). Otherwise, we’re Danes and Poles and French and Italians and Greeks and Germans and Dutch and Belgians and Romanians and Brits (and you Brits really are a case unto yourselves – and irritatingly proud of it. The rest of us haven’t yet figured out how to tease you into submission but we’re working on it). How many nations are there in “Europe”? I can argue for about 40. (Or 400. Or even 4,000.)

Within each nation, there are incredible regional differences – a Dane from Himmerland sees the world differently than a Dane from Djursland. A Swede from Halland is different from one from Blekinge. Is Galacia part of Poland, the Ukraine, Austria – or Spain? In Zagreb, Croatia, they’ll tell you “The Balkans start on the other side of the river”. Dalmatia and Istra are Balkan; Slavonia is not. Most folks have never heard of these places. But that’s what makes Europe so exciting, right?

Granularity, European style

The most amusing case-in-point is that of the “Swiss” – you don’t really exist at all, do you? There are French, German, and Italian “Swiss” – but you stick together mostly for the sake of economic expediency, not because you like each other very much. And let’s not stop there – you further divide Switzerland into 23 states or “cantons”. And the individual cantons don’t like each other very much either. Now, these cantons also have cities – and here’s the punchline – in the city of Chur, there’s an old joke: “There are three qualifications for becoming Bishop of Chur: 1) you must be Roman Catholic, 2) your must be a consecrated priest, and 3) you must be a native of Chur (or at least from Kanton Graubünden). But in truth, the first two requirements can be dispensed with.”

The joke is, it’s not a joke!

The rest of the world wants us to act like a homogeneous group. But basically, none of us “Europeans” really and truly want to assimilate (you Swiss are just more up-front about it). Let’s face it, the more our nation-states become part of some larger global alliance, the more we cultivate our ethnic and geographical roots. In fact, this could be our common denominator. We are a group united by geography and mutual distrust – which is the surprising basis for many successful collaborations. We’ll put up with a fair amount of cultural diversity – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of our personal or national interests.

Don’t talk about the [war/food]

Our granular identity shows up in the oddest places. For example, here’s a direct transcript of a conversation between Northern Italians at an IT conference I attended a couple of years back:

Man from Piemonte: “My mother makes the world’s best Bagna Cauda.”
Man from Veneto: “Ahh. But but does she use Bianco Veneto?”
Man from Lombardia: “Well in Milan …”
Piemonte and Veneto in unison: “Shut up. You know nothing about garlic!”

Our politicians think that if they change the labelling enough, they’ll eventually describe the product correctly. Sorry, this is a tactic doomed to failure. Happily, no one cares very much. Throughout my years in Denmark, I’ve seen the political community move from (and to):

- The Common Market (CM)
- The European Economic Community (EEC)
- The European Community (EC)
- The European Union (EU)

Ahh…progress. Thank goodness for “search and replace”.

Anyway, let’s explore “Europe” (whatever that is) and examine how our user experiences play out across historical borders that represent more than just arbitrary lines on a map (hey, North Americans, look at all the razor-straight lines on your map. Then look at our map. This is why Nebraska and Bulgaria can never be equated).

Thanks for reading this far. Now tell me what your thoughts are.

Eric Reiss

Eric Reiss is one of the pioneers of information architecture, having written the second book on the subject. He is a two-term President of the Information Architecture Institute, and Chair of the EuroIA Summit. Eric is Associate Professor of Usability and Design at the IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, and CEO of the FatDUX Group, a Copenhagen-based user-experience consultancy with offices and representatives throughout Europe and North America.

5 comments on this article

  1. Very interesting article on culture, differences and similarities.

    I always found this topic related to the “focal lenght” of the looking glass, that gives you the perspective point. Picture this idea somehow like Eames’ movie “Powers of ten”: the further you go, more similarities emerge. On the contrary, while getting closer, lots of differences are visible. Probably you can even go to the level of families and siblings and keep founding this in a fractal way.

    While living in Germany, I use to tease German friends telling them that how could it be that people from Düsseldorf and Cologne – almost sharing the same Underground lines – could be so different that they must have different beers (and of course different glasses). You can always raise a case with food, right?

  2. A delightful article, and an important reminder of our global diversity. I look forward to your continued column with great pleasure, Eric.

  3. Good reading.

    Suggest some humility, inclusion and humanity go a long way towards understanding each other. If thats what we all really want to do in the first place.


  4. I worked on a project for a global pharmaceutical company and was amazed to find that the best solution they could come up with was to have a central website that would be translated into 30 or so different world languages. They did change the images to reflect the local market, but the structure and experience of the site was based on IA and design created in an office in London for the british public. I found it so hard to work out how they thought this would be the best approach. Hence no surprises when every market wanted to stamp their own identity on the site.

  5. Tomás – I love the focal point analogy. Very very true. For most folks outside Europe, the continent is very fuzzy. But that works both ways – some people cannot see the forest for their own local trees.

    Stacy – We’ve got to stop meeting like this! I miss our weekly conversations when we were both on the IAI Board. Thanks for your support.

    Dano – In our private e-mail correspondence, you said something extremely poetic, which I will take the liberty of quoting: “If we look at “differences” only or we focus too hard on them, we are missing something more beautiful.” What an important point you make! Thanks.

    Drew – In two hours, I’m going off to a client meeting to fight this very fight – 80 country sites that need to feel part of the family and not just language versions with a different contact address.

    I’ve often wondered why the EU insisted on common passports and drivers licenses. To me, this is very much a part of a “local” or “national” identity. In this case, I truly feel that uniformity created a certain degree of animosity without providing any real advantage (initially, that is. Today, these documents do seem to have helped create a “European” identity and have attracted new member states). In the U.S., each of the 50 states still has its own drivers license – or is this a problem I just haven’t seen before?