What do you call the place where you are? Are you in England, Great Britain or the United Kingdom? Is it America or The United States of America? Holland or The Netherlands?
The reality of the world around you, and the names that you use to describe it, largely stem from you as an individual, though there are many other influences at play.
What name you use often also depends on where you’re looking from. The Baltic Sea is Germany’s East Sea, for example. It’s the Sea of Japan if you’re in Japan but the East Sea to Koreans. They’re the Falkland Islands to the British but woe betide you if you ever call them anything other than Islas Malvinas in Argentina. It’s the Persian Gulf to Iran but The Arabian Gulf to most of the Arab nations around it – and if you are an airline and don’t follow Iran’s preference in this matter, you won’t be allowed to fly into their airspace.
Legal and cultural differences are also very important in dictating how we look, or are required to look, at the world. Pakistan and India, for example, each have laws demanding that maps show Kashmir fully as part of their own country. If you’re in Skopje you’re in the Republic of Macedonia – or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia if you’re Greek. Show a map in China and Taiwan has to be shown as part of the People’s Republic.
These differences mean that using a country name drop down, or any maps on your website is fraught with complications, so that, even when you’re working internationally, the issue may need approaching on a country-by-country basis.
How do international sites tackle these issues?
Google Maps labels the sea between Japan and Korea as:
“Sea of Japan (East Sea)”
whilst Bing chooses the (more tactful?)
“East Sea / Sea of Japan”
How about the thorny issue of Crimea? Log into Google maps from outside Russia or Ukraine and you’re likely to see Crimea with a dashed border with Ukraine, emphasizing its disputed nature:
Log in from Ukraine and there’s no border at all. Log in from Russia and the border is shown as a solid line representing an international borders. Bing, accessed from Germany, shows the pre-annexation borders, presumably reflecting Germany’s political stance on the situation:
National Geographic greys out Crimea to show its disputed nature.
Similarly, all the disputed territories along the borders of India, Pakistan and China are shown as within the country whose IP address shows you to be when viewing from any of those countries. From other countries, the borders are shown as disputed.
While online mapping companies are treading wary steps in attempts to follow local laws and be diplomatic in how they present the world, this does help to create our perceptions of the world and they reinforce people’s differing realities. The opening of mapping applications to user input through crowd-sourcing is likely to add to this complexity, with the prospect of editing wars by users. Should we be looking for more inclusive online views of our world? In any case, for a business it’s clear that you need to take great care when choosing to use names or show borders on a site or in any marketing or sales materials.
For more information, check out our free guide on international address data.