Falsehoods programmers believe about flags

(For more about the "Falsehoods" meme - read the big list of falsehoods programmers believe.)

Do You Want To Phone A Friend?

A popular website asked me to confirm my phone number. It "helpfully" pre-filled the country-code with +1. And proudly displayed the Stars and Stripes.

A dropdown box showing the flag of the USA next to a plus 1.

Except, of course, the USA isn't the only country to use +1 - our friends in the Great White North also use +1.

A dropdown box showing the flag of Canada next to a plus 1.

Thanks to the North American Numbering Plan, a full 25 countries or territories use +1. From Anguilla 🇦🇮 to Turks and Caicos Islands 🇹🇨. OK… their flags look pretty similar! But they're obviously different from 🇺🇸!

Canada 🇨🇦 and Jamaica 🇯🇲 have very different flags - and climates - but they both use +1.

I suspect that the website designers were expecting people to look at the flag and realise that it didn't represent their home country, and then change it. However, for the majority of +1 countries which aren't part of the United States, it looks a little crass.

My home country, the United Kingdom 🇬🇧, uses the +44 code. As do Guernsey 🇬🇬, Jersey 🇯🇪, and the Isle of Man 🇮🇲.

The UK is comprised of Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿, England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿, Wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿, and N.I. (with a more complicated flag status!)

People can have a complicated relationship with flags. Your glorious banner of home might be my symbol of a conquering despot.

Flags change. Afghanistan's flag has changed 4 times since the year 2000.

Some flags are not recognised by other countries.

Flags represent countries, states, territories, and pirate ships 🏴‍☠️ - but they do not represent international dialling codes!

Lingua Franca

Lots of countries speak English. But the majority of them don't have 🇬🇧 as their flag.

Indeed, lots of people in the UK don't speak English. So using a 🇬🇧 to indicate language choice may be confusing.

If you are in South Africa, there are 11 official languages. Does 🇿🇦 represent Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, English…?

Flags are for golf courses ⛳, motor-sports 🏁, and for Pride 🏳️‍🌈 - not for representing languages.

Do You Have A Flag

I'm pretty sure the law requires me to share this video…

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3 thoughts on “Falsehoods programmers believe about flags”

  1. Marcus Downing says:

    "Flags are ... not for representing languages."

    While I don't deny the truth of this, the reason it keeps coming up is that it's only half the answer. The other half is: What should we be using to represent languages? What's a good way of presenting language choice that provides a positive user experience, that's both practical and non-offensive?

    Knowing what not to do is fine, but until an alternative option is readily available, people are going to keep reaching for the obvious thing, however wrong it is.

    1. says:

      … There are probably some languages which don’t have a name for themselves, and some languages which don’t have written representations, but apart from these, one could reasonably denote a language by writing the name of the language in that language’s most common written form. After all, we have Unicode.

      English / español / Sermo Vulgaris / Deutsch / le français / kreyòl ayisyen / 官话 / 日本語 /   …

      “U+016080 to U+0160FF in the SMP is tentatively allocated for tengwar”, says Wikipedia.


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