English – one language, a world of confusion

May 29, 2019 12:32 pm

“You should keep these things.”

That’s what my boss said to me shortly after I started my first job in Singapore. On my desk were several expensive pieces of electronic equipment. It seemed like a very generous offer to make to his new Canadian hire.

Fortunately, I was saved from embarrassment, and a possible criminal record, by a Singaporean colleague who had gone to university in Canada.

“He means you should put them away,” she explained.

Ah! OK then…

English is the global language of business, with 60 per cent of multinational organisations operating in English.Japanese online retailer Rakuten switched to using Englishas the language of business, even in Japan. Many larger companies in Singapore, where English is one of four official languages, operate in English, even though it is not the first language of many employees. In the course of my career, I’ve dealt with people in many companies around the world in English.

That experience when I was working in Singapore taught me something very important, though. Just because we’re speaking the same language, doesn’t mean we’re saying the same thing.

English has been part of Singapore’s culture for two centuries. However, it has been influenced by the culture of Singapore and can sometimes leave the outsider baffled. For example, don’t every tell somebody you find attractive that they’re cute. In the local vernacular it is defined as “ugly but adorable”.

Similarly, working with my CCUK colleagues based in the UK, there are both differences in vocabulary (soccer vs. football, vacation vs. holiday), spelling (Canadians spell ‘colour’ with a ‘u’, like the UK, but ‘organize’ with a ‘z’ like the USA) and culture (they have no idea what a ‘double-double’ is). 

These mild examples of cross-cultural communication issues illustrate a possible pitfall of using content prepared in one country as part of your content marketing in another. It’s certainly possible, of course. Here at CCUK, we produce content for clients around the world. Our team members, both staff and freelancers, come from a variety of backgrounds and have lived, worked and travelled in many countries. As former journalists, we take pride in our observational skills and our willingness to learn. The result is fewer cross-cultural faux pas.

There are many aspects to cross-cultural communication beyond just language but your sales team in that country may never get a foot in the door if your marketing content alienates your potential customers. You don’t have body language or any other cues other than the written word working for you, so it pays to take extra effort with it.

A marketing asset that appears dynamic and powerful in the US may be considered too braggadocious in the UK. A bit of wordplay in your content may be playful in one market and a crude innuendo in another. While it’s not possible to know every nuance off the top our collective heads, simply knowing the possibility is there puts our work—and your content—on firmer footing.


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