Years ago, driving in the Chicago Loop, I saw a billboard that really opened my eyes—not because I cared about the brand or offer, but because they made a big mistake in trying to appear local.
The sign promised “More fireworks than the 4th of July in Grant Park.” The marketing team had done enough homework to know where the fireworks were held, but not enough to find out that Chicago historically hosted its Independence Day celebration on July 3.
That’s when it hit me—never assume anything. Ever. About any market. Even the most obvious, such as whether the 4th of July fireworks are on the 4th of July.
Now, as digital media has given all of us access to audiences around the world, and our team has marketed to people in Canada, Australia, the UK and India (and that’s just the English-speaking countries), I’ve been thinking a lot about the assumptions we carry around with us, and how they can get in the way.
Same words. Very different meanings. We get it—you want to paint a picture. You want to keep it colorful. But to overseas eyes, some expressions can be even more colorful than you intend. Several basic phrases in American English are at best inappropriate and at worst obscene in Australia and the UK. And some are just confusing. For example, to “table something” in England means to talk about it now—the exact opposite of what it means in New York. Likewise, if you talk about wearing “pants” in the UK or “pantsu” in Japan, they’ll think you mean underwear. And the reason people are so grossed out by the idea of “peanut butter and jelly” in other countries is because jelly is what you know as Jell-O. Of course that’s disgusting.
Try to Google any non-business terms you want to use to make sure you haven’t stepped in something unsavory. And read closely to look for sneaky idioms and jargon that have become so ingrained in our lexicon (bandwidth, deep dive) that you barely notice them.
To overseas eyes, some expressions can be even more colorful than you intend. Several basic phrases in American English are at best inappropriate and at worst obscene in Australia and the UK.
Idioms that swing and miss. Any idiom can get in the way of clear communication, especially if it needs to be translated into another language. But it’s really surprising how many Americanisms come out of sports or situations that don’t apply anywhere else on earth. Phrases like “touch base,” “a good call” and “Monday morning quarterback” refer to sports that aren’t widely played elsewhere. Cakewalks (and their spawning of “a piece of cake”) were a uniquely American phenomenon. “Give someone an inch” has little meaning in the metric world. We also have an astonishing number of gun-based idioms, like shot down, bulletproof, pull the trigger, and so on, that sound odd to non-American ears.
Funnily, one of our clients has compiled 11,000 American expressions into a book, which just goes to show how idiom-filled our language has become.
Complex construction is not unharmful. Even within the US, more than 1 in 5 people speak a language other than English at home. If you have vendors, partners or customers from diverse backgrounds, or simply want to speak more clearly to any audience, try to:
- Keep sentences short. Dependent clauses and long, meandering text are hard for anyone to follow.
- Avoid double negatives or confusing negative phrasing. Rather than saying something is “not impossible” or that it “didn’t go badly,” just say it’s possible or went well.
- Use clear nouns and verbs. Even if it means repeating a word, specific language without a lot of pronouns, abstract nouns or helping verbs (can, may, etc.) get people to your point faster.
- Stick to the present tense, if you can.
You can’t understand a culture from Wikipedia. You may be able to learn different names for things, pinpoint distinct spellings, read about holidays and find out about the local sports teams. But you’re unlikely to understand that in Australia, at least, Christmas is about drinking white wine in the sun and that pies are not the epitome of easy (and are mostly filled with meat). So don’t try to pretend, or you risk sounding inauthentic and doing more harm than good.
Americans are fortunate. US spellings and technical terms are the default in most countries, and at least recognized everywhere. But we also have a tendency to imagine that the whole world thinks the way we do—in our seasons, our currency, our time zones, with our pop culture backgrounds and on 8.5″x11″ paper. Take a step back and see if you can keep all that from creeping in.