The Nuances of English

Posted On: 03/12/13

By: Susan G Abbott   

Cultural differences between markets – even when all are predominantly English-speaking – can be large and important for marketing success.

Brilliant is not always brilliant

Words have different meanings in different regions. “Brilliant” is a good example. Although Canadians and Americans know roughly how the British use the word “brilliant,” we do not share that meaning. In fact, as I have told one client, the presence of that one word in marketing material immediately identifies it as British, and therefore a foreign-owned company. Even before I had disclosed the sponsor of the research, this was apparent to the participants.

This single word was carrying tremendous baggage.

The devil in the religious details

Canadians are less religiously active than Americans, a well-documented difference that appears to be growing in magnitude. Although not hostile to religion, and relatively tolerant of religious differences, Canadians largely consider faith a personal and somewhat private matter, regardless of their own affiliation.

A global charity that was about to start fundraising in Canada ran into this phenomenon in a project when we tested their US fundraising materials. Canadians were very enthusiastic about the mission and purpose of the organization. However, these potential donors pounced on every hint of religion in the materials, even when it was subtle. Determining the best strategy to handle the organization’s roots proved to be one of the more important elements in the project.

Sayings and beliefs

Global English is filled with many references that can be traced to either the King James Version of the Bible, or the works of William Shakespeare. We are fortunate to be able to communicate with ease across cultures, in part because of these common references of meaning.

On a project in Jamaica, I made the off-handed observation to the client team, “failure is an orphan, while success has many fathers.” The room fell silent.

This saying, to my ears, recognizes the tendency of people to rally around a success, and to distance themselves from failures. Unfortunately, the saying was not well known among my Jamaican clients. Not only this, but the whole topic of orphans was a sensitive issue, because it is a contemporary social problem, not something from a Dickens novel. This little moment in time reminded me that no matter how easy communication may feel, language is not independent of cultural beliefs, it is part of them.

Marketing relies on nuance

Marketing success frequently relies on nuance and subtlety, especially when emotions are involved. In our global economy, where Global English is increasingly the common language of business, we must not underestimate the potential for misunderstanding due to nuances of language.

Our work as marketing professionals might be simpler if the same word meant the same thing everywhere, but it doesn’t. Local context and local culture are always important to true understanding.