HR & Management

Understanding the differences in language is more important than you think

6 min read

04 October 2017

There's no denying that English is seen as a must-know language in the business world, but if you're going to work with companies in other countries, or hire staff from across the world, then you need to understand some of the intricacies behind their speech.

Courtesy of digital technologies, bosses can hire talent from across the globe and manage teams in different buildings. As their businesses grow, employers start partnering with other companies, trialling products beyond the local region, setting up franchises and tapping into supply chains worldwide. In all of these cases, language plays a crucial role.

Of course, when the subject of language barriers comes to the fore, the thought of not being able to understand each other due to said language crops up. Companies get around this by employing or partnering with someone that can do the translating, but it’s not always as easy as it seems. Just take note of all those famous translations gone wrong.

When KFC opened in China for the first time, its “Finger-lickin’ good” phrase became “Eat your fingers off”.

Elsewhere, beer company Coors thought the phrase “Turn it Loose” couldn’t go wrong in Spain. Consumers interpreted it as “Suffer from diarrhoea” though.

It seems obvious, but the media highlights time and time again that companies seem to be missing a trick. It’s not that bosses have used Google translate, or hired someone not suited to the job, it’s that the smaller intricacies of language should always be factored in. We just don’t have all words in common. The Dutch “gezelligheid” and Scandanavian “Hygge”  have no direct English translation, for example.

In case you’re wondering, Michele Hutchison of Finding Dutchland sums gezelligheid up as: “Claiming a section of the park by stringing bunting in the trees and having a barbecue or picnic on the rug. A bustling street market is always gezellig. Gezellig shouldn’t be expensive or pretentious. It’s hygge but without the fairy magic.” 

The use of a “common word” can also always be misinterpreted. Just look at what happened to Ford when it took a campaign to Belgium. “Every car has a high-quality body” was the phrase the company chose. In this case, the word “body” evoked images of a “corpse” – not exactly what Ford was after.

Declan Mulkeen, marketing director at Communicaid, added: “Speaking a common language is much more complex and textured than simply understanding each other’s words. Different dialects can mean different meanings have developed for the same word.

“If one party, during negotiations, says they are quite keen to discuss a topic, does that mean they are prioritising this topic or indicating that other topics may be more important? Depending on which version of English you are using, either interpretation could happen.”

It’s perhaps these examples that best highlight the importance of understanding language. Even if you don’t learn it out-right, certain factors, especially their potential perception, should be taken into account.

Your communication style

When communication styes are at odds, further misunderstandings can occur. “Most typical of these scenarios are the challenges of ‘yes’ cultures, where one side that means exactly what they have just said yes to, becomes frustrated when the other side also says ‘yes’ but then doesn’t deliver,” Mulkeen opined.

“Language choices can also, for example, signal the negotiating style favoured by each party. Some cultures are competitive, others are cooperative. Some take care not to damage relationships, others believe business is business and disagreements are nothing personal. For cultures who are less direct, it’s also important to be aware of what has been left unsaid as well.”

Lucy Millington said as much in a Forbes article detailing her life in the American business world after having lived in Britain. It was suggested that the British attitude of being reserved and overly polite hadn’t served her well – and it meant changing various aspects of language.

“I forced myself to stop prefacing emails with ‘I believe…’ or ‘maybe…’ when I actually mean ‘it is’ or ‘just do it.’ I used to do this all the time, but such a self-effacing, apologetic start to anything in the straight-talking land of the free is interpreted as a weak suggestion, or a lack of confidence.

“It’s true: We British sometimes avoid just saying what we mean. But it’s not because we can’t or don’t want to just come right out with it. In the UK’s cultural context, directness can be perceived as rudeness. We’re being polite, but we tend to assume the people we’re addressing know that.”

Language encompasses the way you speak and come across, and more often than not it’s influenced by culture. Knowing such intricacies may make business negotiations outside Britain that much easier.

As Millington explained: “Our audience isn’t always reading between the lines in the same way our compatriots would.”

HR is one of the hot topics discussed at the FD Surgery Manchester in November. Find out more here.