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Communicating Over Borders

When In Rome:  5 Surefire Tips for Communicating Over Borders

by Priscilla Richardson

You’re setting up hotel reservations for your convention at an exotic foreign resort when you hear about a flood there, along with some deaths resulting from polluted drinking water. You fax or e-mail the hotel manager immediately, saying (choose one)

a. I just heard about all the people in your town killed by the water pollution;

b. We’re concerned about the terrible water pollution problem in your town;

c. What plans do you have for providing safe drinking water during our visit?

If you want a successful meeting, you choose “c.” Hotel managers know what’s going on in their towns. Treating this potential problem as a fact, when it may or may not be, insults both the manager’s town and hotel. Even if you both know for sure the drinking water did kill those people, you don’t need to rub it in.

Instead, get right to what you need: assurance of a safe water supply. Without putting down anyone or anyplace, you’ve asked for what you must have—safe water.

Unintentional insults to a foreign business person, no matter how well meant, are just one of the many pitfalls of communicating over international borders. The folks in Uganda or Argentina may speak English, but that doesn’t mean they think in English, or think the way American business people do.

Sometimes you need to call in a translator, sometimes you don’t. But in either case, you need to use English language communications that translate well. Because no matter how well translated, an insult still rankles.

You protest, “But if they speak English I can just write in English.” Well, not quite. Think about how long you had to struggle to learn those #%$@ French idioms in high school.

The non-native speaker has the very same struggle with English. This person looks up words and puzzles over phrases, just as you did in translating from French.

So how should you go about writing so that the translator can do an accurate job for you? Or so the non-native speaker can understand your English message?

There are entire books on how to do this: Internationally Yours (Houghton Mifflin) by Mary A. DeVries can help. But if communicating across borders, either in writing or in speech, is only an occasional event for you, here are some guidelines.

1. Practice respect.

Find out what title your correspondent goes by and use it. If the manager’s name is José Luca, then he’s Manager (or maybe Director) Luca or Mr. Luca to you. Most foreigners haven’t yet caught the American “first-names-only” disease.

If you don’t know the holidays observed in the country you deal with, ask about them. Your correspondent will be pleased you showed interest in local events. You’ll gain by having the information you need to incorporate their holidays into your plans or to plan around them.

Also remember that their Independence Day means as much to them as the Fourth of July does to us. Just relax; your fax won’t get answered on their big holiday.

2. Simply follow the “Use SWISS cheese™” rule.

The Use Short Words in Short Sentences rule will serve you well writing for any audience, here or in any other country. Following the rule lets you avoid pomposity and pretentiousness— follow the rule and say “help me” instead of “lend me your assistance.”

But don’t go too far with your short words: Non-native English speakers won’t always understand contractions such as “don’t” or “he’ll.” Nor will short versions of long words, such as “ad” for “advertisement” necessarily make sense to them.

This shortness rule goes for paragraphs, too. Remember how daunting it was seeing those huge paragraphs in your translation text? Well, so are these non-English thinkers similarly put off by long paragraphs in your language.

Start a new paragraph frequently, so none goes on for more than three or four short sentences. Look at this article as an example of how to do that.

You don’t have to have more than one sentence in a paragraph, either.

3. Our everyday slang usage isn’t in their dictionaries yet so don’t use it. I heard the term “propeller head” defined on the radio today as “another word for techno-geek.” Well, I understood both terms, but neither “geek” nor “techno” to say nothing of “propeller head” have reached translation dictionaries yet.

“Techno” isn’t even in my computer’s dictionary.

A foreigner may have lived or visited in the USA and know some of the slang terms we take for granted, but you can’t count on it. Even a not-very-current expression, such as to “go postal,” meaning to act violently in the workplace, may mean nothing to a British English speaker, just as their slang puzzles us.

Slang today, standard English tomorrow (sometimes). For now, wait. Always use standard English words and phrases instead.

Remember, too, to speak more slowly on the telephone than you normally do. This makes it easier for the non-native speaker to keep up with you. Or for the translator to do her job.

4. Avoid any expression not literally true, with great emphasis on “literally.”

In a translation gaffe so bad it hit the front page of The Wall Street Journal, the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” came out in Japanese as “invisible, insane.”

Another famous one involved a company who suggested in their letter to a German firm that it was time to “talk turkey.” The puzzled but meticulous Germans hired a translator to reply in perfect Turkish.

Classic idioms that native English speakers understand immediately just don’t resonate over borders. You’ll have to work hard to dig them out of your communications, because we take them so much for granted.

5. Try to use literal unimaginative language in simple sentences, no matter how inelegant it may sound. Elegance, like poetry, does not translate well except in the hands of the truly gifted. Meaning can and does, no matter how mediocre the translator.

These tips will take you a great way towards smooth communications, written or on the telephone, across language borders. And remember that a sincere compliment always pleases and helps ease your way, too.

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