By Jordan Robers
Establishing a marketing presence in the online business-to-business community can be a daunting task, especially when you’re trying to reach a global audience. Yet American marketers do have one big advantage – the global language of business is our own, English. Over 1.75 billion people are able to use English at a level that allows them to understand the majority of online marketing communications. Therefore, they’ll be able to read and understand your website copy content well enough for your business to compete on a global basis. Yet, there is more to consider than language when communicating online to other cultures. Especially since English is arguably one of the most difficult languages to master.
Why is English So Difficult?
Unlike some languages where thoughts and information are communicated in literal terms, English is enriched by an almost limitless number of figures of speech. The fact that English also includes a large collection of words that have roots in other languages doesn’t help.
As a native English speaker from the United States working in South Korea, I soon realized that Americans communicate figuratively as well as literally, to add expression, emotion and imagery to our verbal communication. I became aware of this fact when I discovered that my expressive way of speaking wasn’t always understood by many Koreans who spoke English as a second language.
A lesson in understanding.
During my time in South Korea, I was teaching specialized conversational English classes to Korean business professionals who were looking to enhance their fluency and understanding of the English language. One day we came across an article that opened with the idiom “getting your foot in the door.” When I asked the class what the article was about, I discovered that no one understood it. Moreover, it soon became clear the source of their confusion was the use of the idiom, “getting your foot in the door.”
Interpreting the idiom literally, the students thought it meant someone was stuck in place because their foot was caught in a door. This moment was a revelation for my teaching career in Korea. It was the beginning of my awareness of how nuanced English is and how mindful we must be to overcome some real obstacles in communicating with other cultures.
Making the connection.
When I realized my students didn’t understand what the idiom meant, I thought the best way to help them make the connection was to challenge them to think more critically and creatively. I went to the door and standing in the hallway, told a student to hold the door shut. I pushed open the door and while pushing, I managed to get my foot lodged in the space between the door and the frame. Over the chuckles of my students, I asked them what I was able to do since my foot was now keeping the door open as I slowly slid into the room. After a few incorrect guesses, one of the students asked if it was supposed to represent putting myself in a position that allowed me to move forward. The connection had been made. In this case, actions did indeed, speak louder – and clearer – than words.
Study your audience to find ways to overcome cultural divides.
English maybe the global language of business, but you still need to be aware that not everyone understands the language in the same way. The figures of speech and idioms that make English such a rich and complex language confuse non-American readers. The more you know about your audience, their culture and language traditions, the better. It’s also important to respect cultural differences and understand their historic context. In addition, this new knowledge and appreciation of different cultures will be invaluable tools that will help you communicate more effectively with all markets – at home and abroad.
Non-verbal communication can also enhance understanding online and off.
Here are a few ways you can communicate more effectively with other cultures than by relying on words alone:
· Create communications that are more literal than you might normally prepare for someone whose first language is English.
· Use visuals to illustrate what you’re writing about.
· Develop infographics to convey complex data or comparisons.
· If you’re meeting face-to-face, be conscious of using body language and hand gestures to enhance your meaning. For long distance meetings consider using Skype.
As using international resources, vendors and partners becomes more common for small as well as large businesses, developing our communication skills – in person, in print and online becomes more and more important. I hope sharing the knowledge I’ve gained from my own experiences in South Korea will prove useful to you now – and in the future.
—– ABOUT THE AUTHOR —-
Jordan, a Communications graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, spent much of his young adult life studying, working, and traveling across 26 countries (and counting!). He plans on taking what he’s learned in his experiences abroad and applying it towards a career in Marketing. Outside travel, Jordan’s hobbies include fitness, reading, and home restoration projects.