One size does not fit all

A few years ago, some anonymous wag in Amsterdam posted an online Anglo-Dutch translation guide, where apparently innocuous English phrases are explained in terms of their hidden meaning:

‘I hear what you say’ He accepts my point of view You’re wrong – please stop talking about this
‘Perhaps you would like to think about…’ Just an idea – feel free to ignore it This is an order
‘Oh, by the way…’ This is a minor detail… The primary purpose of our discussion is…
‘I’m a bit disappointed that…’ It’s not a big deal It’s a very big deal: I’m really annoyed
‘Perhaps you should think about that some more’ It’s a good idea: keep developing it It’s a bad idea: come back with a better one
‘I’m sure it’s my fault’ He thinks it’s his fault It’s obviously your fault
‘I almost agree’ He’s close to agreement I don’t agree at all

It’s funny because it’s true: the British have turned verbal misdirection into an art-form. What’s less funny is that, if you come from a country where people express things more literally, this can be a real problem.

As more and more businesses become genuinely global, the need to communicate across international borders can pose serious risks.

Management Consultancy McKinsey published a report in 2013, which showed that high-performing global companies consistently do worse than local competitors in new markets. The gap is most significant in key strategic activities, such as executing plans, encouraging innovation and building relationships with government and business partners.

Ironically, one of the biggest problems is that we all speak the same language. English has become the lingua franca of international business, especially at executive level. And, while it may make the process of decision-making faster and less cumbersome, it also tends to pull everything down to a lowest common denominator level that dilutes creativity and promotes bland, generic thinking.

If you don’t believe me, try watching a selection of TV commercials and see how easy it is to spot the ones that were made for ‘more than one market’.

Language is not like binary code: if you take the nuance out of communication, you take the interest out, too. And the results are predictably easy to ignore.



Author: matthampshire

Author and consultant helping organisations communicate in a more authentic and engaging way.

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