© 2009 Ugur Akinci
You’d better have a firm grip on the contemporary American slang if you are a screenwriter drafting the sequel to “Easy Rider.”
But if you are a business writer, get into the habit of writing without any local cultural references. Otherwise you will only end up baffling your global business partners.
That’s actually how I felt when I received an e-mail from India a few months ago that ended up with this friendly reminder:
“Please do not hesitate to revert to me if you have any further questions.”
“Revert to me” is apparently a phrase used regularly in India.
Then I discovered that I sometimes also commit similar errors in my own business communications by using purely American phrases or conventions.
Here is a short list of the things you may want to watch for:
1) Never address your foreign business partner by her or his first name. Stick with the last names, just to be on the safe side.
2) It’s a good idea to always start your letters with a warm personal greeting and a “small talk” opening line. Most foreigners do not enjoy a letter that plunges right away into the business at hand.
“Dear Dr. Khoulafanga,
We can offer you much better prices for the electron microscopes you’ve inquired about…”
“Dear Dr. Khoulafanga,
Thanks for writing to us, inquiring about the electron microscopes you are currently using at your Nairobi facility. We appreciate your kind interest.
Our initial research suggests that we should be able to offer you much better prices for the same specs… ”
3) Stay away from idioms since most cannot be translated in a meaningful way.
Example: “Our developers are burning the midnight oil here to meet the deadline.”
BETTER: “Our developers are working 60 hours a week to meet the deadline.”
4) Avoid jargon since that also does not translate easily from one culture to another.
Example: “Our board has decided to deep six this project.”
BETTER: “Our board has decided to cancel this project.”
5) Watch your dates. There are not a lot people in the world who write month first, followed by day and year. Most Europeans and Middle Easterners, for example, write the day first, followed by month and the year. So if you write 3/5/2007, there is no easy way to decipher whether you mean March 5th or May 3rd?
Be on the safe side and write your day first followed by the month spelled out in writing. Then place a comma, and follow it with the year.
For example: “3 January, 2007” or “15 October, 2006”.
This convention totally eliminates any (potentially costly) misunderstanding across the cultural barriers.