When writing for international audiences, or peoples of differing cultures, a lot can get lost in translation. More than 15 percent of all Canadian exports are services and backstopping much of that work are communicators who help brands navigate different cultures.

Communicating across cultures means wading through differences in social organization, religion, domestic values and even history.

The United Postal Service (UPS) has faced a number of cross cultural challenges with its branding and communications. When UPS began operating in Germany, its brown uniforms started controversy as the colour resembled what was worn by the Nazis’ brown-shirted Special Forces. In Spain, the company’s brown trucks resembled the country’s hearses and had to be changed.

At the International Association of Business Communicator’s Western-Canada Conference, Suncor’s Director of Communications Judith Sparkes, shared five editing tips to help ensure your messages are understood clearly.

1280px-Taj_Mahal_20121. Avoid local colour and slang.

Every culture and region has its signifying phrases and terminology. As Canadians, we’re known for our love of hockey. Certain phrases, such as “keeping your stick on the ice,” hold great resonance here. The same phrase would not be understood in England.

An example of this is when people refer to the Taj Mahal. We use the term to describe that somewhere is grand — the Taj Mahal is a sacred tomb to some people using it as a reference could be seen as extremely rude. When Judith Sparkes first visited India she was curious about the nation’s social structure and tried to relate it to her North American perspective

“I was asking who was ‘middleclass’ and how they lived,” said Sparkes. “Someone finally stopped me and explained that their social order and family structure was completely different to how I lived.”

Think of the schema an audience has and communicate within that space.

2. Remove jargon.

Business is not a universal language and industry jargon can be obtuse.

“We (IABC conference attendees) all know what KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and ROI (Return on Investment) mean, but a cross-cultural audience might not know these acronyms,” said Sparkes.

Her advice is to research what terms are used by your audience and use those instead to avoid confusion. Ask a counterpart to describe what key phrases mean in their perspective to ensure your messaging is understood.

3. Write for an eighth grade audience.

Eloquence is a sin to common sense, so keep it simple. Follow this rule of thumb even when communicating within your own culture. Being clear and use simplified language. Here is an example:

“Ensure electors follow all federal regulations”


“Make sure voters obey the rules”

mrbeanturkey4. Do not use humour.

Humour is subjective. What is funny to one culture may not be to another — North American humour can even be deeply offensive to other cultures. Physical humour is more universal so if there has be a joke included in a communication try to do it visually. The show Mr. Bean, featuring British Comedian Rowan Atkinson, is syndicated around the world because the comedy features little to no spoken language as seen here with as his famous Christmas turkey episode.

5. Formalize your grammar.

Not everyone has learned English under the unrestricted language-jungle of North American media.

“Many people speak outstanding English however in a very formal tone and style,” said Sparkes. “It is how they have been taught the language and in-part how they understand it.”

To make sure your message is read, respected and understood she suggested brushes up on your commas and clauses.

About James Rubec

James Rubec is a data geek, a former public relations lead and journalist with a love of content and advocacy. Ask him anything @JamesRRubec and be sure to follow @Cision_Canada

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