Writing For an International Audience

To say that the Internet has completely changed our ability to communicate would be an understatement. This is the first time in history that humans have had a medium where anyone, no matter who they are, who has a computer and a web connection can give and receive information instantaneously and internationally.


Okay, so that is a longwinded way for me to tell you that whatever you put on your company’s website won’t just immediately reach your local customer, but also potential ones on the other side of the globe.  Don’t believe me? Even the smallest blogs, ones who get a hit once or twice a day, report traffic from countries as far flung as Madagascar.

Now, your company may not be big news in Antananarivo, but chances are you will attract readers from Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. And, depending on the nature of your business, you may want their business. That’s why you need to consider how your site may be read by an international audience.

For example, you run an inn or a B&B in a popular resort town. Recently, your town’s been attracting a lot of tourists from China. You want them to book with you, but for some reason, you’re not getting a lot of Chinese guests, even at the peak of the season. What could it be?

Well, maybe it has to do with the fact that your inn, The Four Corners, has the number four in the title. The number four is considered bad luck in China, since when it’s pronounced with the wrong tone, it sounds like the word for death. Not that you’d want to change the name, but don’t be surprised if the Eight Gables Inn across town is doing a roaring trade. Eight is a lucky number for the Chinese, and many Chinese-American businesses try to get an 888 toll-free number because of that.

But even the Eight Gables Inn could make a faux pas with its Chinese guests by featuring a couple on its website where the husband is wearing a green baseball cap. “Man in a green hat” is a Chinese euphemism for cuckold.

I bring up Chinese customers because they have been a growing market for the last decade, but don’t forget other countries. Being sensitive to cultural differences is never a bad idea. For that matter, these potential international clients may not even be tourists, just recent immigrants. Why alienate them when they’re in your backyard and may need your services?

If you’re at a loss for how not to offend that potential client from Suriname, I suggest you check out some travel books. Frommer’s and Lonely Planet usually give tips on local etiquette. Embassy and consulate websites often do the same.

You’re not off the hook with the former English colonies either. A few weeks ago, I quoted Oscar Wilde in my entry on how to get bloggers to write about your business. If I may quote him again:

“England and America have everything in common these days, except for language.”

The same word may have different connotations depending on where you are, and I’m not just talking about England, but also about Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Say your business makes luggage. You also have a line of backpacks, purses and fanny packs. If you aspire to start selling in the United Kingdom, you may want to change the name of the fanny pack line. The word fanny means something quite different over there.

And it’s not just about verbal gaffes. If you sell clothing, it’s a good idea to include not just American sizes. Or measurements that are only in inches and feet.

The measurement issue also comes up if you’re running a food business. When you include recipes on your site, remember that an American cup may not be the same as an Australian one. Or that Canadians measure liquids in liters, not gallons. Or that some ovens measure heat according to Celsius, not Fahrenheit. If you don’t want to clutter up your recipes with all the conversions, consider linking to a conversion calculator, or to a version of your recipe with the alternate measurements.

It may seem like a lot of extra work, but the benefits make it worthwhile. Before the Internet, smaller enterprises didn’t have the resources to become a global brand. Now they do, and there’s no reason why you have to repeat the cultural gaffes the big companies have made in the past.

Or continue to make: Video game giant Nintendo recently delayed the release of its latest Mario Brothers game.  Why? Could it be that their Chinese audience might object to Luigi wearing a green hat?