2022-11-26 09:05:38

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Don’t knock it till you try it.” “All’s well that ends well.” “God helps those who help themselves.”

These turns of phrase probably make sense to you if you speak English as your primary language. But to those who speak English as an acquired language, such figures of speech can present barriers to communication, making an already difficult language seem like a riddle.

Even to native English speakers, many of these idioms—groups of words with meanings that are unclear without context—can be difficult to understand. Think about the expression, “It’s all downhill from here.”

“To go downhill” is not a positive expression, yet “downhill from here” connotes ease. Moreover, the phrase can mean completely different things, depending on when and how it’s said. “Downhill from here” can mean that things are going to get easier from this point onward—but it can also mean that a situation has gotten out of control, and that things are about to get much worse!

While it may be perfectly fine to rely on idioms and industry-specific jargon when speaking to our colleagues, these highly contextual expressions can get in the way when we are trying to communicate across cultures. Effective business language establishes bridges across diverse communities for mutual advantage. In a changing world where many teams are multinational and multicultural, keeping idioms out of our marketing and communications can help improve clarity, reduce confusion, and build cohesion among groups of people with very different backgrounds.

Idioms: Appealing, but Risky

So why do we default to using idioms, when they have the potential to cause confusion and miscommunication? 

For one thing, idioms can be used to identify a comfortable in-crowd. Idioms or jargon popular in a particular region, country, or industry can be used as “shibboleths”—signals of membership within a particular group. As marketers speaking amongst ourselves, for instance, we may fall back on time-saving jargon that would leave casual observers—and many clients!—baffled. 

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If somebody understands you when you tell them you’re keeping track of “KPIs” for the latest “drip campaign” through your “CRM,” you can quickly identify them as a fellow marketer. If instead they give you a blank stare, chances are they are not part of the marketing “in-group.” 

This ability to identify members of a community or in-group can be comforting. As humans, we have a tendency to seek out people like ourselves, and sharing a language is a powerful way to build a sense of identity within a group. Unfortunately, such linguistic shortcuts can also keep us stuck in our own contextual bubbles, isolated from outside perspectives via confirmation bias. And in an increasingly globalized world, using culturally specific language to try and communicate across cultures can have disastrous results…

"I just love" this toilet

Companies looking to advertise in different regions and to different groups can run into major issues if they are unaware of their own cultural biases when it comes to idioms and catchphrases.

An immensely helpful study from Jonkoping International Business School “Global marketing advertising with cultural differences” delves into many of these dimensions and why they are crucial to understand when reaching different cultures. In this article, attention is drawn to McDonald’s campaign to go ‘glocal’ by exhibiting a brand which leverages local appeal to support the company’s worldwide presence. However, McDonald’s use of its idiomatic catchphrase “I’m lovin’ it” has led to some distasteful and humorous instances where the context simply does not translate.

This article by sinologist Victor Mair documents an instance where the translation 我就喜歡 ("I just love [it]”) is displayed prominently next to a reference to a nearby toilet. As Mair’s colleague puts it: "Great marketing: 'Yes, I'd like to eat at the McDonald's next to the public toilet."

There are numerous other examples of marketing slogans translated from English to Chinese which are a result of a severe disconnect, many of which have gone viral for their hilarity.

The Role of Context in Communication

As we can see, idioms and jargon offer both benefits and drawbacks. To what degree should we temper and monitor these turns of phrase if we want to communicate globally? 

The idea of high-context and low-context cultures can be a helpful gauge of communication. The concept of high-context culture was introduced in anthropologist Edward Hall’s book The Silent Language, where he identifies high-context cultures as those wherein the well-being of the group is prioritized over individual achievement. Understanding the degree of context in a culture can help determine how explicit phrases need to be vs. how much can be assumed based upon a shared background.

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Certain cultures, including workplace cultures, may leverage a high amount of context, requiring a new hire or business partner to overcome hurdles which the in-group may take for granted. Lowering the context of a workplace is good for openness and honesty in an organization, and mindfulness of the use of idioms can help with this a great deal.

As a rule of thumb in written communication, setting a low-context trend can help to make it clear that you as a company and a brand value honesty and clarity.

The Importance of Humility

When branding and marketing across cultures it can benefit immensely to speak and write in a manner that people can understand without the benefit of cultural context. Communicating in a way that is helpful to as wide a group as possible, across cultures and times, is both a good business practice and a marker of consideration for the needs of others. 

The future of global messaging involves unity in diversity, and striving together hand in hand with an attitude of humility. Recognizing the air we breathe and the cultural context we come from can help us to rise above this and recognize the immense map of contexts and understandings which are steadily growing closer. To use a very global idiom, which is common in the northern hemisphere: the lodestar for our global future is humility.