UK Exporters: Don’t get Lost In Translation

Thanks largely to Hollywood and cheap jet travel, the British traveler often knows that to satisfy the cravings of a sweet tooth, you need to ask for a cookie in an America bakery, and not a biscuit, which will get you some kind of breakfast or dinner roll. And to answer nature’s call, Brits often understand that you’ll get there faster in the US by asking for the bathroom or the restroom, and not the loo.

Conversely, many Americans know that in Britain, French fries are called chips, and that if they want potato chips in the UK, they need to ask for crisps. The fact that in London the tube is something that you ride, not something that you watch, is also a usage many Americans are clear about.

At the same time, there’s still work to do in terms of closing the ‘cross pond understanding gap. Just ask a Brit who’s pulled into an American auto repair shop with a silencer problem. In the US, a silencer is a device that muffles the sound of a gun. It’s a muffler that quiets the exhaust rush of a car in the USA. And noting that a woman is homely in the US is no complement. It means she’s ugly, not that she is skilled in the domestic arts, the British meaning of the term.

While it is true that almost anyone with a British accent will be well received in the US, that does not mean you can shoot from the lip without consequence. Just ask Tony Hayward, former head of BP. During the height of distress over BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico several years ago, tone deaf Tony told a reporter, “I’d like my life back,” and then showed up shortly after in a yacht race off the Isle of Wight.

The public relations gaffes cost Hayward his job and undercut BP’s efforts to limit reputation damage. As a seasoned international executive, Tony Hayward should have known better. A case of “right words/wrong music”, his experience underlines for those looking for business in the US, especially for the first time, that clear communication needs some special attention.

Despite the powerful sweep of globalization and the rich shared cultural heritage of the two countries, America and Britain are still, in some ways, two great nations separated by a common language. The everyday language of commerce and industry has not been popularized by the media, visits to Disney World or Windsor Castle. As the UK moves to expand its export sector, this reality is particularly important for businesses seeking to establish a US presence.

Consider the following composite example, drawn from a number of experiences over the years.

The management consultant, eager to expand her practice in the US, was describing a recent client engagement to an American listener. “Turnover at the family business had grown considerably in recent years,” she explained, “and the company was wrestling with bringing in an MD from outside.”

To British ears, the issues were quite straightforward: A fast-growing family owned and managed company was weighing the costs and benefits of bringing in someone from outside to take over top management.

To the American listener, relatively new to the business language of the UK, the meaning of that sentence was quite different: A company that was having trouble retaining employees was thinking about bringing in some kind of medical doctor to fix things.

“This makes no sense,” the listener thought to himself. To get the conversation back on track from his point of view, he had to ask whether what he was hearing was actually what was going on. In the process, he was forced to make the mental note that this particular consultant, and her organization – no matter how skilled – just might not translate seamlessly enough to the US market. If people don’t automatically understand each other from the start, it can create problems down the road, he reasoned.

In the example above, the confusion was created by the British use of the word “turnover” to mean sales or revenues. In the US, “turnover” is most often used as a measure of employee retention, and “growing turnover” is usually a signal of organizational dysfunction. An MD in Britain is the person in charge, the Managing Director. In the US, the person in charge is the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) or President. Managing Director is a business title that is used in the US, but it often refers to someone in middle or upper middle management. When someone says MD, pronouncing the initials, an American almost always hears that as a medical doctor.

Communication gaps like this will not automatically break deals.

The right product or service at the right price, delivered reliably at high quality, will always be the universal currency of business success. You can’t win without it. But you usually need more than the basics to start the cash flowing. The chemistry has to be right, and clear communication is the foundation. Even the slightest misunderstanding or incorrect interpretation can sometimes spell the difference between closing the deal and going away empty-handed.

The point is simple, but important. To promote clear communication when you are speaking to anyone in a business (or even personal) context, it is necessary to have the best possible understanding of your audience, why it came to hear you, the benefit it expects from the interaction and the specific needs and concerns it brings to the conversation. This “market research” needs to embrace differences in language and meaning, even when the common language is English.

In the business of British/American commerce, this means taking a bit of extra time to make sure that the language you use and the story you tell are clearly and correctly understood. You don’t want to see a successful transaction get lost in translation.