Memo to myself: we are not all from the same global village. We are from millions of different villages. That’s a good thing – diversity of experience and perspective makes the world a richer place – and a never-ending challenge for communicators.
I recently spent a week in a country where I did not speak the local language. This gave me plenty of time to think about the challenges of communicating with people who do not share the same language and cultural references.
Here is my resulting checklist for communication professionals who want to make their efforts widely understood:
- A picture is worth a billion words, but only if it is clear. Words are meaningless to someone who cannot read them, but pictures can be interpreted in any language. But the picture, icon, or image needs to be clear. As one example, I encountered one sign that had a man and a woman crossed out (no pedestrians?), over another sign of the same man and woman not crossed out. The words under each seemed to be the same. I am still scratching my head over the intended meaning of that one.
- Honor preferences. I went into one shop and let the shopkeeper know I did not speak the local language and I just wanted to browse. She hung back and I was able to look around comfortably (and wound up buying something.) At another shop, the really eager sales person understood my message but kept talking at me. I smiled and extracted myself as soon as I could; it was uncomfortable to not be able to reply to her.
- Keep things basic. After a week, I picked up on some basic written instructions and social niceties. I was feeling pretty good, but was quickly thrown off when my simple greeting led to a long response or when written material was written to be clever and not straightforward. This was particularly evident at a hotel that seemed to want to cater to a hip crowd; all the signs had exclamation points and offered even basic information in a non-straightforward manner. For example, the standard message about helping to save the environment by not asking for a new towel every day started with “Ouch!”
As a foreign traveler, it was not my desire for everything to be in English or for local people to change their ways for my sake. I wanted to experience something new. I just needed some thoughtful and accessible communication practices to support me along the way. We should do no less for the audiences we are touching in our work.