Today, the internet and advances in communication technologies have opened new opportunities for both large and small businesses that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. With a single web page and a cellphone, any business person can reach new customers, partners and suppliers anywhere in the world. However, communicating with people on a global scale is not the same as communicating with people locally. Not only are there more technological hurdles to overcome, but you also need to address language barriers and cultural nuances.
At its root, global communication can be defined just as any communication can: a message is sent from one person or group to another anywhere in the world., which can be described as a five-step process:
- A person or an organization in one country sends a message.
- The message is encoded.
- The message travels through a channel or medium.
- The receiver in another country decodes the message.
- The recipient receives the message.
When it comes to communicating globally, it is usually in the encoding and decoding that problems occur. As with any communication, ensuring that the message is received as it was intended is the responsibility of the sender.
One of the most common forms of global communication is an email. A person in one country types a message and clicks the send button. The message is then encoded into packets which are sent across the internet to the recipient. In another country, the receiver logs in and decodes the message by opening the email, and retrieves the message.
When someone from another country reads your company's web page, this too is an example of global communication. The message is written and encoded in HTML, uploaded to a server, which is then accessed across the internet and decoded by a web browser – and perhaps a translation plugin – before the recipient reads it.
In both of these examples, noise can distort the message or make it undecipherable. In electronic communication, noise can include anything from typos that change the context of a sentence to a failed internet connection, which could make it appear that you are not communicating anything at all.
With global communication, encoding and decoding the message can be more complicated than when you are communicating with someone in your own country due to differences in language and culture. If either the sender or receiver isn't proficient in the language being used to send the message, translation issues can add noise, distorting the message. Even small cultural differences can add noise. While most Americans, for example, associate the word "cheers" with drinking, someone from the UK may informally use the word as a way of saying thank you, or goodbye. In Quebec, Canada, a car is often called "un char," which most translation services decode as a "chariot" or a "tank."
Global communication becomes more complicated when there are multiple recipients from different cultures with different languages all receiving the same message, as well as when there are more layers added to the channel. For example, if a world leader makes a speech broadcast across the globe, people from one region may rejoice at the news, while others may find it offensive. In this case, the channel itself can involve many different layers, as translators, news, editors and commentators each interpret the message differently before passing it on to the intended audiences.
Because there are so many different ways communication can fail in a global context, businesses must be diligent in reducing as many potential errors as possible, especially those related to differences in language and culture.
Before attempting to do business with people in another country, organizations should become familiar with cultural differences that can arise in different contexts. It may be necessary to hire consultants who are experienced with that country.
For large ventures, like a major product launch in a different country, Debra Davenport of Purdue University recommends hiring a team of local specialists from that country, including:
- a corporate law firm
- a protocol and etiquette specialist
- a media consultant
- a human resources and labor law expert
- a management consulting firm
- a corporate anthropologist
- a market research firm
Each of these specialists is able to give insights into local laws and customs to help ensure the new venture doesn't result in unnecessary complications or liabilities that could destroy a company's reputation before they even get started. Small businesses may not have the budget to bring on a team of specialists. However, they still need to be familiar with local laws, culture and language.
Whenever you are communicating with someone in their language, it is your responsibility to ensure that the words you use are correct. This includes advertising and marketing. Over the past several decades there have been many large and successful companies that have made mistakes when translating what they wanted to say to a different language, often with offensive, or even hilarious, results. Here are a few examples of some translation misfires:
- Germany: Clairol marketed a new curling iron named "Mist Stick." In German, mist means manure.
- China: Coca-Cola's name was mistranslated when it began selling its product to the Chinese, who were told to "bite the wax tadpole."
- Ethiopia: When Gerber began selling its baby food here, they used the same label design as in other countries, featuring a cute infant. In Ethiopia, however, where not everyone was literate, the custom was that images on a label only depicted the jar's contents.
- Mexico: When Parker Pen began marketing its pens to this Spanish country, its motto, "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you" was translated to, "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant."
- Thailand: Ikea entered this market using the same Swedish names for its products that it used all over the world. However, many of these names in Thai mean "sex," or have sexual implications, like"getting to third base."
A common way small businesses first become involved in global operations is by hiring a firm or consultant from another country, like a company in the United States hiring a software development team in India with more affordable rates than those who are available locally.
Throughout their initial conversations, the American manager may be focused on the project requirements, timelines and deliverables. The Indian manager, on the other hand, may be more focused on building a solid relationship with a new client. After the American manager carefully explains the project requirements and deliverable in terms she believes are easy to understand, the Indian manager has many questions but does not ask them. Instead, he says, "Yes," and agrees to take on the project. Weeks later, when the Indian team completes the first phase of the project, it does not meet the Americans' expectations and the relationship falls apart.
This was caused by a cultural nuance, in which the word "Yes" did not necessarily mean that the Indian manager understood everything and was in agreement. It was simply a word that he used to move the relationship forward. Had the American manager understood this, she could have invested more time in fostering their new relationship before assuming that they were in agreement, thus avoiding the problem.
Increasing communication from a local to a global scale has many ramifications beyond cultural pitfalls and language barriers. One example is the increase in emails and other messages people receive every day, many of which are sent from different time zones, often when the recipient is not even awake to read them in a timely manner. Many business people now receive up to 200 emails each day, which is too many to read carefully and respond to in a thoughtful manner. The result is that many emails are merely scanned before being deleted, or filtered away by software, never to be even read.
Business people must be diligent in trying to ensure that the most important emails don't get lost in the volume. A legitimate query from a potential new client could get mistaken for spam. An important question from a business partner could get lost in a series of replies in an unrelated thread of messages. Additionally, when sending an email, business people have no assurances that the message will be received and read by the recipient.
Another complication in global communication for businesses is overcoming the disadvantage you have when competing with local companies. While face-to-face meetings can be replaced with video conference calls, subtleties of body language can't always be captured on video. A frown from an executive during a presentation, for example, is a crucial piece of visual information that you could easily miss on video, particularly when that executive may be off-camera at that moment.
There are many other pieces of important information that get lost when you are interacting with someone across the globe. When doing business locally, it's usually quite easy to discern between a company located in the business district, whose ads you have noticed on billboards and local radio for a number of years, compared to a business located in an apartment building on the outskirts of town. On the other hand, when you are approached by a company located in a different country, you may not have much to go with beyond what they state on their website. Finding out more about a foreign firm usually requires much more time and research.
On top of that, you may also need to spend more time researching the region where a foreign company is based. You should know, for example:
- How strong is their currency?
- Is the local economy stable?
- Are there trade agreements or tariffs that would affect your business?
- What recourse will you have if they don't pay their bills?
- How will you find out if there are changes in any of these answers?
Despite the risks, operating a business on a global level has many benefits that far outweigh those risks. Not only does doing business on a global level open up new markets for selling products and services, it can give you access to resources and talent that may not be available locally. While every business is different, it's worthwhile to note that Coca-Cola didn't stop selling their products worldwide because of a few translation problems.
As the world has continued to become more tightly connected and communication technologies have continued to evolve, the benefits as a whole can be illustrated by the market penetration of these new technologies themselves. The more globally connected the world has become, the faster people have adopted new global communication technologies.
The telephone, which was the greatest global communication technology of its time, replacing the telegraph, took 71 years to reach a market penetration of 50 percent of homes. Electricity took 52 years to reach the same penetration. Radios followed, taking 28 years. Color televisions took 18 years. Personal computers took only 19 years. Cellphones took 14 years, while internet access took only 10 years to reach 50 percent of all homes in the U.S.
Because a growing number of companies are already competing on a global level, any business that wants to compete with them must also open its channels to communicate effectively with the entire world.