Pitfalls of International Communication

lost in translationIn the business of public relations, it’s all about reaching out to the public and pushing your message. Utilizing every media outlet available, the end goal is ensuring that whatever piece of information you want people to know, they know, and have access to spread that information to others. This is difficult in the best of circumstances. Even with the interconnected world as it is today, with information available on TV, radio, the web, social media, newspapers, magazines, books, pamphlets, stone tablets, sidewalk chalk, and literally every medium that humanity has ever discovered to communicate between individuals, it can be nearly impossible to get a simple message out.

That problem grows even more difficult when you work in the different ways in which different groups of people communicate. The largest, and most obvious roadblock, is different languages. There are nearly 7,000 languages in the world, some of which are spoken only by small, remote groups of people. Even if you just keep it to the “major” languages, there are still nearly 200 different tongues spoken across the planet, with various dialectical differences and regional mannerisms that make the “same” languages very different in active communication.

For example, while both the United States and Great Britain speak English as their primary languages, there are significant differences in communication. If someone from London said they “were going to their mate’s house, but first had to get their rubbers from the boot,” an average American could be very confused. The words are all “English” but have different colloquial meaning. In England, mate is a friend, but in America, that term is used for a spouse or life partner, particularly for animals. British “rubbers” are AmEngland and US erican rain boots or waders, and their “boot” is our trunk of the car.

This is only one obstacle to communicating internationally, even if the languages are the same. When languages are different, that creates yet another layer of problems. Though there are many fantastic online translators, and programs that work to open communication between languages, it still loses nuance, and can lead to more messaging problems than it solves. For PR firms like 5W Public Relations, this means not just having to get an international message out in the right language, it means getting it out in the best form of the language.

Even with all the communications technology available to the world today, actual interpersonal communication continues to be difficult. Things are misheard, misread, misrepresented, or just missed. The sharing of information is a delicate art, and to master it means to master it in all its forms. In America, everyone knows what giving a middle finger means. In other countries, different hand gestures mean different things, or the same as a middle finger. A picture of someone making the “O.K.” hand gesture in the States can mean that they think everything is good, while the same gesture is insulting to someone in Latin America. Know how to communicate internationally, and the world will open itself to you.

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Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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