If your business requires that you communicate with counterparts elsewhere around the globe, be careful — even when you think they speak the same language.
I was reminded of this while reading Robert Serling’s excellent history of the Boeing Company, “Legend & Legacy.” (Trivia note: his brother Rod used to appear on an early-60s TV show you might remember.) Serling shared a story of a visit by the UK’s Prince Philip to a Boeing research facility, where an engineer proudly described the safety of a space vehicle by noting that it had three redundant hydraulic systems. The Prince was confused and asked, “If they’re redundant, why don’t you get rid of them?” When we say “redundant,” we think “duplicate,” but the Brits use the word to mean “useless and unnecessary.”
The English we speak in the U.S. isn’t the same language used by English-speakers on other continents, so if you’re targeting another country, it’s a wise idea to have a native speaker review your words. Even within the U.S., there are differences in vernacular. Back when I worked as a stagehand in my college days, a fellow stagehand who grew up near Boston mentioned that he was “off to the bubbler” before disappearing for several minutes. The third time he said that, the stage manager and I became so intrigued that we decided to follow him. We caught up with him at the water fountain. Seems they’re known as “bubblers” in his corner of New England (and in parts of Wisconsin, I later learned).
But the funniest reminder was related by South African comic (and Daily Show host) Trevor Noah during his recent stand-up performance in Indianapolis. He told of his first visit to a taco truck in Los Angeles shortly after his arrival in the U.S. Seems Noah had never eaten tacos and wasn’t even sure what they were. After he placed his order, the taco truck operator inquired as to whether he wanted a napkin. Noah was horrified and asked why in the world he might need a napkin. The man replied, “For the mess after eating the tacos.”
You see, in South Africa and much of the English-speaking world, “napkin” has a very different meaning. It’s what we in the U.S. call a diaper.