When doing business on an international level, as most technical writers do, it is important to study the culture of the audience you are writing for. Not only do different cultures have different ways of doing the same thing, but it is also common for the same thing to mean different things in different cultures – and not always in a good way!

Take Coca-Cola as an example, when moving into the Chinese market, Coca-Cola branded itself with a word which sounded like ‘Coca-Cola’, but translated as ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax’, depending on the dialect. When this was pointed out to them, they withdrew their thousands of printed signs, and after studying 40,000 Chinese characters, came up with the more positive ‘happiness in the mouth’ – also phonetically similar to ‘Coca-Cola’, but infinitely more appropriate!

While cultural differences are more pronounced when also dealing with language differences, one should still be aware of them when dealing with different dialects of the same language. Imagine the confusion when American negotiators proposed to ‘table’ a motion, meaning to discuss the motion; their British counterparts understood that they wanted to ‘table’ the motion – to dismiss it. While misunderstandings can be cleared up face-to-face, it is not as easy when dealing with printed documents.

So, when writing technical or marketing documentation it is vital to research the culture of the people you’re writing for, and probably a good idea to find someone from that culture to proofread for you.

Coca-Cola photo courtesy of popsop.com,