What do you mean, too American?
Writing for an American audience when you are not a native speaker of English has its own unique challenges, and I’ve written about that previously. Here’s a look at the other side of the picture: American writers who want to succeed in persuading, informing, or selling to individuals and organizations outside the United States. Many of us work for US-based companies and our work is created in English, then distributed to locations where our company has offices. English is the standard – particularly in technology – so I always assumed I was pretty much the gold standard, since I’m a native speaker of English, an excellent writer, and a master of the rules that govern written communication. Go me.
My first inkling that I might be just a tad narrow in my view of the rest of the world came rather abruptly when I was reading an American publication that referred to R.O.W. Even my knowledge of Internet slang didn’t help me here, and the hair stood up on my neck when I realized that they were referring to the Rest Of the World – everybody but us. I began to be at least a little more aware of language that might annoy people outside of the United States. But it took a clear “not good enough” message from a colleague to wake me up.
A number of years ago, I was responsible for all marketing communications for a software company’s “Americas Region.” When I created a case study or other publication with the intention of sharing it in other regions, life began to be much more interesting.
I sent a case study off to my colleague and counterpart in the company’s “EMEA Region” (Europe, the Middle East and Africa). With typical American hubris, I assumed she would think it was great. What a story! Customer with branches around the world loves our mid-sized American software company. Our mutual customer. Great news, right? What could go wrong?
Although I was very good at writing American English, my colleague spoke five languages, as many Europeans do. But that didn’t intimidate me since we were an American company writing in English, so what could be wrong with my excellent case study?
“It’s too American,” she said.
I was flabbergasted. “What do you mean, too American?” As though anything could possibly be too American!
I asked her for specifics, and she couldn’t say what it was that tripped her “too American” button. I told her that I couldn’t take off my “American” glasses and needed more information. I asked if the fonts were the problem? The colors? The graphics? Reading level? I re-read the story, looking for idiomatic speech or regional usage that would not be clear. In a word, nada.
We agreed to sleep on it and, of course, I couldn’t think of a single problem. But she did.
Is it color or graphics or style or… ??
Next morning (five hours apart), she had just a single word for me. In her quiet way she explained that she had read and re-read, altering some words to see if it made a difference. And finally, she saw the problem as clearly as if someone had shone a light on it. And the problem was – simply – hype. She said, “Europeans don’t like language that says a product is the best, the fastest, the newest, the strongest.” Maybe, she said with a sigh, Europe has been around long enough to avoid chasing the latest bright shiny object.
I was gobsmacked!
Well, our English, Scottish and Irish friends might say that, but it means astonished, astounded or flummoxed.
I went back to the case study, looking for evidence that my colleague was wrong. What hype?? But, oh, it was there. Once I looked for it, it permeated the story.
Taking out my hype-clippers, I did my best to tame the hype, taking it down to a level that would not cause Europeans to feel suddenly ill.
The trimmed and tidy case study went back to my colleague for another read, and she was pleased (not thrilled, but pleased – I have rarely known the Dutch to be thrilled since that is clearly an example of – what? hype!).
We trimmed a little more, and I wondered aloud if we needed a spell checker that looked for an “est” suffix on every word. We agreed that, in the future, I would just add a “hype-step” to my own proofreading. I promised to eliminate the outrageous and reduce the overall occurrences of hype. Well – sort of – I guess I promised – I would try my very, very, very best!