7 Ways to Avoid Misunderstandings When Writing for an International Audience

Ugur Akinci, Ph.D.

Technical communicators are increasingly catering to an international audience due to the expansion of the global market place. Such a development requires a new vigilance when writing technical documents in order to minimize inadvertent cross-cultural misunderstandings.

Here are 7 things to watch for when writing for an international audience (like I’m doing now):

(1) Watch for your date formats.

In the United States the date is always written with month first, day second, followed by the year as in 10/3/2010 for “October 3rd, 2010.”

But in a lot of other countries the same date would translate as “March 3rd, 2010” since day is written first, followed by the month and then the year.

To eliminate such mishaps completely, always write the month in open form, as in “October 3rd, 2010” or “3 October 2010”.

(2) Watch your large numbers.

A “billion” is not always a billion. It just depends on which country you’re in. For example, in USA, a billion has nine zeros following a 1; but in most European countries it has 12 zeros following it. In Britain, ten to the power of nine is called a “milliard” and not a billion.

A “trillion” has 12 zeros in USA but 18 in Britain. And there are many other large numbers which are interpreted differently in different countries.

So check and double-check your figures to make sure they’ll translate correctly across cultural boundaries.

(3) Watch the way you punctuate your large numbers.

In the United States, a comma is used to separate the triple-digits of a long number for easier reading, and the period is used for a decimal point. For example: $ 4,345 (Four thousand three hundred forty five dollars).

But in some other countries (like Netherlands or Turkey) the decimal “point” is actually a comma, and the period is used for thousands separator. The above amount ($4,345) for example would be read as “four dollars and three hundred forty five cents” – which of course would not make much sense. To read correctly, the same amount should be written in countries like Netherlands and Turkey as $4.345 – with a period.

Always check the local punctuation conventions to avoid a surprise error.

(4) Be formal and polite.

In the United States most people do not mind receiving an email or letter from someone they don’t know that addresses them with their first name. In many other countries that would be perceived as a personal insult. Usually people like to be addresses formally, unless they are very familiar with the other person.

If you offend the other person needlessly by the way you address them you may lose your credibility without even being aware of. Thus play it safe and never get too personal in your communications.

For example, here is how not to start a letter written to a receiver in another country:

“Hey Janos! What’s up bud?!

Long time no see. You guys are ignoring me or what? I mean, it’s been a whale of time since I’ve sent you guys the invoice for that May shipment…”

Instead, try this:

“Dear Mr. Janowski,

How are you since the last time we’ve talked at the Microsoft Conference? I hope all is well with you and your family.

I’m writing to see if you’ve received our May shipment and if the product satisfied your expectations. As you know we always try our best to deliver what we promise and then some.

I also hope you’ve received the Invoice for that same shipment. If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them for you. I’m attaching a second copy of the Invoice with this letter for your convenience and kind attention…”

The short path is usually the wrong path to the hearts and minds of the people that you don’t know too well. When in doubt always choose the “long path” and address them right.

(5) Avoid sports analogies and metaphors.

Cricket is the national sport in India and Pakistan but no one watches it in USA. American Football is all the rage in the United States but no one cares about it in most other countries.

People do not necessarily watch the same sports and thus they are not necessarily familiar with the same sports analogies and metaphors. Be very careful about the way you use sports language in your technical documentation because it may not mean anything for your readers from a different cultural background.

For example, avoid this: “We assure you that we won’t try to resolve this project bottleneck with a Hail Mary pass by installing an untested Prion server.”

If you are not familiar with American football you’d have no idea what a “Hail Mary pass” is.

Instead, write: “We assure you that we won’t try to resolve this project bottleneck with a desperate last-minute measure such as installing an untested Prion server.”

(6) Avoid military analogies and metaphors.

Same lesson: all readers are not familiar with military terms and concepts yet some writers don’t mind using them in their documents. It’s a mistake. Avoid blending in military analogies and metaphors with your technical writing in order to eliminate inadvertent understandings.

For example: “Monday is the D-Day for our new product launch.”

Better: “Monday is when we’ll be releasing our new product to the market.”

Another example: “The message is relayed down the chain of command from the Master module to all the downstream boards in the network.”

Better: “The message is relayed from the Master module down to all the downstream boards in the network.”

(7) Avoid colloquial and idiomatic phrases.

There is no better way to confuse readers from a different cultural background than using local idioms and colloquial expressions. Avoid them like the plague!

For example: “Consult Chapter 6 of the Troubleshooting Guide if you smell a rat.”

Better: “If you suspect there’s a problem, consult Chapter 6 of the Troubleshooting Guide.”

Another example: “If you do not upgrade your systems you’ll eventually pay though the nose.”

Better: “If you do not upgrade your systems you’ll eventually pay a steep price for your neglect.”

About the author:

Ugur Akinci, Ph.D. is a Fortune 500 Senior Technical Communicator sharing his free writing tips and tutorials at http://www.TechnicalCommunicationCenter.com

About the illustration:

Used with permission from Nirupama Singh.


    • That’s right! I guess the copy-editor missed it!
      You have a keen eye Ms Britain! And a nice website. 🙂

  1. Excellent examples! Thanks for sharing this information.

  2. “Avoid them like the plague!”

    I think that is exactly the sort of expression you warn readers (and writers) to avoid by means of that paragraph!

  3. (Forgot to mention in my previous comment.)

    Good article!
    Thank you.

  4. Yes, looking at expanding the base of Technical Writing, this is an admirable article. Trust me I am more irritated with the idiomatic phrases.

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