By Judy Vorfeld
Once upon a time, before the Kádár regime closed the borders between Austria and Hungary, 194,000 Hungarians fled their homeland. Among these people were desperate, determined members of a very special family. They headed out one dark night, taking turns carrying a small girl as they raced toward freedom. They encountered both terror and kindness as their journey took them through Austria and England and finally, after many happy years in Canada, to California.
The small girl grew up to be a successful businesswoman and one of the Internet’s most beloved and respected personalities, Eva Rosenberg — moderator of the popular but now defunct newsgroup, I-HelpDesk/WebReview, and owner of several Internet and bricks-and-mortar businesses. She speaks French, Hungarian, Hebrew, and English. While she can read Russian and Latin, and generally understands German, Dutch and Spanish, she only feels comfortable writing in English.
Rosenberg — along with Stephen Choi, Jeff Clark, Lucia Fort, William Johnson, and Abigail Marshall — agreed to comment on various aspects of communication in the business world.
GENERAL BUSINESS CORRESPONDENCE
Lucia Fort TEXAS, USA After leaving Peru in October 1992 (500 years after Christobal Colon arrived in America), I moved to the U.S. I started my business in 1993. Business correspondence in Spanish has an expected high level. It is very formal. However, depending on the audience, one’s language can be more colloquial.
When I write in English, I try to keep the text to a minimum: I’m still learning the language. I produce my newsletter, write letters and e-mail anyway. If I stopped writing, I would lose everything I’ve learned.
Eva Rosenberg CALIFORNIA, USA I expect the communications I send out to be professional in the standard sense. I want to use good grammar, run the spell-checker, then read the document to make sure that homonyms (their, there, etc.) are not used erroneously in the document. However, as far tone goes, it may be more casual, based on my relationship to the recipient.
Stephen Choi HONG KONG Just as it is difficult for people in the U.S. to write good Chinese messages, one cannot expect too high a standard for non-native speakers. I expect people with English as a Second Language (ESL) to communicate their ideas well, from a practical point of view, but not much more, since they generally use English less than native speakers.
We should not stick to the rules too much regarding everyday correspondence between business friends. This makes writing in English more enjoyable. Also people can express ideas more freely.
Eva Rosenberg As more of the world starts using English for the basis of e-commerce, it will evolve even more. “American” will incorporate ever more foreign business words and phrases. After all, the Internet has a grammar and protocol of its own. And we need rules of communication in order to understand one another. I have seen good people misunderstand each other because words that one person uses evoke a cultural taboo in the other person’s mind. Although the offense was not intended, often the offended party stalks off, furious, without ever explaining why.
Without structure, this kind of thing will happen more frequently. The world may be getting smaller, but we still have only our own cultural perspective from which to view it. I’d hate to see “English” or “American” try to remain as rigid as the guardians of the French language try to keep theirs. That attitude has done nothing but generate conflict or amusement, at their expense.
William Johnson ARIZONA, USA Although I preached it with total conviction to a class of teen ESL students in rural Costa Rica, I no longer buy the gospel of American English spreading through the Net like some linguistic kudzu that threatens to choke out all other languages. That is what we Americans “think” and that may be what we Americans “wish” at some level, but that is not how h. sapiens does language.
The Tower of Babel is not a myth to explain the past, but a living metaphor. There are so many Englishes now in different parts of the world it is scary. In India there are more than a dozen Mutually Unintelligible Englishes (and this has happened just since the British left in 1947). There are several distinct Englishes in the West Indies and along the Atlantic Coast of Central and South America. You listen and you know you are hearing English but you cannot tell what they are talking about or how they feel about it.
American “culture,” of course, is racing around the globe at the speed of the boob tube and the silver screen. Our culture (or fragments of it like Gilligan, Mickey Mouse, and the Marlboro Man) gains acceptance, but the English accompanying these fragments of our culture gets twisted as much as necessary to fit into native patterns of speech and culture.
Stephen Choi Hong Kong businesspeople use English for “important occasions.” For example, contracts are sometimes in both English and Chinese but the authority will be the one written in English. We mostly read in “casual Chinese,” but seldom write business correspondence in Chinese. There’s no difference for the character set for different dialects. But in Hong Kong, where most speak Cantonese, they use some characters that cannot be found in dictionaries, in order to achieve some kind of reader-friendliness.
Eva Rosenberg When a non-English speaker takes the time to write to me in my own language, I consider it quite brave. I make a great many allowances for grammar and syntax. However, if it is a business document, I do expect that they had taken the trouble to run it through a spell-checker. (And in the HelpDesk, whenever possible, I clean up their posts, so as not to embarrass them. They have my admiration.)
While many small Internet business people sell products or services, they don’t always use perfect American English or English English. I have friends, colleagues, and relatives from around the world who use English as a Second Language: people of worth. People I trust. But strangers won’t feel the same way about them, if their language or syntax is confusing.
Stephen Choi Many messages have been written without being concise, precise and presentable. This wastes the readers’ time and also may lead to misunderstanding and mistakes. I believe that people writing English sometimes choose words better suited to elegant literature. This may be construed as showing off. It may also send the unintentional message that the writer is not friendly. Good correspondence should be reader friendly: people tend to prejudge the quality of your service by making an inference from the quality of your written materials.
Jeff Clark WEST VIRGINIA, USA The term excellence implies proper, correct, exemplary. Anything less is simply not excellent. Whether on paper or online media, prepare copy as if for your high school language teacher. Good enough is never good enough. Encountering an error distracts the reader from the content you are trying to portray. Whether it be spelling, context, or grammar, what they are likely to remember is the error, not your message. Even the best readers only average 20% comprehension. If you inject errors, expect near 0%.
While it is easy to understand why content developers whose native language is not English will be prone to more errors, and perhaps be more forgiving, it doesn’t make it any more excusable. The same is true for English cultures writing in other languages. Cultural differences make professional translation extraordinarily important in business documents.
While slang or regional metaphors may be understood and even humorous within the same culture, when literally translated they may actually be insulting. There is a lot more to translation than merely word by word exchange like many computerized programs do. Clear understanding of ethnic values and traditions can mean the difference between impressing or demeaning your potential client.
As far as varying attitudes toward communication, it’s purely economic. Those who present professionally will be paid in kind. Those who don’t will miss their entitlement programs after the next tax revolt.
Lucia Fort In my business, it seems that 90% of the people that see a web site or news of art are looking for photographs. I learn from my site that visitors do not read much. I receive a lot of requests for information that is already written next to the pictures on my website. Many people prefer to phone instead of using email.
A typical question is size of the artwork or tile. Even when I have this information on each picture on my site. I just hired an assistant who is coming each afternoon to help me answer e-mails messages (she is from USA.) But sometimes even she has problems understanding what a client wants. And I think it is because many people have problems on verbal communication (including myself). Many tell me that if they just see it they would know if it is what are looking for. They cannot describe it.
Eva Rosenberg I immediately notice poor grammar. When I receive a document that contains misspellings, it reveals something about the author and colors my view of his/her skills. It particularly annoys me when someone sends me something all in lower-case, with the “i” not capitalized, sentences running together or incomplete. Frankly, if I can get away with it, I trash it.
Stephen Choi Our business objective in writing in English is always to communicate effectively. We find it hard to keep strictly to grammatical rules. Also it’s too costly, for example, to spend half an hour polishing English for an e-mail message.
Abigail Marshall CALIFORNIA, USA It is important for business people to realize that poor spelling and difficulty with written expression is not necessarily a sign that the person is poorly educated and certainly does not reflect on their intelligence.
This is true for people who are not native English speakers as well as for those with learning disabilities. I suggest that employers look at the overall skills and talents of their employees, and encourage people to work in teams or groups for things like presentations. Often the most creative people are the ones who have the most problems with spelling and grammar.
I see value in the many technological advances — such as computerized voice-to-text dictation systems, and spelling & grammar checkers that really do make things easier for dyslexic adults in the workplace. Employers should encourage the use of these tools, because they tend to enhance productivity for everyone.
Be flexible when reading the writing of others who may not have the benefit of a solid education in English…or who have learning disabilities…or who are in the process of enthusiastically taking on English as a second (or third) language.
When using your own language, keep your audience in mind and write accordingly. Strive for excellence out of self-respect and respect for the recipient. Make sure you have names spelled correctly. This is just as true for people from English cultures writing in other languages.
“As pioneers in an exciting new field, one that embraces people and ideas from many global cultures,” says Eva Rosenberg, “we constantly discover new ways of transacting and perceiving business. Some of us literally create new business methods, rich with quality and good ethics, but…different.
“Don’t ignore your standards. When good grammar and usage are primary to a business, expect excellence. Provide excellence. If, however, good grammar, spelling, and usage are not primary, but still provide value, we may need to consider the words in light of the intent of the e-mail messages, comments to newsgroups and discussion boards, articles, and/or Web sites.”
This article was written about eight-ten years ago, but it’s worth the read.