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Is the Internet Changing Everything?

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.


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.”

Lucia Fort     Art on Tiles
Abigail Marshall    Dyslexia, the Gift
Stephen Choi    Technology Consultant
Eva Rosenberg    Tax Mama
Jeff Clark    Internet Brothers
William Johnson (deceased)   Net Profit Now!

This arti­cle was writ­ten about eight-ten years ago, but it’s worth the read.


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