Pitfalls in international communication

A German Sunday newspaper ran a piece the other day about the lack of understanding US corporations often have of the specific cultural contexts of public debate in Germany (or other foreign markets), leading to major mistakes being made especially in crisis situations. They were specifically referring to Amazon that,  in a TV report, had been accused of treating temporary workers inadequately. This lead to an outcry among media, politicians, unions and so forth, and eventually mounted up to several calls for boycott. Amazon, the article resumes, fell short of providing answers that weren’t only factually correct, but would also emotionally address the German public’s severe emotional concerns related to the topic.

One might say that, even for a German, it sometimes is difficult to understand the levels of affection attributed to topics that elsewhere might just be regarded minor incidents. Yet, of course, from a professional communications perspective this is exactly what needs to happen when engaging in different markets: to understand the individual cultural frameworks, and anticipate the public impact of any corporate activity under those specific local circumstances.

In fact, when teaching International Communications, intercultural issues are one of my (and usually the students’) favorite topics, as often they aren’t only instructive, but even a bit of fun.

So here’s a couple of examples of intercultural pitfalls.


Not surprisingly, language is one of the major triggers for failing intercultural communication. It starts with supposedly simple thing like slogans and taglines. Research has shown that, for example, two-thirds of German consumers don’t understand English slogans, yet more and more companies (even German ones) start employing exactly that. Quite strange, if you look at what consumers really get out of those well-meant sexy slogans.

Perfumery chain Douglas goes after customers with the claim “Come In And Find out”; which, according to above-mentioned research, many Germans read along the lines of “Get into the store, and try to find your way out again”. Youtube’s claim “Broadcast Yourself” is occasionally understood  as “Make your own Breadbox” (the English word “broad” sounds like “Brot”, the German term for bread; and “cast” has the sound of “Kasten” – the English “box”). Similarly, Levi’s claim “live unbuttoned” is interpreted as “live without buttons”.

Product names can have unintended effects on consumer perception in different languages as well. The Mitsubishi Pajero didn’t ever sell all that well in Spanish-speaking markets, where pajero means, well… “wanker”. The Chevrolet Nova wasn’t much appreciated there either, since to Spanish ears it reads “No Va” – doesn’t work. An unforgettable advertising was created by Electrolux (before my time there!), promoting its vacuum cleaners in the US under the headline “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”.

Quick learning: Always involve local native speakers when drafting text that is meant to be made public.

Mimics, gestures, visuals

As a student, I served an internship in Thessaloniki/Greece and, although I could sort of speak the language, I was taken aback initially by what I considered very rude responses when I asked people something. Often they’d just lift their chin a little bit which, to a German, pretty much signals “piss off”, while in local culture it’s simply the equivalent of us shaking our head to say “no”. Making gestures can be slippery ground as well; forming your thumb and forefinger to a ring means “excellent” in most Western European cultures, while in the Middle East it probably will be perceived as an insult. Same goes for pictures. For example, a model holding the bottom of her naked feet into the camera would communicate a notion of relaxation in Western Countries, while in many Asian societies, showing this part of your body is a signal of disdain.

Quick learning: Careful with gestures, mimics and postures in e.g. media interviews, or press photography, in foreign markets. Get yourself acquainted with individual habits and traditions before going public in any way.


In international corporate communications, heritage plays a certain role, for instance with respect to the image of a company in a given market – often closely interlinked with the image of the corporation’s home country in general. Chinese companies are met with skepticism when trying to acquire Western companies. GM, “the Americans”, are easily blamed for all the trouble happening to good old “German” car producer Opel.

Quick learning: Take into account the associations that people may have in connection with your company and what it represents – in a broader sense, beyond the pure business mission.

Relevance of topics

Another important factor is the relevance – and acceptance – of a given topic in different countries. Nuclear energy, since Mrs. Merkel’s “Energiewende”, has turned into a complete non-topic in Germany, while Russia has no problem in proudly promoting a “Miss Atom” contest…

Quick learning: When planning an international campaign, make sure you understand individual local market conditions, perceptions, and attitudes towards the topic you plan to promote. Prioritize, and adapt your messaging accordingly.

Major public sensitivities

While operational elements of communication like, for example, copy text and visuals can – at least theoretically – be individually controlled, it is much more difficult for international corporations to catch the general mood on relevant topics in a given society. The level of occupation with issues like waste, recycling, or data safety in Germany is probably hard to grasp at the other end of the Atlantic; while, vice versa, a European perspective may fail to fully reflect the severity of sexual harassment rules in the US. Genetically modified crop, to take another example, is viewed as a prosperous future technology in the US, while it is largely condemned by public opinion in Germany.

Ignoring those frameworks can lead to significant set-backs, if a company comes in trumpeting a brilliant business model just to find itself under attack from media and other parties. Take Google’s Eric Schmidt, who’s bragging about the fact that the company hardly pays any taxes in Europe has had not only a heavily damaging effect on Google’s (already quite shaky) image over here, but will most certainly also lead to concrete actions by tax authorities trying to capture a larger share.

Quick learning: Gather local intelligence before simply deploying a centrally developed campaign which may backfire. If need be, adapt your messaging, priorities, or refrain from launching in this country altogether.

This entry was posted in Corporate Communications, International PR, Public Relations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Pitfalls in international communication

  1. Pingback: Pitfalls in international communication | English as an international lingua franca in education | Scoop.it

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