English is the universal language, right? So all native English speakers know how to communicate with an international audience, right? Wrong. Sadly, there are plenty of traps to fall into when writing for internationals. Find out what to look out for, how to get your audience right and how to avoid common pitfalls.
You’ve made a foreign country your home, learned the language, finally got to grips with the locals’ sense of humour. You might even say you’ve assimilated. Well, be warned: assimilation opens the door to going native linguistically, too. Those words and phrases that are almost-but-not-quite right start creeping in. You’re so used to asking for a Cola Light, you forget that Diet Coke is what it’s called in English. You’ve caught yourself welcoming people in Amsterdam and started signing off work emails with the somewhat redundant wish “I hope to have informed you well”. Dutch word order is starting to infect your sentence structure and saying “You’re going Saturday to the film, yes?” seems quite natural. When writing, you might suddenly praise a surprising art exhibition at a breeding ground. Or you wax lyrically about Amsterdam’s top-quality knowledge institutions.
At best, this kind of Dunglish might make your audience smile – at worst, it’ll leave them scratching their heads. Either way, it’s going to make your message seem unprofessional and unconvincing. Have you recently told someone to go their gang? Step back and get yourself a good editor!
- the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.
- an institution for people needing professional care or supervision.
To state the screamingly obvious, home is different things to different people. At EdenFrost, we do a lot of work for clients targeting an international audience who, for whatever reason and for however long, have made the Netherlands their ‘home’. Some will be happy and relieved to be making a life in a new country. Others will be longing for their ‘real’ home. Still others may see themselves as nomads – world citizens of no fixed abode who carry their ‘home’ within. Be aware of the nuances and don’t assume that your audience can – or wants – either to ‘go home’ or to ‘feel at home.’
What’s in a name?
International. Expat. Migrant. Immigrant. Émigré. Newcomer. Incomer. Refugee. Foreigner. Outsider. Alien. The words we use can reflect bias – unconscious or not. If someone has fled war or persecution and is seeking asylum, they are a refugee, not a migrant or an ‘illegal’. ‘Expat’ often has negative connotations – those rich foreigners flooding Amsterdam and driving up house prices and rents. And if someone speaks of outsiders and aliens, it doesn’t exactly sound welcoming.
If you know exactly what someone’s situation is, be specific. Perhaps they are a refugee, or someone who’s moved countries to study. Someone who’s just arrived (a newcomer) or someone who has settled permanently (an immigrant). Otherwise, be neutral. ‘Internationals’ covers pretty much all the bases without making a value judgement.
You don’t know what you don’t know
Well, of course you treat your colleagues to cake when it’s your birthday. And it’s perfectly normal to congratulate your friend’s partner on your friend’s birthday and to shake hands with every person present when you arrive at the birthday party. Or greet an acquaintance with three kisses on the cheek. Social conventions can be a minefield for internationals.
But while you might offend someone if you get it wrong, at least you won’t break the law or risk life and limb. However, what about the written and unwritten rules of the bike path, the tax system, healthcare and education? Understanding local context matters. So keep in mind that you might need to explain things that may seem obvious to you.
But also remember that you don’t have to explain everything to everyone. Linking to a reliable source of information means you can serve those who want more detail without patronising – or boring – those who already know what’s what.
Keep it simple, stupid
Around 1.5 billion people speak English. But it’s the first language of only around a quarter of that number. So chances are, a decent chunk of your international audience are not going to fully appreciate your painstakingly crafted English text. We writers may love creative nuances, poetic metaphors, inspired vocabulary, ingenious sentence structure and a liberal scattering of puns, but they can make your copy difficult or even incomprehensible to non-native speakers. Keep it simple. Write short sentences. Beware of unnecessary words and jargon, and watch out for slang and colloquialisms. You don’t want to be the textual straw that breaks your international audience’s back…