BPA Featured Article

International Businesses Should Consider Language Choice, Tone

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC
January 10, 2018

I just finished a terrific novel called “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman. The book is not about an idiot at all. It’s about a Harvard student, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, studying linguistics. (The title is a reference to a book of the same name by Russian author Fyodor Dostokevsky.)

While at Harvard, the self-styled main character, Selin, takes a Russian class, reads a lot, exchanges cleverly worded but ambiguous email messages with a handsome math major named Ivan, and learns and discusses different languages.

At one point, Selin talks about the Turkish inferential or evidential tense. It is often used while speaking to children, as in “What seems to have happened to the doll?” While Selin likes the sense of bewilderment that this tense conveys, she says it also makes her hyperaware that everything anyone says has the potential to encroach on someone else’s experience. And that makes her uncomfortable.

I mention this to illustrate how esoteric and specific language can be, and the effect it can have on people. That said, it’s important that organizations doing business in different languages do their best to communicate their values in a consistent way among different channels and languages, while at the same time adjust to different cultures and specific language considerations.

That’s why businesses call on BPA Quality to do quality monitoring of their text and voice interactions with customers in multiple languages. Helen Beaumont Manahan, project implementation manager at BPA Quality UK, says that requires frequent calibration sessions among key project stakeholders. And, she says, it hepls to have a sample of interactions across channels and languages ready to review and provide as examples.

She also offers a couple of important pieces of advice.

“Avoiding the use of language-specific figures of speech as fillers rather than making meaningful statements, and having a sound understanding of culture-specific etiquette are both key elements for success in soft skills,” she says.

And she adds that people in the U.S. tend to like it when agents express empathy for their situation, while people in some Asian cultures may not.

Organizations also should consider language and tone in their text-based interactions, she adds.

“For example, in many European languages, using the formal register has historically been the common way to address clients in customer service interactions,” she writes. “Some companies are now making a conscious choice to use the informal register, which may not always be well-received by more traditionally-minded customers.”

Edited by Mandi Nowitz