The internet is an interesting thing. In the past few decades, it has done a great deal to make the world feel ever so slightly smaller; you can just as easily find out what happened in New Zealand this morning as you can the town next to you. And thanks to a shared language, the potential audience for written content can spread across every anglophone area of the world wide web.
When I moved to the United States from the UK 10 years ago, I figured the transition would be fairly easy. To be a writer in a different country might be a challenge, but its all English — switch “football” to “soccer,” delete some u’s, and how difficult could it be?
But as I discovered the first time I tried to order a glass of water, there are more differences between nations — both subtle and significant — than I could have ever anticipated. And they are all evident right there in our use of the English language.
In the current marketing landscape, writing for a global audience is more essential than ever, whether it is to widen your potential readership, or to target a specific regional demographic. And while there are no accents in written English that can tip a reader off, your status as an outsider can be exposed through your writing, potentially drawing attention away from the goal of your content, and sometimes losing the reader altogether.
Luckily, I now have a decade of wisdom (and a little bit of trial and error) behind me, and an English degree from an American university to boot. So read on for three important tips for writing for an international audience, and spare your blushes* in the future.
It goes beyond spelling (but also spelling is important).
When you have a specific regional audience in mind, often the easiest thing to correct is spelling. For one thing, most people are already aware of subtle differences in spelling rules between the United States and much of the English-speaking world (thank you, Noah Webster). But more importantly, it is relatively easy to run your writing through a spell checker that is set to the relevant national dialect.
However, it’s worth remembering that differences go beyond spelling. In many cases different words are used, similar words are used differently, and whole phrases may not even exist. Luckily, the internet (specifically Wikipedia), is a valuable resource.
Check your cultural bias at the door.
This is perhaps the hardest part about writing for an international audience. Most people are aware of overt cultural references to avoid, but there are certain commonplace words and phrases that have little or no meaning outside of the United States. For example, even a simple hypothetical question like “what would you do if you were President for the day?” becomes meaningless to those living in nations with no such position. Specifically:
- Avoid politics altogether (unless your piece is specifically about politics), since they vary from country to country. And let’s be honest, do you really want to go there anyway?
- Avoid sporting references. Something as common as calling an idea a “slam dunk” might not translate well to audiences where basketball is not a popular sport.
- Avoid brand names. Even everyday things like Band Aids and ChapStick don’t exist in every country under those particular names.
- Remember that most people don’t have an extensive knowledge of American geography (or history for that matter). Using just a city and a state when naming a location can cause great confusion.
- Something innocuous to you could cause great offense to others — consider the history of American movies being banned abroad.
The key here is to question everything. At best using the wrong reference could confuse or alienate your reader, at worst it could cause great offense. Never take for granted that your chosen examples or phrases are universal, and make sure that there is no trace of cultural bias.
When in doubt, go without.
If you’re writing for a specific regional audience, it can be tempting to throw in a bunch of “local” idioms and phrases to make yourself sound like a native. But your perception of how that audience might write may differ greatly from their actual style. For example, if you spatter an article for Australians with a bunch of g’days and a few shrimps on the barbie, your readers are going to see you coming from a mile away.
It is much easier to remove your own voice or cultural bias than to try and replace it with another; so when in doubt, go without.
When you are writing for a specific region, there are tools that can help you. As well as using a spell checker, you can refine your search engine results by region to get a feel for local writing and events. Finally, if at all possible, always have a local check your piece before publishing. They will notice things that you may never even have thought of.
The main takeaway from all of this should be awareness. Occasionally it is possible to position yourself as an outsider from the beginning of the piece, much like I did with this one, but often that is not possible. Try to remove your natural bias from the writing, question every choice of phrase and word, and you might just avoid ending up on a sticky wicket.
*too English? How embarrassing.