Did you know that English is spoken as an official language in more than 80 countries, territories and dependencies? Moreover, it is spoken unofficially by nearly everyone in at least two others: the United States and Australia? Add in the many countries in which a large portion of the population speaks English, such as France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, and the countries in which English is spoken for business or political purposes, such as China and Japan, and you can’t help but realize the breadth and depth of the English language around the globe.
This is nothing new, and it reflects the impact of hundreds of years of British colonialism and the global impact of post-World War II American economics and culture. What is new, however, is the Internet. Suddenly, the nearly one billion speakers of English around the globe have access to each other’s newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, Facebook pages—in short, they can truly tap into the global consciousness of English speakers.
The impact of spoken English clearly has tremendous impact for written communication as well, especially for companies doing business in emerging economies. The potential for miscommunication and misunderstandings is greater than ever before. Slights and unintended insults that may never have had legs 15 years ago will now likely travel the globe in minutes.
Consider this small example that materialized as a result of an opinion column written by New York Times columnist George Vecsey on allegations of football recruiting violations committed by the University of Tennessee. In the column, Vecsey poked a little fun at southern culture, with lines like “If you’re ever in the neighborhood, y’all come see us, y’heah?”
In the pre-Internet era, this column may have gone largely unnoticed, even though it was in the New York Times. But in 2009, Vecsey’s column created a minor blowup in the blogosphere, generating this response from east Tennessee journalist Ben Garrett and this follow-up from southwest Virginia journalist Dan Smith, among others. Smith, a career newspaperman and member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame, whose members include Roger Mudd, Ann Compton, and James J. Kilpatrick, called Vecsey “a Yankee newspaperman too lazy to do his homework and too steeped in redneck, inbred stereotypes” and said that Vecsey’s column was “mostly wrong, mostly bigoted, mostly shows his uninformed a** to the rest of the world.”
Yikes. Especially that “rest of the world” part.
The lesson here is for writers: consider the audience. In our electronic age, audiences may be far wider than the primary readership an author intended. A gaffe poking fun at a foreign culture, committed by a careless company spokesperson, could cost millions in lost sales, have a negative impact in vital emerging markets, cause irreparable damage to the company brand, and even generate international political ramifications. Remember, the written word carries a big stick!