Culture is defined primarily by its values, norms, and behaviors.
And these three aspects are shaped by its history, religion, and language.
Think about just how much history, religion, and language define how we think, what we hold dear, how we express ourselves, even how we clothe ourselves.
Our family structures, our education systems, our laws, and our politics are all fed by our culture’s language, history, and religion.
In understanding all of this, learning another’s culture may seem like a monumental task – and it is!
Business transitions happen fast; they don’t always allow one to deep-dive into the inner workings of a culture and what makes it tick.
Rather, prep time is a couple months, at best – only time enough to scratch the surface.
Prioritization is key. You must focus your attention on those cultural factors that are most relevant in defining what the culture is.
Which brings us back to language, history, and religion: these three elements are what most shape a culture and so should be most prioritized.
Let’s take language first.
Lost in Translation
One glaring example of language in international business comes in the form of marketing.
Marketing specialists understand that language is essential for success in international business. Ensuring that your brand’s logo or tagline doesn’t get lost in translation seems like a simple enough task…but that isn’t always the case.
If you’re expanding into another region or an international market, remember that your tagline might mean something completely different to your target audience than it does in your home country.
Language fails can royally sink you.
- When Coca-Cola entered the Chinese market, its brand name was translated: “Bite The Wax Tadpole.”
- Coca-Cola’s rival, Pepsi, didn’t fare much better when debuting in China. Their slogan, “Pepsi Brings You Back to Life,” translated to “Pepsi Brings You Back from the Grave.”
- Soda companies weren’t the only beverage companies to face a translation fail. When Coors entered a Spanish-speaking market, their slogan, “Turn It Loose,” colloquially translated into having diarrhea.
- KFC also made a blunder with their Chinese marketing campaign, when “finger-licking good” was translated to “eat your fingers off.”
- These translation blunders obviously go both ways. When Swedish brand, Electrolux, entered the U.S. market with their vacuum cleaners, their tagline struck on an unintended double meaning, declaring, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”
Although these examples are laughable, they undoubtedly didn’t land in the minds of their target audience.
Moreover, the implications of learning a culture’s language when shifting to another market or living in another country goes beyond marketing slogans and selling products.
Intrinsic to Culture
Chinese linguistic researcher Xiao Geng said it best:
“It is a common fact that in our foreign language teaching, we are not only taught language itself but also we are taught culture of that nation. Language stores all the social lives and experience of a nation, and reflects all the characteristics of a nation’s culture…Language is inextricably bound up with culture. Culture values are both reflected by and carried through the language.”
Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore culture and how its values are translated through linguistics.