A few years back, Austrian airlines released an ad for a new service that showed a hand doing a thumbs-up sign. When they decided to use the ad globally, the agency I worked for back then was given the rather unusual task of assessing whether or not the thumbs-up sign can be interpreted as anything other than positive – for China, Japan, Russia, Iraq and Brazil, if I remember correctly. As it turns out, giving someone the thumbs-up is hideously offensive in the Middle East and parts of South America, possibly even in Western Africa, which basically covers a great deal of the earth’s population. Needless to say, the idea of sending the ad out to the world was pulled.
Mind your hands
Gestures are the unwritten language of a culture. Which means getting them wrong is just as bad as a mistranslation; in many cases, it’s worse. So you might think you’ve just given the guy across the conference room an innocent okay sign with thumb and forefinger in a loop, but in Greece he might think you’re insulting him with an obscenity. Or maybe you want seven apples at a Chinese market. Making a five and a two with your hands may get you nowhere, as the Chinese count to ten on just one hand. And if a Japanese person raises their hand with their palm facing down and appears to shoo you away by moving their hand back and forth, don’t run – they’re actually beckoning you to join them.
Understanding these cultural differences is an important part of transcreation, which also includes more subtle taboos such as dress codes, greetings, body language – the list goes on. Communication is more than just language; it’s about reading between the lines and interpreting signals. And the more aware companies are to cultural sensitivities, the more chance they have of delivering their message to their target audience effectively. Ignorance can be costly for business, but on a personal level it can also get you in trouble – just try ordering two drinks in a pub in England by sticking up two fingers, palm facing inward.