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January 9, 2015

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Bite the wax tadpole: Communicating safety to non-English speakers

Getting the health and safety message across to your employees is a challenge in itself, but what if your workforce is multicultural – with little or no understanding of English?

Whether you have sites abroad or a culturally diverse workforce here in the UK, it is not only language that can be a barrier – you may be surprised about how many factors have to be considered to avoid confusion, embarrassment or even offence.

Lost in translation

When translating communication material, you have to drill right down to local level. An extreme example of this is the near mythical tale of Coca Cola’s entry into the Chinese market in 1927. Local shopkeepers started making signs using Chinese characters in the local dialect, with no regard to meaning. This resulted in translations of Coca Cola such as ‘Bite the wax tadpole’, ‘female horse fastened with wax’ and other delightful phrases.

Luckily Coca Cola had done its research and, after considering 40,000 Chinese characters, the more appropriate ‘happiness in the mouth’ swiftly became its official translation.

Thumbs up?

Language is not our only barrier when communicating with different cultures – the images have to be right too. Many countries have very strong cultural and religious beliefs and traditions so you must do your research – be careful not to offend. A seemingly innocent ‘thumbs up’ image, for example, is an insult in the Middle East. Similarly, the ‘ok’ sign in Brazil would be considered offensive.

Make yourself heard

When I’m abroad, I often find that the response from locals is more welcoming, friendly and helpful if I make the effort to use the local language – even if it’s as simple as ‘Good morning’, ‘How are you?’ or ‘Two beers please!’ Similarly, your message will be better received if you speak to the workforce in their ‘language’. When using images, for example, have the right mix of ethnicity, so that workers identify with who they are being shown – use local people if possible. Consider the workplace environment too. A US worker would not necessarily grasp a ‘safe driving’ message with a poster of an English country lane, when they are more familiar with 14 lane freeways.

Choose your message carefully

Different countries and regions have different safety cultures. What is routine procedure in the UK may be unheard of in another country. If we make assumptions then we may end up pitching the behavioural message on too high a level. Is it worth communicating the importance of ‘near miss reporting’, for example, when people rarely even report accidents?

Who needs words?

We’ve done a couple of campaigns for international clients where we barely used any words. Simply showing pictures of people undertaking tasks can often suffice. Show people doing what they should or shouldn’t be doing – next to a big tick or cross – and the message couldn’t be more obvious.

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