A Question of Language

Article, Insurance DayDecember 2011

Insurance / Property

Tony Levitt, Senior Partner in the London office, considers the scope for misunderstanding and misinterpretation when working in cross-jurisdictional situations

“When a passenger of foot heave in sight, Tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, tootle him with vigour.” (From a brochure at a Tokyo car rental firm)

As the global village continues to shrink and more insurance is placed across borders, stories of classic cross-cultural gaffes and linguistic mishaps abound.

We all have our favourites, many from the world of advertising, where large-scale communications campaigns have gone horribly wrong: whether the launch of the Chevy Nova in South America, where sales allegedly bombed until its makers realised "nova" in Spanish means "it won't go" and rebranded; or KFC's unfortunate launch in China, where its "finger-lickin' good" slogan was translated for the local market as "eat your fingers off; or worse, Coors' slogan "turn it loose" translated for the Spanish market as "suffer from diarrhoea". At the heart of this is a serious point we, as professionals, should not miss.

Working in the international insurance world, we are all called on more and more to work in cross-jurisdictional situations. But do we truly consider the scope for misunderstanding and misinterpretation? One way to reduce margins for error is to avoid the use of abbreviations. For example, your foreign counterparts will probably not use abbreviations such as ASAP. Also, many abbreviated terms are ambiguous. For example, does "PI" mean personal injury, or professional indemnity?

"PD" may be familiar to some as property damage, but others will be more familiar with material damage and its abbreviated form MD; Using "PL" as short for public liability is easily confused with product liability and is it clear this is distinct from "GL", general liability? As for "Bl", this could mean business interruption, bodily injury or even bisexual.

Another rule is to be clear when expressing dates. Is "9/1/11" September 1, 2011, or January 9, 2011? Different nationalities will make different assumptions according to their own standard conventions. Similarly, particular care should be taken with figures and currency signs - for example, "$" is, in fact, a common symbol for units of currency around the world and is not limited to the US dollar. So you need to be clear about which currency you are referring to: US, Canadian, Australian or Zimbabwean.

Decimal points are also presented differently in certain countries. Compare, for example, how a person in the US expresses one million dollars as $1,000,000.00, whereas his German counterpart would represent the same sum as $1,000,000,00.  The key point is to be careful and acutely aware your message may be read differently by different audiences - and avoid leaving anything open to misinterpretation. Get this right and you will have less difficulty. You may even be able to hire a car successfully in Tokyo.


As appeared in Insurance Day, December 2011.

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