6 negative emotions your customers feel when you don’t get local English right


Why English localisation is so much more than changing “zees” to “esses”.

It’s Halloween time, and this makes me think of all things American. Most people know the most common differences between American English and British English: color/colour; specialize/specialise; aluminum/aluminium; fall/autumn; chips/crisps; diaper/nappy; data(dah-da)/data (day-ta) etc. But the differences in global English variants not only lie in pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary, but also in grammar, punctuation and idiom.

There are several global English variants, such as American, Australian, British, Canadian, Hong Kong, Irish, Indian and Singapore English, to name but a few. English is the de facto or de jure official language in around 60 countries/territories worldwide.

These global English variants share a common foundation and in our ever-more connected society continue to evolve, diverge and converge, cross-enriching each other along the way. In order to resonate on the best level with our customers, we need to use the language with which they are most familiar. You can’t simply copy and paste your content from one English-speaking market to another assuming customers will just get it.

Differences in English still lead to distraction, misunderstandings and confusion, even today. Therefore, we need to localise global English content through translation and factual adaptation to effectively target it at local English-speaking markets and build local customer engagement.

So today I want to share just a few of my experiences of the confusion and misunderstandings I have seen over the years with the different global English variants.

Here are 6 ways you can make your customers feel if you don’t get localised English right:

Reading a menu whilst on a trip to New York, I found that some desserts came a la mode and some did not. I could not work out what this meant. Did it come hot, or with a cocktail umbrella, or in a bowl not on a plate? Were these sweet treats somehow more fashionable than the ones which were not a la mode. For the greedy amongst us, there was really only one way to find out. I ordered a cherry pie a la mode, and it when it arrived at the table it was immediately evident that this meant “with ice cream”. Good thing I didn’t order the sherbet (US), expecting a powdery sour confection, but in fact getting sorbet (UK).

Another example here is an error message once found on a US .com company’s website: Pardon our virtual dust. On investigation with American colleagues this was found to be a reference to signs that builders (UK) (contractors US) put up when making repairs or during reconstruction. The US business was making a clever pun by using a physical reference in the virtual world. But it was lost on me, as I was not familiar with the origin of the phrase, so if just seemed to be very obscure and did not fit with my perception of the brand.

Don’t alienate your customers with “exotic” colloquialisms, local idiom and national “in” jokes. It’s distracting and feeling left out might put people off. Use local familiar language which customers can easily identify with and which supports your brand identity in the local market.

I once had to get a visa for my boss in the American Embassy in Prague. When I came to pay I didn’t have the correct change and they were just about to close for the day. So I said that I didn’t need the change, they could keep it. I then got accused of bribery. Not a good plan.

Me: Oh no, then just put it in the bin.

Clerk: We don’t have any bins here, Ma’am.

What? No bins! Everyone has a bin in the office. Why were they being so awkward?! I left in an absolute fury to find a local shop to get change before the embassy closed. Only when the red mist had descended did I realise that we were talking at cross purposes. I meant the trash (US), and they thought I was talking about a hopper (UK). Customer satisfaction: zero!

Don’t assume that the customer will understand what you mean, even when you are speaking the same language. If you don’t adapt to their language in their market it can be aggravating and antagonising, and cause frustration, irritation and resentment to build quickly.

I can recall one time when an Australian colleague of mine was complaining to me in our London office that she had a hole in her stockings. It soon came out that she meant tights (UK). She was then completely mortified that she’d been going around telling everyone about it. She had been wondering why some people gave her a funny look for sharing what she thought was an innocent comment – but what they found to be too much information.

Talking about clothing (UK) or apparel (US) can actually cause quite a lot of awkward moments. Garters in the US are suspenders (UK), but suspenders in the US are braces UK and that’s not a mistake you can come away from without a blush. And in AU thongs are flipflops (UK), but in the UK thongs are scanty G-string-style pants (US: underwear). Americans can innocently talk about a fanny pack (UK: bum bag) all they want, but this will always get a bashful cringe from someone in the UK, where fanny is slang for female genitalia.

Another blush-worthy incident caused by divisions in a common language was when once at a work party I was holding a drink for a friend – so I had a drink in each hand. An American colleague came over and said “Good going. I see you are double-fisting there Jemma!” Excuse me! What? I went bright red, but no need. It turns out that’s what Americans use for being double-parked. Another rude one for the list.

These embarrassing moments are funny now we look back on them, but it’s not a great way to make your customers feel, especially if there is no-one around to explain away the misunderstanding.

I recently saw a picture someone had posted online of a dog with a cucumber in its mouth sat on a lawn in front of hedge. It had the caption: “3rd one my dog has brought back inside. We don’t have a garden.” But to me this picture was of a dog sat in a garden. And then it twigged, a garden is a vegetable patch or flower bed in the US. So, what seemed to me like a dog already in a garden and a contradiction in terms, was a dog sat in yard (US) who was stealing cucumbers from someone else’s garden in someone else’s yard. Picture #28

It gets confusing when the same words are used for different things. When studying languages these are called false friends, and between the global English variants there many, like a vet (UK) is a veterinarian (US) not a veteran, and a vest (US) is a waistcoat (UK) not an undershirt (US). Make sure your content is fully adapted to take into account these nuances otherwise you’ll find that false friends can quickly become dangerous enemies when it comes to customer engagement.

A UK friend of mine moved to the USA for a few months and had to stock up her apartment (UK: flat). She texted me one day asking what Americans call washing-up liquid. She was at the end of her tether. She had asked many people in many stores (UK: shops) and no-one knew what she wanted. In American English they use “wash up” to talk about washing your hands and face, as in “go wash up before dinner”. But she wanted the thing you use to do the washing up after dinner – in American terms some dish soap to do the dishes.

If you want your customer to find your product, make it something culturally recognisable. Take heed, product names and types need localising too, even between the different Englishes.

An Italian friend of mine went on holiday to California. She was a professional interpreter and had learnt the British version of English; by all means she was fluent. She was also a keen runner and got a blister that she needed to treat. She went to a pharmacy and asked for a plaster. The people in the pharmacy looked panicked and overly concerned. They thought she had broken something and needed a plaster cast. They said they didn’t have that kind of thing and she would need to go to the E.R. (UK: A&E). She was insistent that they usually have plasters in pharmacies. And indeed they do – BAND-AIDS®.

There are several examples of the differences in American and UK English resulting from using the brand name to refer to a general object. US: Kleenex® = UK: tissue; US: Jell-O® = UK: jelly; US: Plexiglas® = UK: Perspex®; US: Q-tips® = UK: cotton buds; US: vacuum cleaner = UK: Hoover®. Not all brands will be well known in other English-speaking markets, so it’s important to adapt your content accordingly.

In India is it polite and formal to notify someone passing away as having expired. But in the UK, this is a shocking and insensitive way to learn of someone’s death, being more commonly used with credit cards and gone-off food. It’s important that content teams based in India know not to talk about the deceased in this way when dealing with different English-speaking customers around the globe.

In another example, lots of online tech companies like to help protect their customers from fraud and “spoof emails”. But “spoof” in Australian English is a slang word for semen. So corporate warnings about spoof down under is totally inappropriate, if you excuse the pun. So, this is something that really needs careful thought and adaptation to avoid offending a local customer base.


So, we can see that English localisation, or English to English translation and adaptation, is so much more than changing “zees” to “esses”. Be warned – it takes a lot more than a just a spell check.

English is a wonderful umbrella of language celebrating all the cultures and communities that use it.

Don’t mess it up. Make it local. Make it right. And your customers will thank you for it.

If you’d like more information on the specialised English-English localisation services offered here at Language Jem or a quote, then please get in touch.

Jemma Pullen