The message on a business to business Web site is an extension of the company and should be as sensitive to business to business customs as any other company representatives would be. Once a message posed, it can read any where at any time. As consequence the opportunity to convey an unintended message is infinite. Nothing about the Web will change the extent to which people identify with their own languages and cultures; thus languages should be at the top of the list when examining the viability of a company’s Web site.
Estimates are that 78 percent of today’s Web site content is written in English, but an English e-mail message cannot be understood by 35 percent of all Internet users. A study of businesses on the European continent highlights the need for companies to respond in the languages of their Web sites. One third of the European senior managers surveyed said they would not tolerate English online. They do not believe that middle manager can use English well enough to transact businesses on the Internet. There is some support for such belief. In a test of perceived versus actual English language skills, 4,500 Europeans were asked to translate series of English phrases or sentences. Less then half had an acceptable command of English and in France, Spain, Italy fewer than 3 percent had command of the language.
At the extreme are the French who even ban the use of English terms. The French Ministry of Finance issued a directive that all official French civil service correspondence must void common English language business words such as start up and e-mail instead jeune pousse (a young plant) and courier electronique are recommended.
The solution to the problem is to have country specific Web sites, like those of IBM and Marriott. Dell Computer for example, makes its Premier Pages Web sites built for its business clients, available in 12 languages. A host of companies specialize in Web site translation in addition software programs are available to translate the company message into another language. However, cultural and linguistic correctness remains a problem with machine translation. If not properly done. English phrases are likely to be translated in a way that will embarrass or even damage a company. One way to avoid this is to prepare the original source material in easy to translate English devoid of complicated phases, idioms, or slang. Unfortunately no machine translation is available that can manage all the nuances of language or syntax.
It would be ideal if every representative of your company spoken fluently the language of and understood the culture of your foreign customers or business associates, but that is an impossible goal for most companies. However, there is no reason why every person who accesses a company’s Web site should not be able to communicate in his or her own language if a company wants to be truly global.
In addition to being language friendly, a Web site should be examined for any symbols, icons, and other nonverbal impressions that could convey an unwanted message. Icons that are frequently used on Web sites can be misunderstood. For example an icon such as a hand making a high five sign will be offensive in Greece; an image of a thumb to index finger, the A-OK gesture, will infuriate visitors in Brazil a two fingered peace sign when turned around has a very crude meaning to the British and AOL’s You’ve Got Mail look a lot like a loaf of bread to a European. Colors also pose a problem; green is a scared color in some Middle Eastern cultures and should not be used for something frivolous like a Web background.
Finally, e-mail use and usage rates by managers are also affected by culture. That is, business people in high context cultures do not use the medium to the same extent as those in low context cultures, Indeed, the structure of the Japanese language has at least hindered the diffusion of Internet technologies in that country. Moreover, businesspeople in Hong Kong behave less cooperatively in negotiations using e-mail than in face to face encounters. Much of the contextual information in high context cultures simply cannot be signaled via the computer.