Although North Americans were the dominant population on the Internet, that has now changed, and the rest of the world has caught up rapidly. And while English is still the most widely used Internet language, it’s not the language of choice for many, many Internet users.
So are YOU ready to communicate in this international medium? Whether you’re building your own Website, taking part in discussion groups, visiting a chat room, or just sending and receiving e-mail, you’ll meet more and more “foreigners” on the Internet – and vice versa, of course.
Let’s look at some tips for communicating effectively in this new global village.
1. Write in plain English
Write clearly, with small words and short sentences. If you’re writing long messages or creating long Web pages, include a simple summary at the top.
Be very careful to write exactly what you mean. If you’re writing for a general audience, avoid sarcasm, colloquialisms, and other things that rely on a certain tone of voice or cultural background.
2. Watch out for phrases with two meanings
Although English is the de facto international language of the Internet, differences abound between, say, English and American English. It’s easy enough to allow for differences in the way that we spell “color”, “apologize” and “organization”, but other – more subtle – differences can easily lead to misunderstandings.
For example, does “bi-weekly” mean twice a week or once every two weeks? It’s different for Australians and Americans. Similarly, when Australians “table an issue”, they are raising it for discussion, but for Americans, “tabling an issue” means putting it aside.
3. Include area codes in phone numbers
Any time you quote a telephone, fax, or mobile (cell) phone number on the Internet, ask yourself whether your readers reside outside your local area. If you’re potentially addressing distant readers, include your international code and area code in these numbers.
4. Allow for variations in postcodes
American zip codes and Australian postcodes use numbers only; U.K. postcodes contain letters and numbers; Singaporean postcodes use numbers only, but appear in a different place in the address; all have different lengths from each other.
If your website includes an order form or a demographic survey, allow for postcodes that fall outside your own local format.
5. Include your full postal address
If you’re addressing an international audience, include your country in your postal address. Don’t expect people to just figure it out. This seems obvious, but a surprising number of businesses on the Internet forget it.
6. Include international postage costs
If you’re selling anything through e-mail or your website, cater to international orders, whether you expect them or not. Find out the cost of international postage and shipping, and publish the costs for your customers.
This is a complex area because of the variety of options, depending on the source and destination countries, methods and speed of delivery, customs and duties, and more.
Simplify this as much as possible for your customers. It’s better to start with something very simple (for example, one postage price for all international orders, regardless of destination) and adapt it with experience. Or eliminate postage costs entirely, as Rachel Green does on her site by offering free postage anywhere in the world:
7. Explain your currency
If you use a currency that’s common to other countries – such as dollars – make it clear which version you mean. Some websites quote their prices in American dollars as a kind of “universal currency”, but most use local currency.
Include a link to a currency converter on your website to make it easy for your international visitors. Here’s one to use:
8. Be aware of time zones
If you’re writing a time (for example, the time when you’re available in a chat room) for people in specific time zones, include their local times as well. When writing for an international audience, including the time in GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).
Include a link to a time zone converter on your website – for example:
9. Use icons carefully
Choose icons on your website carefully. For example, not everybody understands what a “STOP” sign means; and a “thumbs up” sign can offend people from some cultures.
In fact, it’s so easy to misunderstand icons – even within a culture – that you should always supplement them with clear descriptions.
10. Tolerate mistakes
The more you use the Internet, the more you’ll communicate with people who don’t speak or write English as well as you do. Be tolerant of poor spelling, bad grammar, and typing mistakes when you receive e-mail or take part in Internet discussion groups.
Of course, this is just common courtesy, but again it’s surprising to see how many people attack others when they think they can hide behind the safety of their keyboard.