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Strategic insights
Writing for an International Audience

Written by on August 25, 2005

Globalization is for me a reality. 95% of what all my activities are used by people outside the country I live in. But writing for an international audience is far from easy. There are so many conflicting ways to write e.g. number, dates, addresses etc. that you have to be lucky to get it all right.

Note: This applies both texts written in e.g. articles and computer interface.

What to do?

There are four approaches you can take to solve this problem. You can:

  • Ignore it
  • Write for you target audience (or the majority)
  • Write internationally and make everything flexible enough to handle multinational input.
  • Detect the country and adjust accordingly (dynamically)

You can probably tell that option 1 is by far the easiest way- and option 4 is the most difficult one. I am not going to recommend a specific one, because it completely depends on a number of factors: The type of project, the target audience and whatever resources you have available.

If you are creating a web application for an international airline, I would go for option 4. If I was making a new blog for your hobbies I would go for option 1.

Note: This site uses a mix between option 2 and 3.

Known Issues

There are a lot of issues to consider. The following list is some of the most important ones:

Time

Some countries use A.M. and P.M., others use the 24 hour clock. To make matters even worse using the 24 hour clock 0:00 is the beginning of the day, and 24:00 marks the end (even though they are the same).

Compare that to the US time standard where 12:00 AM starts the day. This is something that confuses most Europeans. How can the highest number be the beginning?

Then there are the troubles with time zones. If I am releasing a gift coupon at 9:45- when is that? There will be a huge difference in time between people living in New York compared to those in Hong Kong. Not to mention that you do not know if it is in the morning or in the evening...

  • International standard (ISO): 21:45:00
  • I recommend: 9:45 pm GMT (21:45 GMT- but localized time would be better

Date

This is a good one. Take this date:"03/02/01". Depending on your location in the world it can be "February 3, 2001", "March 2, 2001" or "February 1, 2003". Not to mention that writing "March 2, 2001" is the US standard. Some countries write it as this: "2. March 2001".

Then we got differences in punctuation. We got 03/02/01, 03.02.01, 03-02-01, 03-02/01- again depending on where you are located.

  • International standard (ISO): 2 March 2001
  • I recommend: varies

Week Numbers

This one is downright tricky. There are three ways to determine the first week of any year.

  • Week 1 is the week that contains January 1st.
  • Week 1 is the first 4-day week.
  • Week 1 is the first full week.

Friday, in Week 4, is both "28 January 2005" and "21 January 2005" - depending on your location in the world.

The strange thing about this is that there absolutely no consistency between varies software products. Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes are far from the same - even in the same country/language.

  • International standard (ISO): Week 1 is the first 4-day week.
  • I recommend: Do not use week numbers

Numbers

This one is easy. The only real difference is in the punctuation. Some countries write "123.245,50" other use the reverse "123,245.50"

  • I recommend: varies

Addresses

Some companies do not have an address- only a name and a city. Some cities do not have a zip/postal code. Many countries do not have states. In some countries the zip/postal code and the city is reversed. Some addresses need area information.

Some people last names need to be visually displayed first. Almost no non-US citizens know what the US state "CA" is. Not to mention that ZIP is a US only term, other countries use "postal code/number"

  • I recommend: Both

Distance and Measurements

Some use miles, feet and inches others kilometers, meters and centimeters etc.

  • I recommend: Both

Volume

Some use cups (and there are even US and British cups) and pounds, others kilos and liters etc.

  • I recommend: Both

Speed

Some use kilometers/hour other in MPH (miles per hour) etc.

  • I recommend: Both

Currency

This is a bit tricky. To accurately describe the price of an object to a multinational audience you can display it in the local currency, in British Pounds, Yens, Euros or US Dollars.

Also remember that unless you are using US Dollars, write the currency character code, instead of the symbol. Instead of €34, write EUR 34 (in fact you might not be able to see the EURO symbol in this text).

  • I recommend: Local currency (converted to USD- DKK 120 ($19.63)

Phone Numbers

Can be practically anything: 1422, +45 7612 1232, +1 800-253-6673, 1-800-MY-APPLE, +46 (0)-2345-2235-23 #62, HUIJ-3 201.

For an international audience it is important to include the country code and only use numeric characters. Many phones around the world do not includes letters

Special Occasions

The date of Father's day and mother's day varies greatly around the globe. Some countries do not have valentine or thanksgiving- but often has other national days.

It is not always winter in December, nor is it summer in July (that is only on the northern hemisphere). Santa's origin varies greatly- it is not even a fat man in a red jacket in some countries.

  • I recommend: Do not use unless you are very sure of your target group

Input Characters

Can you handle Chinese characters in your registration form? What about European or Russian? My Danish name is correctly spelled Thomas Bækdal - with an "æ", but I always write "Baekdal" because man sites cannot handle it.

Language

Do you write på dansk", or "in English"? It can be very costly to localize a web application.

Not to mention that some languages, like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic consists of a completely different alphabet and character symbols.

Arabic sites are also aligned right to left, instead of the "western" left to right. This requires a different graphic template. It is not just the text that is in reverse direction, but also the location of the navigational elements. A left side menu becomes a right side menu.

Compare About UN in English and Arabic.

Also there are many differences of the English language. You got US English, English-English (UK and commonwealth + Denmark) and International English (most other parts of the world). Do you write "skeptic" or "sceptic"? What about "color" vs. "colour"? Just to name some of the easier ones.

What about "Shopping Cart" (US term) vs. "Shopping Basket" (UK term).

Then there are the grammar, and an endless amount of differences in punctuation, capitalization, how to use dashes and much more.

  • I recommend: Use International English (It is very close to US-English).

More info?

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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