June 11, 2024 • By Dennis Beaver

Our stories that discussed learning a foreign language and DEI led to several phone calls from call center and sales supervisors in the worlds of insurance and financial planning.

One pointed out, “The market of people speaking an alphabet soup of languages has greatly increased, and we are concerned about lost sales and reputational damage inadvertently caused by employees who lack cultural competence. We’ve observed some who speak a second language well enough to get into trouble by using the wrong vocabulary — known as false friends, which are words that are identical or resemble each other in both languages but have vastly different meanings.”

“We monitor all calls, which at times can be hilarious,” Chicago-based “Brandon” said. “For example, I heard a sales rep apologize for the failure of a secretary to mail out an insurance renewal form to one of our Spanish-speaking clients. He meant to say, ‘I am embarrassed,’ which in Spanish is, ‘Estoy avergonzado.’ Instead, he said, ‘Estoy embarazada,’ which means, ‘I am pregnant!’ Another meant to say her son would be in a parade (desfile), but instead used parada, which is a stop, as in bus stop! As (we have a lot of immigrants in the U.S.), I think you could do an informative story about the need for cultural and language competence.”

Myth of the car that doesn’t go

In an international setting, the business community must determine if it can use the same product name as it does at home. For example, the Chevy Nova acquired the urban legend of a product name — Nova — that sounded like the Spanish “no va,” meaning “it doesn’t go.” Some in media claimed incorrectly that car sales were adversely affected because of that name being selected. In reality, “no va” is not pronounced the same in Spanish as “Nova,” and the car was a success in Mexico and Venezuela.

A skit about poorly selected product names revealing a lack of cultural awareness would be a sure hit on Saturday Night Live, including:

Ford failed to catch on that the word “pinto,” as in the Ford Pinto, is Brazilian slang for male reproductive organs.

IKEA’s Fartfull workbench was the butt of jokes, though “fartfull” in Swedish means “full speed.”

Coors obviously did not comprehend that translating its “Turn It Loose” advertising tag line into Spanish would be understood as “to suffer from diarrhea.”

Got Milk? translated into Spanish could be interpreted as “are you lactating?”

Ads for Mazda’s Laputa minivan stated, “We have designed Laputa to deliver maximum utility in a minimum space while providing a smooth, comfortable ride” and “a lightweight, impact-absorbing body.” In Spanish, “la puta” means “the prostitute.”

American Airlines’ slogan “Fly in Leather” could be interpreted in Spanish as “fly naked.”

Mercedes-Benz began selling in the Chinese market under the brand name Bensi, which in Chinese means “rush to die.”

Credit for perhaps the most hysterical fail that has made it into business texts goes to Coca-Cola’s entry into China. It first appeared as Kekoukela, which means “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax,” depending upon the dialect.

Wrong word choice has consequences

“The wrong word choice can have serious consequences both interpersonally and in the business world,” says Lars-Olof Nilsson, retired lecturer in English and German at JIBS, Jönköping International Business School at Jönköping University in Sweden.

Nilsson works as a copy editor and writes about English on his website copyeditor.se.

The title of his recently published book — a best seller on Amazon — is itself a hilarious example of our topic: It’s Not the Farts That Kill—It’s the Smell! False Friends and Other Treacherous Words in English-Swedish Communication.

As Nilsson explains, “‘Fart’ in Swedish means ‘speed,’ and ‘smäll’ (or ‘smell’) is a ‘crash.’”

I should point out that his book is not limited in value to Swedish speakers, as he lists over 400 false friends in various languages that can easily get us in hot water.

For example, Nilsson cites “actual” and “eventually.”

“In English, ‘actual’ is something ‘real, existing and authentic.’ However, in several European languages, it means ‘current, present, up to date.’ Or, take ‘eventually,’ which to English speakers means ‘finally, later, in the end’ — something that will happen — but the corresponding words in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and the Scandinavian languages mean ‘perhaps, possibly.’ It is clear these differences may have serious consequences if improperly used or translated.”

Please don’t do that in my car

Even an everyday word such as “restroom” may cause confusion.

“Non-native speakers of English understand the word ‘restroom’ to indicate a room for relaxation or taking a nap,” Nilsson observes and relates an occasion when an American was picking up his Swedish friend at an airport.

When they got into the car, the American said, “Perhaps you need to go to the restroom?”

The Swede answered, “No, I can do that in the car.”

For anyone working with people from different countries and cultures, when we know what words to avoid, we reduce the chances of hurt feelings. It’s Not the Farts That Kill—It’s the Smell is a delightful, practical read that will keep you awake at night laughing!

Dennis Beaver Practices law in Bakersfield and welcomes comments and questions from readers,
which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993,
or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1 – at – Gmail.com.