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Supporting International Commerce Well and Badly

After a week of diving in the Red Sea, we found ourselves wandering around Hurghada al Bahr al Ahmar in Egypt. We couldn’t help but notice that every street vendor queried passing tourists in several languages, beginning with German and English, sometimes trying Russian, as he tried to sell his t-shirts or shisha for “just 10 euros.” Once he determined the language (including some obscure ones) of his potential customers, he would use it to exchange pleasantries and to invite them to visit his shop in a friendly, colloquial way. Even the local pharmacies acknowledge that their patrons might speak another language.

A pub overlooking a main square in Hurghada vividly illustrates globalization, as foreign visitors nurse ice-cold Egyptian Stella beers while the call to prayer rings out over the city. On a wide-screen TV, Germans, a Canadian, a Pole, and an American watch English Premier League football — Manchester United vs. Chelsea — called in exuberant Arabic.

A few days later, Heathrow’s Terminal 3 showcases the pitfalls of globalization that can occur when organizations fail to prepare for it. At a security checkpoint, a baffled passenger of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin is told that he cannot take his duty-free bottles through the security checkpoint. His fractured-English requests for clarification are met by repeated arm-wavings and statements of “no.” Following him, a Finn who speaks no English whatsoever is told – mostly through gestures — that he cannot take his umbrella through security. His attempts to argue in Finnish are met with negative shakes of the head and repeated statements of, “You cannot take this with you” in English.

Given our knowledge of available language services, we couldn’t help but think of simple expedients that could have made these interactions less painful. How about a call to a telephone interpreting center that could handle any language that might come up at this cross-road of the world? Or a no-language-at-all IKEA-style sign at the duty-free and at the security checkpoint, where bottles of hooch and big umbrellas might be proscribed along with images of cigarette lighters and hand grenades? Or, better yet, the airport authority could invest in a multilingual sign with images.

The bottom line: Small-time merchants in a dusty city on the Red Sea were better able to navigate the tides of globalization than BAA, the world’s biggest airport operator.

Source: Donald A. DePalma 12 May 2009, Common Sense Advisory

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