An Apology to Kazakhstan

After 10 months of writing this column, I think I get to write at least one retraction on something I now regret having put to print.

At the time it was published, I didn’t receive a barrage of emails proclaiming, “How could you?” or “What a nincompoop.” Yet it’s something that’s been on my mind because what I declared to be the truth simply isn’t.

OK, enough rending of clothes, and enough with the mea culpas and downright squirrelly apologizing… A long time ago, I wrote that the premise of writing to a global audience was ridiculous, because chances were next to nil that “Dimitri in Kazakhstan” would be reading your content.

Well, it’s been nearly a year, and Dimitri still hasn’t dropped me a line or sent the scathing message that I probably deserve. However, since starting this column, I have heard from readers in South Africa, India, Sweden, Australia, and, of course, Canada.

I’m still amused that these folks find my columns worth commenting about. And I’m floored that I have a readership beyond my mother and husband — all around the world, no less. The responses also prove to me that I’ve been somewhat provincial in my suggestions for Internet content. Clearly, one does write to an international audience, so it pays to heed some basic rules:

Speak here English (sort of). Just because you’re writing in English, don’t assume you’re writing to those who are 100 percent familiar with the language. It’s estimated that about half of all Internet users read English… sort of. (Read Nigel Pleasants’s insightful article on writing for the global Web.) Clearly, though, a lot can get lost in the translation, so do keep things simple if you intend to address an international readership. (The American Language Review reminds us of a sign for a donkey ride in Cairo proclaiming, “You can ride your own ass.”) Avoid words that have more than one meaning. Pare down sentences by reducing subordinate clauses. Repeat key ideas in different terms.

Avoid the political. I can’t stand vanilla writing, and I love to interject my own California liberalese in a lot of the things I write. Yet I almost always get slapped on the hand for trying to edify readers on the correct way to think. So, if you can control yourself, curb the references to “Dubya” and others…

It’s not “us” versus “them.” I really shouldn’t have to write this, but it just makes a lot of sense to be cautious about not making xenophobic references. It’s simply bad form.

Respond. My Australian contact tells me Americans are generally very good at responding to emails. So don’t sully the Yanks’ reputation by neglecting “out of country” inquiries.

Don’t dismiss “wrong” spelling. I spent a year at a British university, and one incredibly sadistic professor docked me a grade for every “misspelling” of colour, programme, and centre. When I received an email with similarly colourful spelling, I immediately assumed the sender was a bit daft — until I realised his ancestors were on the other side of that spot of unpleasantness called the American War of Independence.

Provide international contacts. Your readership in Tokyo probably doesn’t want to pick up the phone and dial a number in Paramus, New Jersey. If you’re noticing a distinctly international response to your site, set up separate phone numbers and contacts for respondents outside the United States.

Does anybody really know what time it is? Remember, dates and times are formatted differently around the world (May 15, 2001, 2:30 p.m., is 15 mai 2001, 14:30, in France), so spell out the names of months and inform readers what system you are using.

Consider translations. If you’re keeping your global audience in mind, it’s not a bad idea to have your site translated into other languages. Many U.S. sites now include English, Spanish, German, French, Japanese, and Chinese versions. Usually it’s a good idea not to have separate URLs; opt instead for a clear link to the translated site on your home page.

To all you readers in Kazakhstan, please accept a heartfelt apology. I do hope to hear from you soon.

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