Nigel's Eyes

20220402 Divided by uncommon language.

This week, we tried something interesting: we released almost our entire e-learning catalogue -- here -- for the discounted price of just GBP15 per course for April Fool's Day. At least, that was what we thought would be the interesting thing.

We were wrong: the interesting thing was something else entirely.

I have often noted that Americans don't speak, listen, read or write in English. It's ironic because some current American is actually closer to 18th Century English than is current English. But, no matter where it is used, English is a living, almost organic, means of communication with dialects, at least historically, being legion.

My son, who lives in China, told me that when he was learning Mandarin he was told that standardised characters were adopted precisely to overcome the problems created by dialects. All government documents were in standard format of spelling and grammar, so that everyone could communicate no matter how they spoke. In doing so, local identity was preserved but - in terms of China - global communication was free of misunderstandings. Of course, under Communist rule, that all went a bit awry with the demand for standardised Mandarin speech and the planned eradication of dialects and Simplified Chinese characters. Then again, in a world where broadcasting of one kind or another is usual, it makes sense for everyone to at least listen in the same tongue.

When Oscar Wilde talked about the UK and the USA being divided by a common language, or something similar, he was right and, as broadcasting and the entertainment industry has accelerated the linguistic colonialism of American, so the domination of the internet by US thinking means that we can't even program our computers in English. HTML, the language of the internet, only accepts American spellings.

Yesterday, in the UK, I bought a new keyboard from a German manufacturer. It's made in China, of course. On the box it says "1.8 meter cable." No, a "meter" is a measuring instrument, the unit of measurement is a "metre." As we absorb our use of language at least as much passively as through active learning, the subliminal message is that what we know to be true is actually false.

But that's not the really interesting thing. The really interesting thing is that the campaign was, in financial terms, a success. It was also a success in adding new users to the platform - but the geographical spread has taught us something and we think we know what it is.

Long, long ago, when I used to write for computer magazines and write IT articles for a wide range of professional, trade and general interest publications, I was asked if I would do PR for an English software company that sold entirely off-the-page before the WWW was invented. So I did. Well, you have to do something in the long evenings of an English winter, don't you? In any case, by then I was getting a bit bored with lawyering and the tech stuff was a distraction to avoid living a one-dimensional life.

One of the decisions the company made was to create what we would today call a shell company in the USA. Its sole purpose was to pretend that sales were made in the USA when, in fact, all orders were diverted to the UK. In the USA, adverts had spellings changed and when customers found that their calls were being answered in the British Midlands, some were not happy. Of course, in the US ads, prices were quoted in US Dollars. The reason, I was told, was that the company had been told that Americans don't buy from overseas and they don't pay in anything but USD.

This, then, is the big lesson we learned with this campaign.

Our courses are not, except in certain clearly identified cases, jurisdiction specific. They apply in all markets. Most draw on law, regulation and cases from multiple jurisdictions. But they are in English and they are priced in GBP.

In short, they are of as much value in the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere as they are in Britain.

We had a smattering of buyers from South East Asia and the Middle East but mostly from the British Isles and dependencies.

It's not as if the marketing had a narrow focus: across multiple distributions, it went to some 500,000 people all over the world. It's not as if there was an obstruction in terms of time: although we specified 1 April, we allowed for time differences and so as the day rolled around the world it lasted far, far longer than 24 hours.

It makes no sense: counter-money laundering laws and priories are, broadly, produced with globalisation in mind. The USA dominates thinking at the Financial Action Task Force (in 1999 I wrote an article asking if the FATF was just a lackey for the USA and not much has changed) and therefore there is a degree of globalisation in which US foreign policy is interpreted by those in jurisdictions all around the world, including those who speak English but who have American foisted on them.

It seems that, outside the UK, and not only in the USA, people prefer to pay in dollars. There is a false perception that paying in pounds is expensive. In Malaysia, we often hear "but pounds are expensive." It is an absolutely illogical comment and doubly so when it comes from bankers.

This leaves us with a dilemma: do we price in pounds or US dollars? Would we find US and other buyers more amenable to paying in dollars? Would UK customers find it odd that they have to pay in dollars, knowing that we will immediately put it into pounds? And would customers feel cheated when we increase our prices to take account of the costs of doing that to say nothing of the risk of currency fluctuations?

If we price in USD, would that overcome, or cause, problems when it's clear that the content is in English?

I am bemused by the parochialism that this exercise has revealed.

Bemused and a little surprised that attitudes seem unchanged from when the software company looked into it before the World Wide Web existed.

So now I am really interested: why, in a borderless world, are there seemingly impenetrable borders within minds?

Stay happy, safe and well

I'll talk to you next time.