How an innocent mistake can turn global relations nasty

You can’t be too careful when it comes to the English language, here’s how to save your bacon.

There are times when, with no apparent effort at all, businesses can find themselves at the centre of a publicity nightmare after seemingly innocent statements assume a life of their own. Take Swiss bank UBS in China recently.

An epidemic of African swine fever has had a hugely detrimental effect on China’s pig industry, with almost 100 million – some 20% of the country’s entire herd – dying over the past year alone. According to an article in The Economist, UBS’ global chief economist, Paul Donovan, wrote a note to clients asking, “Does this matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China.” The article claimed that to some in China, the phrase “Chinese pig” didn’t just look insulting, it looked racist. Cue firestorm.

A swiftly issued apology didn’t help matters any, with many critics regarding it as a ham-fisted attempt to save face. As calls for Mr Donovan’s sacking grew louder, various entities severed ties with UBS, and the China Railway Construction Corp decided against appointing UBS as a coordinator for a major bond sale. Unsurprisingly, Mr Donovan was put on indefinite gardening leave.

Yet, even as phrases such as ‘proof of rising anti-foreign sentiment’, and ‘evidence of China’s rift with America’ floated about, others called out such claims as hogwash, pleading for sense to prevail because it was clear that the phrase in question was aimed at actual hogs, not people.

But it was Mr Donovan’s choice of wording that made the whole thing such a pig deal, apparently. Had he referred to ‘pigs in China’, rather than ‘Chinese pigs’, the ensuing outrage could have been avoided. News agency Bloomberg summed it up as a ‘costly language lesson’.

At the end of the day, it’s another fine example that you can never be too careful about what you write in your business communications, especially when you’re operating in another culture. In addition to taking an extraordinary level of care, employing both a proofreader and a local professional writer to check for potentially ampiguous content may well be the way to go.

Over the top it may seem, but it might just save your company’s bacon.

For help with copywriting, proofreading or editing any of your business documents, contact Proof Communications on 02 8036 5532 or 0411 123 216 or head to the contact page.

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