Intuit recently issued a press release announcing the winner of its “Just Start” program for small businesses that may have drawn stares in large sections of the country. Or at least a slight puzzlement. The release told the story of restaurant owners who will receive $40,000 in cash and $10,000 in products and services from Intuit as part of the “Just Start” contest.

“Intuit 'Just Start' Winner to Take the Whine out of Dine.”

It reminded me of a joke in which the punch line depended on the phrase “the latest wine.”

“Wine?” I said blankly. “Christian Brothers? Mogen David? Thunderbird?”

“Wine,” the joke teller continued, waiting for a big laugh.

I remained puzzled. “Chablis? Cabernet sauvignon?”

“Wine,” he said in exasperation. “W-H-I-N-E, wine.”

“You mean hwine,” I said.

His final look indicated he thought I wasn’t particularly bright. But you see, this joke makes a lot of sense in the Northwest, where words are pronounced wear, wat, y, and wen. However, in large parts of the middle and southern parts of the United States , speakers say hwere, hwat, hwy and hwen.

Things like this count. Many people have heard that Chevrolet could not market the Chevy Nova in Spanish-speaking countries because “no va” means it doesn’t go and there’s a more interesting tale that “Things Go Better with Coke,” worked out to “Bring Your Ancestors Back from the Dead” when rendered in Chinese characters.

People don’t act the same everywhere, even in different cities in this country and being aware of these cultural booby traps is important in doing business—in dealing with people in general.

Cultural assumptions represent some of the most difficult barriers to communication because we are all like fish in water—we don’t notice the water—until we are out of it, gasping for breath. This is where we get the Ugly American, who assumes “They all speak English.”

The Intuit headline made me think of a great example in the hit movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” in which Tom Hanks, playing the title character, asks the president of Pakistan if he has some whiskey.
“We do not have whiskey in the presidential palace,” said the head of a very Muslim country.

“I bet people make that mistake all the time,” Hanks responded in character.

“No, they don’t.”


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