It takes a very long time to be really fluent in a language if not being a native. You might know most of the vocabulary – but that is not the same as knowing and using the correct expressions.
Today Mr. Carl-Henrik Svanberg, Chairman of BP and a native Swede, gave us a great example of just that with a surprisingly heavy Swedish accent. At his first public press meeting (about time!) after a meeting with President Obama, he birthed an expression that will be remembered for a long time: “BP cares about the small people”. Correct in Swedish but not when translating it word by word into English. He meant of course that BP cares about the ordinary people, but in the way he said it he almost insulted the people in the Gulf. BP later issued a statement from Svanberg, in which the chairman said, “I spoke clumsily this afternoon, and for that, I am very sorry”.
At CNN’s AC360 airing 10pm-12pm every night (now live from Louisiana) they just focused on Mr. Svanberg’s slip in translation and showed by examples that the people of Louisiana are not small/little people but great people.
Even CEO’s with great (so far) international reputation can obviously have some problems with intercultural communication – at the worst possible moments. BP’s message did not get through when they so badly needed it. Lesson? Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal!