Does a Second Language Create a Second Emotional Signature in Your Customer Experience?


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A recent study out of the Universitat de Pompeu Fabra, Spain, confirms that when a customer interacts with a company in a foreign language, they are more rational than when the customer interacts with a company in their native language, otherwise known as the “Foreign Language Effect.” This indicates that when there is a second language involved, there could also be a second emotional signature that your experience creates.

The emotional signature is the level of emotional engagement that you have with your customers. Most organizations want to foster an emotional signature that is associated with happy and pleased, as these are often the emotions that drive the most value for the customer. But if the emotion is dulled by the use of a customer’s second language, then the emotional signature is also likely to be less intense as well.

The study from Spain indicates that the use of a foreign language does dull the emotional biases that exist when a native language is used. Led by Dr. Alberta Costa, the research tested the limits of the foreign language effect by asking 700 bilingual participants how they would react to situations that present them with choices that relate to prospect theory, which our regular readers know as Loss Aversion.

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Loss Aversion is the bias that all consumers have toward options that highlight what is to be gained over what is to be lost. As humans, we are worried about what we will lose more than what we will gain and will make choices to protect what we have in most cases. This is considered an irrational reaction because in most tests of prospect theory, the outcome is the same. All that is different is how the participant feels about the choice.

The researchers’ findings were interesting. Costa and his team discovered that when the options were presented in a foreign language, or the second language of the participants, they were more rational and less likely to make choices that would protect them from losses then they were when presented the same choice in their native language. Then they tested participants with choices that were emotional “neutral” to see if that would affect their decision making process. They found that the foreign language effect was absent from these decisions.

They concluded that when a second language is used it would reduce the emotional intensity surrounding the loss aversion bias or other emotionally charged decisions, enabling participants to make a more rational decision.

So I can’t help but wonder with immigration in many western countries a high percentage of the population, does this mean the native speakers who think in their own language feel one thing about an experience and immigrants feel another? If so, what implication does that have for how you position your experience depending on the background of your customer?

The idea that language doesn’t always translate is hardly a new one. Most of us know the story of the Chevy Nova’s launch failing in Mexico because the name means in Spanish, “No go.” Clearly this isn’t exactly what any automaker is going for in a name for their muscle car.

But the findings of Costa’s team do indicate that there might be a need to consider how your message is interpreted by native speakers vs. non-native speakers. Segmenting your experience, in cases where the consumers may come from all over the world, may be your best strategy to create the experience you want for your organization.

In customer experience design, we often categorize a company’s customer base into customer personas. Customer personas are different, smaller groups that share similar characteristics and values as it pertains to whom they like to do business. We often discover that an organization has many different groups that interpret their experience differently and have different definitions of what makes an experience satisfactory.

Once we have this information, we then train our client’s team to adapt their strategy to consider the needs and value of this group.  By identifying who they are and what they want most, you can deliver the experience they need to foster an environment of customer retention and loyalty.

Costa’s findings indicate that one of these groups for any organization should include those customers that are interacting with you in a second language so you can adapt your experience to them as well. The good news here is that their interpretation of the experience will likely be more straightforward and rational than those that speak the language as their native tongue. It’s not very often that I say a rational experience is more important for any group, by the way, but with this segment specifically, I think it might just be the case.

Economic globalization has created many new challenges for businesses today. Not only does it mean considering the culture of the country in which a company does business, but it also means considering how one should adapt the organization’s customer experience and its resulting emotional signature to send the right signals to its target market.

But an organization’s considerations of its experience don’t end there. You should also consider the target market’s native language as well and more specifically, how the language affects your target market’s rational bias. Fail to do this and you might create an experience that with an emotional signature that is a “no va.”

Knowing this second meaning and second language relationship exists, what can you do to help use this to your advantage in your customer experience?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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