Monday, June 21, 2010

Lessons from BP’s Little People . . . or is it the small people, or the Common Man?

British Petroleum has been in the news so much; with such a great public resentment against them that anything more the BP leadership could do couldn’t perhaps anger Americans more. Or so we thought till BP chairman’s comment about "small people" of the Gulf Coast hit by the oil disaster.

The media and digirati seem to have moved on to other issues but Carl-Henric Svanberg’s clumsy remark about "small people" created more storm in the teacup than it perhaps should have. He did apologize for the remark the same day. And after all, English is not Svanberg’s native tongue.
I guess I cannot make an excuse for the Chairman of BP, especially given the fact that executives of multinationals, even non-native English speakers are increasingly expected to give press conferences in English, and are coached extensively to avoid public gaffe, especially of the nature in discussion.

The fact of the matter is that there is hardly one version of English spoken globally. There is the queen’s English, with versions in Great Britain itself, the Australian and American English, with native idioms, expressions and even phrases. And then there is the English which Indians learn to speak (ref my earlier blog post). Could “Little People” have been a native expression translated by Mr. Svanberg? Kind of like “the common man,” a term that is prevelant in India and south Asia.

Case in point, an Indian CEO, say of an offshoring services firm, during an interview on the impact of sourcing might make a benign remark like “the common man in Redmond won’t be impacted by Big blue’s sourcing strategy.” Wonder what the American or British media would make of this? And would the expression also create a furor for being Politically In-correct?

Ps: for the feminists in the audience, the term Common Man was probably coined much before we did away with “Man” to more PC “Person”

Blogs on the topic
* BP Chairman's Unfortunate Choice of Words: Once Again the Media Fanned
* BP: 'Small People' Matter To Us, Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg Says
* NYT: Small People
* Gulf oil spill: Obama and BP caring for the 'small people'
* BP -- 'Small People' Speech Pisses Off Little People
* Small People by BP Angers Gulf Residents