Headbloom Blog

When Small Words Make a Big Difference

Earlier this month I was reminded what a tricky business it is to communicate at high levels in a second language. At the center of the controversy is the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by British Petroleum (BP). After weeks of poor public relations with company CEO Tony Hayward in front of the microphones, BP sent its Chairman, Swedish-born Carl-Henric Svanberg to try to earn points with the American public. At a press conference, Svanberg attempted to present the human side of the oil giant by saying that BP “cares about the small people.”

What Svanberg didn’t realize was that the words “little” and “small” are not always interchangeable. Sure, they’re synonymous in the following:

  • We encountered a few small problems with the software.
  • We encountered a few little problems with the software.

However, they are not interchangeable in the case of “people.” What the Swedish Chairman had meant to say was “BP cares about the little guy.” In American English, “the little guy” is synonymous with “regular folks” or “average people,” in contrast with large, impersonal corporations.

On the misinterpreted side of things, Americans heard the word “small” in association with “unimportant” or “petty”—not the impression Svanberg wanted to leave. Here are some examples:

  • How small of her to say that in front of the new intern. I thought she was bigger than that. (= She is mean spirited.)
  • There is no such thing as small roles, only small actors. (= Small roles can contribute to the strength of the film or play, but not if done by actors of poor character.)

image BP’s Svanberg

The subtle difference in word choice had a demeaning quality to American ears. As a non-native speaker, Svanberg’s lack of understanding of the subtleties of American idioms cost BP some major sympathy at a time when the company was looking to turn around public perception. In those brief moments, the cold impression echoed over a thousand news outlets.

Svanberg later apologized, “I spoke clumsily this afternoon and for that I am very sorry.” But the damage had been done, and BP’s negative perceptions continued. With an annual salary of $3.8MM, the Swede probably should have invested in a professional editor and language coach. This tale reminds me of an old proverb:

For Want of a Nail (proverb)
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

(Language note: An old-fashioned meaning of the noun want is “lacking” or “absence.” )

Alan Headbloom