Numbers and Their Meanings Around the World

Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, believed that numbers had souls. In contemporary times, few treat numbers with such reverence, but there are still many numbers that hold special meanings and associations in different cultures.

Global Marketing

When creating a multicultural marketing strategy that aims to reach people of various backgrounds and beliefs, it’s important to understand how your messaging is perceived in each locale you are targeting. To really engage people, it’s not enough to just translate your website, product branding, or marketing collateral into another language. A well-crafted global marketing approach requires adapting messaging, images, graphics, colors, and even numbers so they are appropriate for each culture. And, in some countries, the numbers you use may have more impact than you think.

The Impact of Numbers

Measurements and other numerical conventions are the easy part. Work with a translation agency to accurately convert times, dates, addresses, phone numbers, etc. to the standards of your target markets.

The more challenging factor can be the associations derived from religion, mythology, and superstitions. A number that has very favorable connotations in one country may be viewed in just the opposite way in another. Read on for a few examples of numbers that carry strong positive or negative connotations around the world.

Numbers to Avoid

  • The pronunciation of the number four in China sounds almost exactly like the Chinese word for death. The Chinese, therefore, consider four a very unlucky number. Some buildings in China skip the fourth floor, the way buildings in the U.S. might skip the 13th floor.
  • Similarly, in Japanese, the word for the number nine sounds similar to the word for torture. This makes nine an unlucky number in Japan, to the extent that some hospitals and airlines will avoid using the number.
  • The number 39 is unlucky in Afghanistan, where it sounds like “morda-gow,” meaning “dead cow.”
  • In Italy, 17 is considered unlucky. The Roman numeral for seventeen is XVII, an anagram for VIXI. This is Latin for “I lived,” a phrase that is commonly written on tombstones.
  • Bulgaria even has an unlucky phone number: 0888 888 888. Many Bulgarians believe this number to be cursed, following the deaths of a few notable people with that phone number.
  • In India, twenty-six is thought to be unlucky after too many tragic events occurred on that date, including an earthquake, tsunami, and terrorist attacks.

Good Luck

  • Three is a lucky number in Sweden, as per the saying “all good things come in groups of three.”
  • In Japan and China, the number eight is thought to bring luck because its pronunciation is similar to wealth or prosperity. In these cultures, you are likely to see more price tags with amounts like $8.88 or $4.88, rather than $9.99.
  • 666 is a lucky number in China, where it can mean “everything goes smoothly.” Some people even pay extra to have the number 666 included in their license plate or phone number. In many Christian countries, however, 666 is the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation – quite the opposite connotation.

This is just a glimpse of some of the strong associations attached to numbers across different cultures. To engage diverse audiences, you must adapt to your creative copy, product branding, and global marketing approach to each culture. Work with a translation agency that can provide cultural consulting and guidance on localization issues. Understanding cross-cultural issues, and learning all you can about the backgrounds and beliefs of your target markets, will help you develop a global marketing approach that is culturally appropriate and effective.

Related Insights

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  • Transcreation
    Your global audiences won’t respond well to a campaign that sounds like a translation of your American campaign. Give them a message that is mindful of the cultural context and feels as though it was created with their needs in mind.
  • Writing for Global Audiences
    Writing for audiences across cultures has its challenges. How do you write in a way that is clear to people with diverse backgrounds and can be easily translated, so that your message is not diluted for those who are not native English speakers?
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