How not to be the ugly American
By Debra Alban
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(CNN) -- Dr. Jeanette Martin recalls conducting cultural training with a group of Japanese workers in Memphis, Tennessee, a few years ago when one of the attendees approached her warily.
"What does it mean when somebody pats you on the back?" he asked.
"It means you've done a good job," Martin, who co-wrote "Global Business Etiquette: A Guide to International Communication and Customs," answered. At that point he and the other students seemed relieved. She asked what the gesture meant in Japan.
"It means you're doing a bad job," one of them answered.
"These Americans had been running around patting them on the back and they couldn't figure out what was going on," Martin, an associate professor of business communication at the University of Mississippi, says about the incident.
Doing business in a foreign country can mean running the risk of this type of cultural faux pas. CNN.com asked several international business culture experts for pointers on what American business travelers should know before they negotiate in a foreign country.
Follow a country's rituals for introductions.
In China, for example, people will state the names of their companies before giving their own names, says Tom Russell, publisher of Random House's Living Language "Business Companion" series.
"If you are asked to identify yourself, state the name of your company rather than your own name because your company often gets more respect," Russell says.
A handshake is not universal so don't be caught off guard when you're expected to bow in Japan or when a French business associate reaches in for what Martin calls an "air mail kiss."
"The first time [the air mail kiss] happens to you it is very difficult not to pull back," says Dr. Lillian H. Chaney, a professor of management at the University of Memphis and co-writer of "Global Business Etiquette." "But if you know ahead of time, you get yourself prepared and you think, 'I can't step back.' "
It's also always a good idea to know some key phrases in your host country's language, Martin says.
The right business cards
Business cards are "very important," Martin says. "And very important that they be translated to the other language of the country where you're going... There is nothing more embarrassing than having a business card that's been translated incorrectly."
Martin also suggests keeping it simple when it comes to business card design, sticking with white, black and cream colors.
"Colors have such different meanings across cultures. If you stay with the common white, cream and black you're going to be fine."
It's time to make your presentation. In America you'd likely open up with a joke to break the ice. This is not always a good idea in another country.
In Germany, workers think of business as being a very serious matter, Chaney says. "They don't think it's funny to be joking around when we have this important deal on the table."
Martin adds that the French and the British do enjoy comedy, but cautions, "humor does not necessarily translate," adding that if you do decide to keep things light, your best bet in any country is to stay away from joking about gender, politics, religion or physicians.
Also be aware of the different negotiating tactics in other cultures before you get too downtrodden about not scoring a deal right away.
The Japanese, for instance, use a lot of silence in business meetings, says Chaney.
"U.S. people interpret that as they're not going to go for the deal, and so we make unnecessary concessions during negotiations because we do not know that isn't what they mean when they're silent."
"The Japanese ... aren't going to make a decision in any meeting.... They want to go away and talk about it amongst themselves," Martin adds.
In Latin cultures, Russell says businessmen and women are considered to be tough negotiators. "Be prepared for rather long and vigorous negotiations, and don't accept an offer too quickly."
The business lunch
You and your business associates have decided to head to a restaurant for lunch. This is an arena in which Americans "certainly do manage to mess up," Chaney says.
It's important to know whether you're expected to clean your plate or not, Chaney says.
You should also make it a habit in other countries to peel your fruit with a knife and eat it with a fork, and use utensils when you eat a sandwich. In some countries it is considered poor taste to pick these foods up with your hands, Chaney says, adding, "you never know when you're in one of those countries."
Make it a point to use chopsticks in those countries that use them, Martin says. "They're not difficult to use and you get so many little brownie points for using them."
As for dining conversation, it would be hard to nail down whether you're allowed to talk about business during meals, Chaney says, because it differs from country to country.
For example, in France, no business is to be discussed during meals, whereas in Germany, you can start talking shop during the last course, she says. Because it might be hard to keep track of where such conversational taboos occur, Chaney recommends following your host's lead when it comes to bringing up business.
When it comes to doing business in a foreign country, Chaney's general advice: "Do your homework. I don't care what country [I] go to, every time before I leave, I pull out books and I say, 'OK, I've got to check these things out.' "
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