Working in a global economy for the average “cubicloid” means lessons on cultural don’ts, time-zone differences that ensure someone’s kids get awakened by a predawn phone call, and language barriers — even among those who speak the same language.
Illustration by Jayachandran / Mint
English speakers seem to have many words that are innocuous on one side of the Atlantic but are offensive enough on the other side that they’ll go unmentioned here. “You think you speak the language, and you discover you don’t,” says David Rosenberg, a Texan who worked in England as a project manager.
He learned the alternate meanings of these words through innocent trial and mortifying error. Such are the little collisions of language, culture and etiquette in global business that can make for mistakes that are awkward at best, and costly at worst.
But how wide are these gaps really? Advisers seem to overestimate the distance between cultures and underestimate the disconnects you can have with a co-worker who grew up on the same street in Teaneck, New Jersey.
It wasn’t hard for Dave Brooks to discern that his colleagues in London would more gently criticize his ideas than those in New York. Yet, he once had to correct a huge miscommunication right in his own backyard.
When he was running a family business selling T-shirts at youth-athletics events, he contacted a tournament committee in Louisiana to get permission to sell there. He was told that the committee wasn’t “concerned”. Thrilled, he started to make travel and staffing plans — until he realized in a follow-up call that “not concerned” to this particular committee member meant “not enthusiastic”.
“You don’t have to leave the US to face these issues. We’ve got plenty big enough differences here,” says Brooks.
Unfamiliar names, of course, can take a little extra research — like finding out whether that person in an overseas office is male or female. Kim Oberg, a business-development manager for a hi-tech company, has had to make some stealthy phone calls when confronted with colleagues named Gwénaël, Niamh and SeungKyoo. “I had one of my colleagues in the UK find out who it was,” she says of Gwénaël (male). Niamh, an Irish name pronounced “neeve,” was female, while SeungKyoo was male, she learned.
But is this gender research any different from the surreptitious phone call you made to someone about colleagues Stevie, Pat, Jan — or Kim, for that matter?
Stella Xu, a professor of international management at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, consults with American companies doing business in China and vice versa (she was born Sixing Xu but adopted the name “Stella,” in part, so her name wouldn’t sound to Americans like “sexy shoe”). She points out to Americans that receiving a business card with both hands is a sign of respect and, more important, warns them not to expect that an agreement has the force of a contract when, to the Chinese, “personal relations are more important than honouring contracts,” she says.
She warns Chinese that they can’t just show up without an appointment, and that a business lunch is about business first. Of course, the same advice can be given to young American college students, she adds.
Sometimes, the cultural advice itself can create a difference that doesn’t exist. Several international business textbooks note that using the “thumbs up” gesture, which means “OK” in the US, is offensive in Australia. Generally, that’s not true, says Frank Acuff, who has had to update his book, How to Negotiate Anything with Anyone Anywhere Around the World, because customs are moving targets. “What may seem like practical advice today may later be misleading, sometimes in the space of just a few years,” he says.
Similarly, traditional advice for those India bound was to be sensitive to the caste system there, adds Acuff, but that “just simply isn’t the case today” in the cities and industries to which Americans are most exposed.
The biggest challenge to Americans, he says, is recognizing that in many corners of the world, people put relationships before business.
Del Ross, a vice-president of marketing who works overseas, notes that much of the trouble he and other Americans experience seems to centre on the word “no”, which in Japan can sound like: “This is very interesting; we’ll certainly give it serious consideration.”
Of course, the Bronx-born Brooks had the same problem when he went to college in Nashville. “I had to learn how to listen for what my southern friends called ‘a southern no’” that didn’t have the bluntness of the northern version.
American Bill Johnston, a former account manager for a consulting firm, says disconnects he had with UK executives looking at his company’s services weren’t really any different from what he faced in Texas. But he knows why people use the excuse of a culture gap: It hides the personal mistakes and miscues. “When I think of it as a cultural issue,” he says, “I don’t hold myself accountable.”
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