How not to be a cultural knucklehead in a global business world

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Earth boyThese days, even the smallest-scale entrepreneur working out of her home office in Boise, Idaho can have a circle of clients and partners from around the world.  She may have an Australian graphic designer create her logo.  She may  manufacture her product line in China.  She may hire technical developers and e-commerce experts from India.  She may have customers from Bolivia and Belarus.  But if interacting with global partners is all new to her, she may be missing some important communication skills.

Ten years ago, while working at a financial services firm, I cracked up when a smart and seasoned investment adviser told an assembled group of employees:  “There is a lot of talk these days that the world is getting more and more global.  I am here to ask you:  when has the world not been global?”

As a North American who has spent significant time living in different parts of the globe and working with large, multi-national corporations, I would like to offer some helpful tips for effective communication.  Although I have certainly met many well-traveled and sensitive fellow Americans, I have also seen my share of completely clueless lunkheads who embodied the term “Ugly American.”  Most of these were drunken college students on Spring break in Mexico.  But a few were seasoned executives who managed large, global organizations and who should know better.

If global business etiquette is really new to you, here are a few tips for effective communication:

In presentations and meetings:

  1. Don’t use baseball analogies when talking to a global audience.  People around the world certainly know what baseball is.  But it is not nearly as prevalent as football (aka “soccer”) in most countries of the world.  So if you are going to use a sports analogy, use one that most of your audience can relate to.  I have felt very annoyed when hearing an  executive address a global audience and use metaphors like “hitting it out of the park,” or “throwing a curve ball.”  The rub is not that the global audience will not understand, but that the executive did not take the time to think of a metaphor that is universally applicable.
  2. Stay away from “country insider” metaphors and analogies.  My favorite is when a presenter talks about a business idea and says something like “but that is just Motherhood and apple pie.”  If you are American, you will nod your head in agreement since you know that this means that the concept is wholesome and prevalent.  But if you are not American, you may scratch your head and wonder how mothers and pies relate to business.
  3. Speak clearly and enunciate.  You don’t have to slow down until you sound like a kindergarten teacher, just make sure you enunciate your words.  This will benefit not only your audience members who speak English as a second language, but everyone else as well. A tip:  if you smile while you talk, your words will come out clearer.
  4. Accompany your talk with written notes.  I have experienced the agony and ecstasy of operating in another language.  The first time I walked into my all-French language Swiss classroom as a high school exchange student , I felt like my brain was turned on  hyper-speed.  I tried to grasp philosophy, chemistry, history and calculus in French, and my head almost exploded.  Even a person very fluent in English as a second language will have to work extra hard to make sure he understands what you are saying in a presentation.  So provide written notes as backup which will allow your non-native speakers to fully grasp the materials, and review them after the meeting.
  5. Avoid potentially offensive metaphors.  I once attended a meeting which included Native American participants.   Another non-Native participant said to illustrate his point: “We have too many Indians and not enough chiefs.”  His face did turn three shades of red once he realized that it was offensive to those in attendance.  It is best to banish these kinds of metaphors from your vocabulary, as frankly they are unbecoming in any context.
  6. Plan for a level of interaction appropriate for the culture of your audience.  The first time I taught a class in Europe, I felt like I was a comedian playing a really hostile comedy club.  I tend to be a very interactive presenter, and frequently ask the participants questions.  Each question dropped like a lead weight in the room, and I was met by cool stares.  At the break, I checked in with a colleague, and was told that for this group in Amsterdam (with participants from England, France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland), large group presentations were often more formal, and people would often not speak up until they got in smaller groups.  They looked to the instructor to be well-prepared and knowledgeable, not to act as a talk show host.
  7. Ask people what they prefer to be called before you introduce them.  Americans have the wonderful quality of making friends quickly and using informal terms with each other.  But you might want to ask Prince Charles how he prefers to be referred to, before introducing him as “My Main Man Chuck.”
  8. Include social events that meet the needs of all global participants.  A favorite pastime  after many  American and European business meetings is to go drinking.  Some of your participants may not drink alcohol for personal or religious reasons.  Some will feel fine going to a bar and drinking a non-alcoholic beverage, while others may feel very uncomfortable.  So try to schedule a mixture of activities that will meet the needs of all participants.

In electronic communication:

  • Include your time zone in your email signature in the form of “GMT +/-“ Here in the U.S., we are used to using time zones such as Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern.  But outside the U.S., not everyone is as familiar with which states fall in which time zone.
    A handy global measure is to use the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as a standard.  In 1884, an international conference agreed to adopt the Meridian of Greenwich, England as the starting point for reckoning longitude and to divide the world into 24 time zones of 15 degree longitude each. (Amazing how the center of the earth happened to fall in Europe, huh?  The after-effects of colonialism is another topic for another day.) So if you live in Arizona like I do, my time zone is GMT-7.  If you live in Tokyo, your time zone is GMT+9.  This can make scheduling global meetings much easier.  (I have a handy “World Time Zone” map to decipher GMT times from Streetwise Maps.)
  • Include a salutation.  Email culture in general tends to be shorter and less formal than traditional written communication.  But many cultures have a more formal written protocol than in typical email style.  So the first time you approach a new business partner in Japan, make sure you don’t say “Hey Jim — read that you are doing interesting things with green technology.  Call me and let’s discuss. -Joe”  A more appropriate greeting might be “Dear Mr. Tanaka,” or even better, “Dear Tanaka-San.”

Lastly, here are just a few common global stereotypes I have run across:

  1. Canadians are basically American, with warmer coats.  Don’t believe it for a minute.  Although it may be hard to tell the genetic difference between a fresh-faced American and Canadian, the cultural differences are many.  They have a different form of government.  They have a very different foreign policy.  They have a very distinct culture.  They have a different history ( I made the mistake of calling Canada Day “Canadian Independence Day” in a blog post.  Glenda, my saucy Canadian friend quickly shot me a snide email:  “Canadian Independence Day?  Independence from what?”)
  2. Brazilians speak Spanish.  They speak Portuguese, as they were colonized by the Portuguese, not the Spaniards.
  3. To ensure someone with a strong accent understands you, speak louder.  Comprehension will happen by using clear, jargon-free language, not by raising your voice and shouting. And just because they have a strong accent does not mean they don’t comprenhend you perfectly well.

I have always bristled at the term “political correctness,” as applying these global etiquette principles is neither about being political nor being correct.  It is about showing respect and consideration to people that you interact with on a daily basis.   By doing so, I guarantee that you will expand your world view, and feel more connected and “related” to your global partners.

I would love to hear your tips for effectively communicating across cultures!

70 Responses to “How not to be a cultural knucklehead in a global business world”

  1. Oustanding post on an important subject!

    I think effective communication requires creativity and improvization, in addition to plain English and other common-sense tips.


  2. targetz says:

    How not to be a cultural knucklehead in a global businessworld

    I found an article titled How not to be a cultural knucklehead in a global business world over at Escape from Cubicle Nation. It is an interesting and useful read for everyone working in an international setting. I fully agree with what is written at t…

  3. charvey says:

    Aww, come on peeps. Stop the PC insanity.

    It’s ok to say “American” and “America.” Everyone knows what you’re talking about. I live in Vietnam and everyone says “America” and “American” anyway.

    My biggest advice to my American brethren? Do NOT assume that someone who sounds like they are American actually is American. They could be a Canadian. And some Canadians get really, really mad to be mistaken for Americans. I almost had my head bitten off once, eh?

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    Great post over at the consistently superb Escape From Cubicle Nation blog, entitled, How not to be a knucklehead in a global business world (h/t to The Adventure of Strategy Blog and to Seth Godin’s Blog) cubicle nation that nicely summarizes some of …

  5. GREAT post. I particularly love your calling off baseball lingo, as that (along with movie or television show references) is one of my biggest mistakes. I mean, how can lawyers talk about a case without saying:

    1. Throw a high hard one.
    2. Give them a little chin music
    3. Hit a home run
    4. Be satisfied with a double
    5. Can of corn

    It goes on and on.

  6. Jack DeLand says:

    When speaking of “the ugly American,” don’t forget that it was the physically ugly chap who was the hero, and the ambassador who was air-conditioned. Better yet, read the book, not Wikipedia.

  7. As a Canadian, I would echo some of the points about the use of the word ‘American’. Please don’t call us American; we are not American even if we live in North America (you can call us ‘North American’ if you really want).

    Also, when you refer to ‘America’ it is confusing to us. I was in an airport in Copenhagen and they created a special line for people going ‘to America’ – I have to verify whether they meant the United States (they did) or in the Americas.

    Finally, Pamela writes, “Amazing how the center of the earth happened to fall in Europe, huh? The after-effects of colonialism is another topic for another day.”

    Standardized time was in fact invented by Stanford Fleming, a Canadian. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) falls where it does because it is exactly 180 degrees (half way) around the globe from the International Date Line – and the International Date line is conveniently located in the middle of the largest unpopulated region of the world, the Pacific Ocean.

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  9. I have to disagree vehemently with:

    “Plan for a level of interaction appropriate for the culture of your audience. The first time I taught a class in Europe, I felt like I was a comedian playing a really hostile comedy club.”

    I present often in the most conservative part of Germany, and I go crazy – tossing around chocolate , toys and loaded waterpistols.

    Sure, they raise their eyebrows for the first few seconds, but once you have won them over they will love you for it. That initial response will be different – no-one outside North America ever “whoops” to show approval – but in some places a wry smile is a sign of ecstacy…

    You just have to believe it yourself, not take yourself too seriously, and make clear that there is substance behind your clowning.

  10. tt says:

    It’s a good post, almost good enough to pass around. Almost.

    You commit a faux pas that’s a pet peeve of mine. And probably of not many others, but here’s the rant anyway:

    You write: “A more appropriate greeting might be ‘Dear Mr. Tanaka,’ or even better, ‘Dear Tanaka-San.'”

    As a resident of Japan who helps overseas folks do business here, I hear that sort of “Tanaka-San” in English all day long. I cringe slightly every time.

    Salutations should be determined by the language used, not by the subject’s ethnicity or nationality. Why make any reference to ethnicity when speaking to or about a person? Why refer to a roomful of people equally as “Mr” or “Ms”, but single out one for different treatment based on a passport?

    Reverse the situation: you’re taking part in a group of Japanese speakers. They all address each other as “Suzuki-san”, “Ishii-san”, etc. – all except you, that is. Although the language spoken is Japanese, you are singled out, and pointedly segregated as a “Mrs” or “Ms”. Would you appreciate that separation, or would you rather be included in the group?

    I know, it’s a very trivial “mistake”, made with all good intent, and I think very few people would take issue. (Some may even appreciate the ethnicity/nationality-based labeling.) But unless you know the subject appreciates it, I recommend using the proper default salutations or honorifics for the language in use, toward all subjects. In English, that’s “Ms”, “Mrs”, and “Mr”.

    Don’t invite poor Mr Tanaka into an English conversation, and simultaneously tell him that not all of the language applies to him!

  11. Wes P says:

    From a Canadian who has lived most of his adult life outside Canada:

    The difference between Americans and Canadians:
    “Americans are so benevolently ignorant about Canada, while Canadians are malevolently well informed about the United States.”
    — J. Bartlet Brebner

    This truism implies that Canadians are bound to be prickly when lumped together with Americans. Likewise, a common Canadian failing is to feel snidely superior to Americans.

    Regarding uses of the word “America” in way that will not offend Canadians:
    In general, “American” as a noun is usable as there is no other alternative for a USAian.

    “America” as an unmodified noun should be avoided; use “U.S.” (definitely not US – we are not you). If you mean from the North American Continent say “North American”, although most Canadians think of North America as ending at the Rio Grande rather than the Isthmus of Panama.

    “American” as an adjective should be avoided; use a preposition, e.g. “from the U.S.”, “of the U.S.”.

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  13. Bri says:

    You hit a home run on this one Pam. Though I thought Canadians were just Americans that drank more beer… my mistake.

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  16. Tracy W says:

    Pam stated ‘The “too many indians” metaphor follows what I mentioned above, as if the nature of most people are wild and in need of control and authority from a “chief,” either their own or an external force. ‘

    How interesting. I’ve only heard it used in the context of “we have too many people trying to lead, and not enough people actually doing the work”.

    “Too many chiefs, not enough Indians”, to a NZer not raised on cowboy movies implies that there are far too many managers around. It’s critical of the “chiefs” and positive about “Indians”.

    I didn’t know it could be used to imply that more control is necessary.

    This shows another reason not to use this metaphor – I’d’ve taken away a completely different meaning to Pam.

  17. Jerome Bruno says:

    Thanks Pamella.One of the best articles I have come across after a long time.

    Your article throws more light on the dark areas that we often miss out during our presentations.

    I shall write back with few of my opinions, later in this blog.

  18. Ok Pam! Now I have “comment envy” to add to my list of personal challenges — you know you’re good!

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