These 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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:
- 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?”)
- Brazilians speak Spanish. They speak Portuguese, as they were colonized by the Portuguese, not the Spaniards.
- 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!