You've flown across the Pacific for an important sales meeting with Japanese executives. During the discussions, you quote a price. Silence follows. When your Japanese counterparts don't respond, you quickly break the silence to reduce the price.
On a business trip to Hamburg, Germany, you're introduced to your German colleagues for the first time. You extend your hand to them and say, "Just call me Jack."
While lunching with a potential client in France, you immediately start talking about sales projections for the coming year.
Most U.S. business executives wouldn't be offended by any of these actions. Yet the foreigners in these examples would view each incident as a faux pas. By taking time to consider a proposal, Japanese executives believe they're demonstrating sincerity. Unlike Americans, they also feel very comfortable with silence.
Germans prefer formality. To immediately ask German executives to call you by your first name is considered rude. Meanwhile, the French like to concentrate on the eating experience, reserving business discussions until after dessert.
Unfortunately, many U.S. businesspeople are inadvertently committing such blunders as they circle the globe in a frenetic rush to help their companies penetrate overseas markets. Most companies use technical expertise as the primary criterion for selecting managers for international assignments.
But technical managers often are unfamiliar with cultural niceties. Many need training in cultural sensitivity to communicate effectively in their host countries.
The issue of cultural insensitivity has a variety of financial ramifications. Executive recruiters say it takes expatriate managers who don't know a country's culture about a year to become effective.
Meanwhile, between 10% and 20% of executives who go overseas return early, most because they couldn't adjust to the culture or had families who couldn't adjust, according to a study by Lamalie Amrop International, a search firm based in New York. With the cost of such "retention failures" averaging between $50,000 and $150,000, companies can ill afford to send unprepared managers on foreign assignments.
If you make brief trips abroad - normally without your family - to visit company facilities, conduct meetings or meet foreign executives, you should know something about the culture of the countries you visit. But if you're asked to move to a nation with both a different language and culture, it's even more critical for you and your family - to learn how to interact appropriately. Any relocation is difficult, but the stress of moving overseas can't be underestimated.
"Morale and productivity are enhanced by an understanding of the effect of culture on business and lifestyle in the host country and an ability to adapt to cultural differences," says Bruce Bennett, a regional director of quality and engineering for AT&T Co. who lived in Hong Kong for six years.
Adds Judy Kessler, manager of international transfers for InCrown Cork & Seal company and former senior expatriate administrator for Rh?ne-Poulenc Inc., "An employee would never leave for a foreign country not knowing what the compensation was going to be. How can he or she leave not knowing what the new culture is going to be?"
Before You Go
Many U.S. executives don't realize the amount of work required to become culturally aware. One Rh?ne-Poulenc manager who was being transferred overseas thought he didn't need cross-cultural training, but that his family should attend classes. Eventually, he agreed to go to the sessions for their sakes, Ms. Kessler says. After the training ended, he admitted how much he had benefited from the instruction. "I can't believe how much I didn't know," he said.
To become culturally savvy, you first must understand your own culture, society and work environment. Knowing how your thoughts, perceptions and behavior have been molded by your culture can help you view yourself and others more objectively and avoid judging others by your own standards.
If you're being sent overseas, taking the following steps can help you and your family make a successful transition, especially if your firm lacks a cross-cultural training program.
1. Prepare a country profile. Learn the geographic, historic, political and economic factors that have shaped your host country and its people. Start by reviewing a map to determine the country's location, distance from the U.S. and neighboring nations. Read history books about the country or region, and familiarize yourself with recent current events. Investigate various topics that will make the country and its people seem more "real" and ease conversations with host nationals.
2. Become familiar with your travel logistics. Learn what passport, visa and immunizations are necessary. Also study airports youll use, ground transportation, currency differences and related details.
Don't assume you can entrust others with your travel plans. A marketing manager for a large foods company who tried to enter the People's Republic of China on a visa his secretary had ordered for him was denied access because she had incorrectly secured the visa for "The Republic of China," more commonly known as Taiwan. To avoid similar misunderstandings when relocating with his family to Hong Kong, the manager arranged for predeparture cross-cultural training through Sherisen International, Inc.
Travel within a host country is one of the benefits of an expatriate experience, and something your family can help plan with you. To prepare, request brochures from the country's tourist bureau and buy some good travel books. Use your sightseeing plans as a way to help family members look forward to the assignment, not just mope about what they'll be giving up.
3. Study the language. Learn common conversational phrases (greetings, asking directions, making simple purchases) that will help with basic needs when you arrive and make a good impression on your hosts. Most companies will pay for language lessons or help to arrange them. Don't forget to continue language training after you arrive.
4. Learn how business is conducted and people are managed in your host country. Discuss in advance what's expected at business/staff meetings. Also learn about typical leadership styles, boss-subordinate relations, decision-making, teamwork, and differences in pace, pressure and protocol from U.S. norms. Ask others who have been successful overseas how they handled sensitive work or management situations.
Practice "style switching" when learning how to manage key cultural differences. For instance, if you're transferring to China and you learn that "the Chinese are like...," recognize that you must continue the thought with, "If the Chinese are like..., then to be effective, I must..."
5. Practice conflict management and international negotiation skills. While you can't insist on doing things the way you've always done them in the U.S., neither can host country nationals have things entirely their way, either. There must be an accommodation, and you'll likely have to arrange it. Becoming a good global manager requires tact, diplomacy, a genuine respect for others and the ability to develop and maintain relationships.
6. Become aware of verbal and nonverbal communication styles. Recognize that such gestures as raising an eyebrow, nodding, crossing your arms or leaning forward send a message, but its meaning may vary in your host country. For instance, a smile and a nod in Japan can be a polite refusal. Moving your head from side to side means "yes," not "no," in south India. Learn to interpret common gestures and body language in your assigned country.
When using English with host nationals, speak slowly and distinctly, and avoid using idioms until you know how well they speak it. Use feedback mechanisms to determine if your message has been understood.
7. Understand time and space concepts in your host country. Knowing these issues can help you successfully navigate social and business engagements. In general, most foreigners are more relaxed about time and schedules than U.S. and western European executives. When conversing with others, Latin Americans and Arabs prefer to be physically closer than the 30 inches preferred by most Americans.
8. Study social customs and behavior that will help you to interact with your hosts. These include learning how to make appropriate introductions and greetings and understanding native food habits, mores about drinking and smoking, conversation topics, relationships between the sexes and gift-giving.
As a manager, you'll need to be culturally savvy concerning business entertaining and social protocol. Who should initiate an invitation or pick up the tab? Are spouses normally invited? What's an appropriate gift? Can you discuss business at a social gathering, and if so, when?
For example, the French have a saying, "Nous concludons les affaires entre le poire et le fromage," which means, "We conclude business between the pear and the cheese." In other words, they consider it gauche to concentrate on business discussions during a meal and not on the food, wine and conversation.
9. Gather practical information about your daily lifestyle. This can help you and your family have less anxiety about the move. Find out about housing, schools, transportation, medical facilities, recreational activities, living costs, available goods and services, and what to bring or leave behind.
Good sources of information include expatriates who have recently returned from overseas assignments. If your company allows house-hunting trips, contact the local international women's club and international school in your new location. The women's clubs usually publish manuals to assist new transferees to their city. And many cross-cultural training and relocation firms offer housing and settling-in services to help transferees' moves go smoothly.
10. Discuss how your new lifestyle will affect family members. Explore how your family can create an enjoyable lifestyle, with new friends and activities in the new country. This is especially critical for spouses who can't work abroad. Raising children in a foreign country also should be discussed with others who have done it successfully.
11. Discuss the symptoms of and remedies for culture shock. Coping in a new cultural milieu requires more patience, empathy and respect, and less arrogance and ethnocentrism, than usual. It's also important to recognize the symptoms of homesickness. I once conducted a follow-up evaluation with several expatriate families assigned to Bourges, France, by a large U.S. aircraft manufacturer. During the meeting, one of the American spouses burst into the living room, clutching a small jar of French's yellow mustard to her chest. After considerable effort, she had gotten the mustard from an American friend who had visited a military PX in Germany. How anyone could covet French's yellow mustard in the middle of the Dijon area of France can only be explained by "culture shock."
Approach your new assignment, whether it's a short business trip or overseas relocation with a positive attitude. Learn to view cultural differences as opportunities to grow personally while advancing your company's image, product and services. Increasingly, companies are recognizing the link between cross-cultural training for employees and global competitiveness. Through education, training and international travel, they're creating a cadre of managers who can ensure global success.
This article first appeared in the National Business Employment Weekly.
Ms. Sen has an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University in cultural anthropology and a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in South Asian Studies.