We Americans live in an exceedingly casual society. We believe that addressing strangers by their first names makes them feel like part of the family. In the global marketplace, however, this presumption of instant friendship may be a liability. And, since America no longer has global economic hegemony, who can afford to sabotage success? An Armani and a brilliant proposal aren't enough; you need to be aware of cultural values, standards of behavior and modus operandi of the arenas in which you wish to succeed.
A Silicon Valley titan met with Asian dignitaries abroad. “I decided to 'be authentic,' ” he said. “Attire was baseball cap and T-shirt.” Meetings invariably took place in offices that were more like museum galleries, where Asian gentlemen in Saville Row attire would rise for introductions.
“Being American, I got right to it,” the Silicon Valley executive said. This hubris was costly. He told each country's leaders they didn't have a “handle” on the situation, but he and his organization could “modernize” their economy. He later reviewed his tactics and came to understand that in-your-face frankness caused a loss of face for his Asian hosts.
Another destructive scene played out at Orly Airport in Paris: An American executive was met by a senior French banker with whom his group had been negotiating.
The American, slapping his host on the back, said: “Well, Pierre, I threw up all the way over. Your French food is jus' too rich.” Is it even necessary to point out what's wrong? The slap on the back and the use of the host's first name were excessively familiar. And the insult to French cuisine? Mon Dieu!
Women have been heads of state in India, Pakistan and the Philippines. But in Japan, it is difficult to find a woman executive of senior-level prominence. If you are a woman, remember that equality may not be a reality. Adapt to local customs. Be firm of purpose, flexible in your style.
Learn at least key phrases in your host's language. “S'il vous plait” and “danke schoen” go a long way.
Be conversant in your host country's cultural landmarks, national shrines and heroes. It indicates that you have respect for your hosts' traditions.
Use your own translator, one with established loyalty to you.
Isaacs is founder and president of Arlene B. Isaacs Marketing International in New York. This column originally appeared in BtoB, a sister publication of Plastics News.