Sidebar: Don't Be the Ugly American

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The U.S. has a reputation for not being sensitive toward other cultures, and according to many observers, that reputation is well earned. "Americans are not particularly adept at working globally," says Jay Crotts, CIO at Shell Lubricants/B2B in London. "They tend to make false assumptions about how people around the globe work."

Failing to fully understand the local culture may be somewhat excusable when you're just visiting on vacation, but when you're trying to collaborate with people in other cultures, it's good to at least be aware of how your behavior might be irksome or even offensive to other people.

It's About Time

We all know about differing time zones, but it's easy to forget that ours isn't the dominant one. According to Fred Danback, vice president of global technology at a global financial services firm in Stamford, Conn., his European counterparts get upset when Americans schedule early-morning next-day meetings when it's late afternoon U.S. time. "As soon as they come into the office, they have to juggle their schedule to make it happen," he says.

Americans also use a different date convention than the rest of the world, which can confuse meeting scheduling. If we schedule for 1/6/06, for instance, many people would interpret that as June 1. At Sunterra, a resort company in Las Vegas, CIO Norbert Kubilus urges staffers to write out the month rather than using a number, to avoid miscommunication.

That's Mr. To You

In U.S. business offices, Americans call everyone by their first names. However, in many countries, only "Mr.," "Mrs." and "Miss" are used, from the mailroom clerk to the CEO. People move to a first-name basis only when a formal invitation is issued.

But when Americans enter the room, "we often address everyone by their first names," Danback says. He has found that non-Americans are accepting of this tendency, but as soon as the Americans leave the room, they revert back to their own norm. "If you work with the culture on their terms, you'll be much more warmly received and trusted," he says.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Americans value enthusiasm, but other cultures can interpret our "Great job!" incorrectly, believing we're more committed to something than we really are or, worse, that we're being patronizing and disingenuous. "The exclamation, 'Great idea, Juan!' can sound like a go-ahead to a colleague in Madrid," says Lu Ellen Schafer, founder of Global Savvy, an international training and consulting firm. "When Europeans realize there's no commitment implied, they might feel deceived or that the American is being superficial."

"At the fifth 'Good question!' they begin to feel it doesn't mean anything," Crotts says.

Avi Huber, an Israeli software engineer who has worked in the U.S. for eight years, says U.S. hyperbole has led Israelis to believe that we don't say what we mean. "When [Americans] say, 'I appreciate your opinion,' they often don't at all," he says. "An Israeli would say, 'That's bull, and this is what I think,' but with an American, it would take a long time to get to that point."

It's a Big World Out There

A typical trait that irritates people in other countries is arrogance about our own culture, Crotts says, as though we think the U.S. is the center of the universe. To help dispel that image, he suggests being able to refer to current events, business examples and cultures beyond U.S.-based ones. "When you go to a new country, do you read USA Today, or the local newspaper?" Crotts asks. When you mention only to U.S. businesses and events in your conversations, it undermines your credibility. "In the U.K., they get 30 minutes of international news, whereas in the U.S., it can be 30 seconds," he says.

Rick Davidson, CIO at Manpower, agrees that Americans are seen as lacking in a global understanding of geography, history and politics. This is brought home in our tendency to overuse sports analogies when trying to emphasize a point. Examples that Schafer often hears include "Hail Mary pass," "ballpark estimate" and "slam-dunk." It helps, Davidson says, if you at least try to speak the local language. "If you're working hard to understand their culture, they're forgiving if you make a mistake," he says.

Primary Languages

Because English is so widespread in the business world, Americans can be insensitive to the fact that many listeners are translating every word they say. "We don't realize people are having a hard time keeping up with the conversation," Crotts says.

The trouble is, in many cultures it's considered impolite for people to say they don't understand what you're saying, so they won't ask for clarification. "That's why it's important to find multiple ways to describe or explain things and ask them to explain their understanding of what you just said," Davidson says.

This becomes particularly apparent in PowerPoint presentations, says Mike Rosen, practice director at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. Our tendency is to put very few words on a slide and then talk around those points.

"But when you're giving a talk to an audience without a great command of English, most people can read the language better than they hear it," he says. "You have to change the way you're giving the presentation so you have more content on the slide, it's readable, and you don't diverge from that content as much as you might in a typical presentation."

For example, Rosen might spend 90 seconds per slide in the U.S., but he increases that to two minutes per slide in other countries.

And remember, it's not so much about acting "less American," Schafer says. "It's about being globally competent -- it's not changing who you are."

You'll find, Danback says, that because it's assumed Americans will impose their culture on the country they're visiting, if you make any effort at all to live by other people's rules, it will be greatly received. "You'll surprise and delight them," he says.

See the complete special report on globalization.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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