International Business: Avoid cultural blunders when working abroad

Published: Friday, Nov. 12 2010 7:00 a.m. MST

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A friend of mine once said he wished he had known more about Brazil's cultural dos and don'ts before accepting an assignment to work there. While presenting to a group of his Brazilian peers, he repeatedly used a hand gesture that in the United States would emphasize everything was "OK." Unfortunately, in Brazil, this "OK" gesture has roughly the same vulgar meaning as the middle-finger gesture we all recognize in the United States.

Fortunately, most of the audience was forgiving, but my friend was still embarrassed and wished he had avoided the incident entirely.

My friend may take some small comfort in knowing he is certainly not the only one to have committed a cultural gaffe like this. Blunders bred from cultural and language differences happen again and again. In fact, even former president Richard Nixon once made news by flashing the same "OK" sign while disembarking a plane in Brazil.

In the increasingly international world of business, more people now have the opportunity to work abroad. These international work experiences may be brief visits to foreign clients, or extended relocations lasting for months or years. The latter appears to be happening more often as job candidates expand the range where they are willing to work, especially in these times of global economic downturn.

As international workers and expatriates leave the United States, they may wish to gain some education on country-specific customs and business etiquette. If this describes you, such preparation will help you to act appropriately in various situations that might otherwise be uncomfortable or embarrassing.

Thanks to such preparation, when at a business lunch in Chile, you will know to keep your hands above the table at all times so that your client or colleague does not consider you rude. In various European and Latin American countries, you may be prepared to accept a brief hug or kiss on the cheek in situations where U.S. citizens might otherwise expect only a simple handshake.

In Japan, you will treat business cards, called "meishi," with an increased amount of respect and will not place the card in your pocket. In addition, you will not be thrown too off balance when people in certain countries stand closer to you than you may normally be accustomed simply because people in that culture demand less personal space.

Learning about cultural differences sooner rather than later is best if you wish to make a positive first impression. A little cultural sensitivity can go a long way, especially during a first meeting.

For example, in the United States, we do not think much of quick business card exchanges where we may casually accept someone's card, make notes on it and tuck it away in a pocket. However, Japanese business card exchanges are much more ceremonious.

In Japan, writing on someone's business card or putting it in a pocket would be offensive. Instead, after a bow or handshake, business people use both hands to present and receive cards with the card facing the recipient. The recipient then handles the card very carefully and actually takes a moment to read it, keeping the card in front of him or her throughout the meeting or introduction.

How can someone unfamiliar with the culture possibly anticipate such cultural differences? Before you leave to work abroad, do your homework to learn about business culture and customs in the country you plan to visit.

A country-specific online search can yield some useful results. Free online resources for cultural details about multiple countries include the Centre for Intercultural Learning (click on "Country Insights") and ExecutivePlanet.com. Additional free and paid online resources are listed at Michigan State University's globalEDGE portal.

Of course, a personal coach can be even more helpful than an online guide. Ask a colleague who has experience in the country if he or she will share the most important tips for surviving in that country's business culture. This feedback will be useful even when working with clients and colleagues that visit from other countries.

A combination of online study and friendly help from colleagues will go a long way toward ensuring that your good intentions are not proverbially "lost in translation" when working abroad. With a little preparation, your experience working abroad can be very positive!

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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