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International Business: Watch the calendar for good times in international business

Published: Friday, Jan. 6 2012 7:00 a.m. MST

Now that we are in 2012, some people are seriously preparing for the “end of the world” supposedly foretold by ancient Mayans or cashing in on apocalyptic bumper stickers. However, more than one expert has said this prediction, based on a 5,125-year cycle ending Dec. 21, 2012, is actually the result of a mistranslation.

Intercultural calendar mix-ups actually happen all the time. As discussed in this column one year ago, international businesses must plan for regional holidays, and misreading calendars can spell doomsday for commerce with other cultures.

“About 20 years ago I was doing marketing for a small cosmetics firm in San Jose, Calif.,” said Steve Dawson, who now manages marketing at Aribex, the Orem-based creator of handheld X-ray systems. “We planned to have a PR event in New York City and invite about 50 fashion-oriented magazines to come see a product exhibit we set up in a hotel ballroom, complete with our trade show booths and a lavish buffet, (but) we had scheduled the event over Rosh Hashanah. We only realized this a few days before the event and figured, heck, not everyone in New York is Jewish, so we went ahead to the Big Apple.

“Only two magazines showed up,” explains Dawson. “It turns out that in New York City, during Rosh Hashanah, everyone is Jewish – even the Catholics. The city was a ghost town. That was a tough lesson to learn.”

Fortunately, Dawson really has learned his lesson about avoiding faux pas like this, as evidenced by the many intercultural successes he and his current company experience.

In other countries, not only do holidays present potential business conflicts, but different ideas about vacation time can also be surprising. Checking the reference book “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: Sales and Marketing,” we see that employees in many countries like Canada and China may start with close to two weeks of vacation like many U.S. employees. However, other employees in France, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia can enter new positions with a minimum of four to six weeks of vacation, which, when combined with a couple weeks’ worth of paid holidays, give workers about two months of leave each year and squash up to an entire month of business productivity for everyone.

“French employees get an astonishing number of days off,” explains British expatriate Charles Timoney in The Guardian. “Everyone starts with a statutory five weeks' holiday. To this are added about 10 public holidays: ‘jours fÉriÉs.' As these ‘jours fÉriÉs’ fall on a given date rather than always on a Monday, as in the UK, they regularly generate ‘ponts.' These are long weekends made up of a public holiday on a Tuesday or a Thursday, with a free day off given by the employer to make a bridge – ‘pont’ – with the weekend.

"And the recent ‘RÉduction du temps de travail’ or RTT – reduction in the length of the working week – has led to employees getting at least another week's holiday.”

When planning meetings or events, do not merely look at your own calendar, but look at a calendar for every country or culture that may be involved. For example, if your planned event is taking place in Chile in September, be sure not to conflict with that nation’s independence day on the 18th. If your clients or suppliers are from Japan, be aware that businesses shut down during Golden Week in the spring.

As illustrated by Dawson’s example of Rosh Hashanah, we must also remember that holidays can vary from culture to culture, and from location to location, even within the same country. Having lived most of my life in California, I still need a reminder each July that Utahns do not work on the 24th in honor of Pioneer Day.

Cultural awareness of differences in holidays and vacation days is not only respectful, but it also makes good business sense. Since it takes two to Tango, effective intercultural calendaring will save time, money and resources by ensuring businesses do not schedule events when intercultural partners will not show up to dance.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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