Working in a global economy for the average cubicloid means lessons on cultural don'ts, time-zone differences that ensure someone's kids get awakened by a predawn phone call, and language barriers even among those who speak the same language.
English speakers seem to have many words that are innocuous on one side of the Atlantic but are offensive enough on the other side that they'll go unmentioned here. "You think you speak the language, and you discover you don't," says David Rosenberg, a Texan who worked in England as a project manager.
He learned the alternate meanings of these words through innocent trial and mortifying error. Such are the little collisions of language, culture and etiquette in global business that can make for mistakes that are awkward at best and costly at worst.
But how wide are these gaps really? Advisers seem to overestimate the distance between cultures and underestimate the disconnects you can have with a co-worker who grew up on the same street in Teaneck, N.J.
It wasn't hard for Dave Brooks to discern that his colleagues in London would more gently criticize his ideas than those in New York. Yet, he once had to correct a huge miscommunication right in his own back yard.
When he was running a family business selling T-shirts at youth-athletics events, he contacted a tournament committee in Louisiana to get permission to sell there. He was told that the committee wasn't "concerned." Thrilled, he started to make travel and staffing plans until he realized in a follow-up call that "not concerned" to this particular committee member meant "not enthusiastic."
"You don't have to leave the U.S. to face these issues. We've got plenty big enough differences here," says Brooks.
Unfamiliar names, of course, can take a little extra research like finding out whether that person in an overseas office is male or female. Kim Oberg, a business-development manager for a high-tech company, has had to make some stealthy phone calls when confronted with colleagues named Gwenael, Niamh and SeungKyoo. "I had one of my colleagues in the U.K. find out who it was," she says of Gwenael (male). Niamh, an Irish name pronounced "neeve," was female while SeungKyoo was male, she learned.
But is this gender research any different from the surreptitious phone call you made to someone about colleagues Stevie, Pat, Jan or Kim, for that matter?
Stella Xu, a professor of international management at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, consults with American companies doing business in China and vice versa. (She was born Sixing Xu but adopted the name "Stella," in part so her name wouldn't sound to Americans like "sexy shoe.") She points out to Americans that receiving a business card with both hands is a sign of respect and, more importantly, warns them not to expect that an agreement has the force of a contract, when to the Chinese, "personal relations are more important than honoring contracts," she says.
She warns Chinese that they can't just show up without an appointment, and that a business lunch is about business first. Of course, the same advice can be given to young American college students, she adds.
Sometimes, the cultural advice itself can create a difference that doesn't exist. Several international business textbooks note that using the "thumbs up" gesture, which means "OK" in the U.S., is offensive in Australia. Generally, that's not true, says Frank Acuff, who has had to update his book, "How to Negotiate Anything with Anyone Anywhere Around the World," because customs are moving targets. "What may seem like practical advice today may later be misleading, sometimes in the space of just a few years," he says.
The biggest challenge to Americans, he says, is recognizing that in many corners of the world, people put relationships before business.
American Bill Johnston, a former account manager for a consulting firm, says disconnects he had with U.K. executives looking at his company's services weren't really any different from what he faced in Texas.
But he knows why people use the excuse of a culture gap: It hides the personal mistakes and miscues. "When I think of it as a cultural issue," he says, "I don't hold myself accountable."