Global Businesses Find That Money Isn't the Lingua Franca

By Sands, David R. | Insight on the News, January 30, 1995 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Global Businesses Find That Money Isn't the Lingua Franca


Sands, David R., Insight on the News


American executives are discovering that foreign commerce depends as much on the style of the spiel as on the art of the deal. A new breed of consultants is teaching them how to bridge cultural gaps.

Arrive late for a meeting in Romania, make the okay sign in Brazil, give a new Korean contact a pat on the back - and kiss that sale goodbye. A booming industry has grown up to teach U.S. executives how to navigate the cultural shoals abroad; that is, how to avoid the unintentional faux pas that can offend foreign clients or poison a budding business relationship.

"The traditional approach to training someone to go overseas was to give him or her the language instruction and what they called 'area studies' - an overview of the country's history, government, economy," says Henri Fourcault, director of the new intercultural division at Diplomatic Language Services, based in Arlington, Va. "What was missing was the human element - the system of values, beliefs, social norms that make someone from another culture tick."

"We're not the innocents abroad that we used to be," says Gary E. Lloyd, director of American University's Business Council for International Understanding Institute, a Cold War brainchild of then-Vice President Richard Nixon and the granddaddy of the cultural training industry. "But people from other cultures are typically better trained at picking up on our verbal and nonverbal clues than U.S. executives are."

Imports and exports now constitute a quarter of the U.S. economy, and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade are expected to boost trade and investment opportunities around the world in coming years.

Sending U.S. executives abroad without proper cultural training has proved costly. A study by Brigham Young University business Professor Hal Gregersen found that a fifth of all U.S. managers sent overseas in the 1980s were asked to come home early because of poor performance. After completing a three-year-plus assignment, an amazing 77 percent received demotions upon returning home, Gregersen found.

Cultural frustrations and insensitivities play a big part in that, argues John B. Ratliff III, founder and president of Diplomatic Language Services and a former associate dean of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, the academy for diplomats. "When it's clear to a foreign business partner that you haven't studied the culture, the message you communicate is, 'I don't care about you.' It doesn't matter how good your product is or how strong the numbers are; that [unintended message] by itself can destroy the rapport you're trying to build up."

Fourcault, who came to the United States from France 15 years ago, recalls when an American businessman tried to engage a new French acquaintance in small talk, asking in excellent French about his counterpart's wife, family and background. After a short while, the quietly seething Frenchman turned on his heels and walked away, leaving the American dumbfounded. "The problem is those kinds of questions are considered personal in France and are not welcome in a business relationship," he explains. "Actually, the most unusual thing about the incident was that the French executive showed his unhappiness so clearly. Usually, a foreign executive will say nothing if he's offended, but you'll never hear from him or his company again."

Ratliff, whose company now offers instruction in 100 languages and translation and interpreting services in 144, says that if one had to choose, cultural sensitivity training might be more important than speaking the host country's language well. "If you make a social error but you speak only English, it's a little more excusable," he says. "But to make the same error while speaking the language perfectly makes it that much worse."

Terri Morrison is the president of Philadelphia-based Getting Through Customs, a consulting firm that offers an on-line cross-cultural database.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Global Businesses Find That Money Isn't the Lingua Franca
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?