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. …