When American executives travel overseas for any reason, it’s important they remember they’re guests in other people’s countries. While they’re in faraway places, they should keep the following points in mind as they interact with the locals.
Be Mindful of Local History
The United States has a good deal of history interacting with other countries, and not all of it is remembered fondly in those places. For instance, its involvement in the Philippines in the first half of the 20th century was very turbulent.
“I think it’s interesting that the majority of the people I met have a very good opinion of the United States, considering everything that went on in World War II,” said Karen Scott, senior manager of the human resources education department at Allstate, who traveled to Manila for a service-center training program. “They were caught in the crossfire [between the United States and Japan], and there was tremendous loss of life. Literally, the United States carpet bombed Manila trying to get the Japanese out. Given that history, it was very interesting to see the positive attitude toward the United States people had.”
Indeed, in places such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, the United States has a favorable reputation. But you should tread carefully in discussing historical events in these and other countries, and remember that their views of the past might not be the same as yours.
Be Ready to Talk (and Listen to) Politics
Your foreign interlocutors also may bring up another uncomfortable subject: current events. They might ask why America does this or that on the world stage, from warfare to economic exploitation to trade embargoes. Whether or not you support a controversial policy that comes up in conversation, you’re better off simply pointing out that the United States government often makes decisions the American people don’t agree with and telling them you’re interested in hearing their opinions.
Be Prepared to Speak Their Language
One of the most important things you can do in your travels to distant countries is try to converse in the local language. Jeff Grenzer, energy solutions firm Dresser-Rand’s global training and development director, connects with his company’s European employees through this method.
“I remember the first time I went to Germany, I met one of the financial controllers there,” he said. “When I introduced myself to him, the gentleman had a very nice shirt, and I thought I told him I liked his shirt in German. What I really told him was his shirt was dirty. He kind of looked at me, and then said in English, ‘My shirt’s not dirty, is it?’ Actually, he was very nice about it. We had talked over e-mail before, and I told him I didn’t know much German but that I wanted to try it out. And he’d said, ‘No problem, try it out. If you mess up, don’t worry about it. I’ll let you know.’ Thank God I had talked to him earlier, or it might have been a different story.
“If you try to speak their language, they really appreciate that, even if you mess up,” he added. “Most Europeans I’ve met speak three to four languages. They know that most North Americans coming in might know two languages but that communication will be in English. So when you try to do that, I think it breaks a lot of the barriers down. They appreciate it and they’ll work with you. And you’ve got friends for life.”