Loud. Obnoxious. Smug. Oblivious. Since the publication in 1958 of The Ugly American -- a send-up of U.S. foreign policy in Asia by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick -- we've known the type. They're the ones who trundle off tour buses in foreign countries, blithely accosting the local citizenry in English. The ones who, in the middle of Kuala Lumpur or Buenos Aires, make a beeline for the Hard Rock Café, driven to distraction by a lack of BLTs. Thank goodness we're not like that. We're sophisticated businesspeople, ready to impress with our Rosetta Stone-inflected multilingual banter and nuanced understanding of the Eurozone economic crisis, courtesy of Paul Krugman. But then again...
I recently rented a car abroad and immediately realized that my preparation -- paying $27 to AAA to take my picture and give me a stamped "international drivers license" -- was insufficient. After all, when your best guess for a mysterious road sign is "drag racing zone" (two cars side-by-side--what else could it be?), you know you're in trouble. Fortunately, I ignored my interpretation and arrived safely. But, as Donald Rumsfeld has reminded us all, there are "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns." I felt pretty confident that the Spanish government didn't really want me to drag race. But what else might I be misinterpreting that I wasn't even aware of? What kind of impression was I (or my fellow countrymen) leaving?
It's embarrassing that I can't speak another language fluently. It's even more embarrassing since my elementary school started French lessons in first grade to assure our parents that we would grow up to be cultivated. Unfortunately, learning how to order croissants for 45 minutes a day (eventually graduating to boeuf bourguignon and maybe a croque, monsieur) does not really help. Until I reach the nirvana of multilingual sophistication, I'm going to continue to listen to language podcasts and flex my phrasebooks. I also have a handy checklist for business travel. But in the interim, here are my four top tips to building positive business relationships abroad.
Know at least a little of the language. Let's face it: with between 3,000 and 10,000 languages worldwide (the experts still debate what qualifies), sooner or later you'll be somewhere where you're completely ignorant. Pick up a phrasebook or learn something online, figure out how to be polite, and make an effort. You'll already be ahead of the curve: expectations for Americans are so low, they'll be thrilled you know how to ask where the bathroom is.
It's easier to learn the culture than the language. I'm not going to become a linguistic master overnight. But for every country where I travel, I start preparing in advance by reading a few books about its politics and culture. China? That's an invitation to check out books on feng shui, Buddhism, the history of Chinese food, and international trade policy. At least when you get there, you can talk a good game.
Learn the metric system. What does America have in common with Liberia and the lovely dictatorship of Burma? We're the only ones in the world that don't use the metric system! A surefire way to look like a moron is to be rendered helpless by the meaning of kilometers, kilograms, and Centigrade. Learn it.
The universal sign of the brotherhood of man. Learning Esperanto, you ask? No. It's soccer. Periodic outbursts of World Cup Fever bring us closer to this exalted state, but in the U.S., it's short-lived and easily forgotten (except for Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt at the 1999 Women's World Cup). In general, however, soccer (football!) is a blip on our collective radar. Taking the time to learn the cultural nuances -- Futbol Club Barcelona as a powerful symbol of Catalan nationalism, for instance -- can pay off in your relationship with rabid fans (i.e., most international denizens).
These four steps aren't a panacea, and won't solve the Mideast Crisis. But they may make it a little easier for you to make connections and do business abroad.
What are your best tips for traveling well (and respectfully) abroad?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.