When ‘ugly Americans’ do business abroad

It was a gorgeous day in Seoul, South Korea. I was speaking at a conference at the incredibly luxurious Imperial Palace — where Lyndon Johnson stayed when he visited as president. It was a lot nicer venue than I’m typically used to.I was the third speaker, and I got a standing ovation after saying just two words, “annyõng haseyo,” which is “good morning” in Korean. I don’t understand Korean, so I spoke in English, and through simultaneous translation, they heard what I said in Korean. Unfortunately, my jokes and humorous quips would not go over in their culture, so I couldn’t use them, but even so, my presentation — which included slides that I had translated into Korean — went over very well.As soon as I finished, my colleagues wanted me to teach them how to say “good morning” in Korean. That afternoon, they were still saying, “annyõng haseyo,” and wondering why it didn’t work for them like it worked for me.I’ve been fortunate to work in 12 foreign countries. Before leaving, I always study the history of the destination country, the culture, geography and some of the basics in their language. I behave like I’m a guest, not expecting them to revise their culture or habits to suit my preferences, and I’ve always been treated very well.My colleagues, on the other hand, often give credence to that phrase, “the ugly American,” and are treated accordingly. I could never understand how anyone could be so arrogant as to go to another country and expect the locals to Americanize for our benefit. When foreigners come over here, we don’t Japanize, Germanize or otherize for their benefit. In fact, we’re often impatient with foreigners who don’t know English or how to behave in our country.This goes beyond mere courtesy. One of the reasons we Americans often walk away from the negotiation tables with little more than our Fruit of the Looms is we haven’t done our homework. Many foreigners know a lot more about us and our country, even our history and geography, than many of us do. In addition to knowing very little about ourselves, we know almost nothing about them — a severe disadvantage in any sort of dealing, business or political.A smaller worldBefore going to Japan, I had to read seven books on their culture and business practices. I also read about 40 business school papers on them. The Japanese are truly baffling, unless you take the trouble to understand their culture. Then they become very predictable. It’s true in many other countries as well.I recently met a director of operations who has all his manufacturing done in China. After listening to him complain about how frustrating dealing with the Chinese can be, I found myself explaining things I would have thought he would have known. Much of what he found distressing is cultural. They’re not going to change for us. It’s ludicrous to expect them to do so. If you don’t want to do things their way, you have to go somewhere else.It seems like the world is getting smaller and smaller. More and more companies are doing business internationally. Whether you’re trying to sell something in other countries or buy something from there, it makes sense to learn as much about them before you go.Traveling to Paris or Frankfurt or Manila or Bangalore, or any other foreign venue, is not like traveling to Dayton, Ohio. There’s a world of difference, and to the degree we fail to learn about it, we lose. Oh, you may come back with the mission seemingly accomplished, but I’ll bet you left a lot on the table.Weren’t they smiling graciously? You can assume it’s because you’re American or even because of your sparkling personality. Could it be that they just love to make a lot more than they’re entitled to on any deal? I’ll bet they even wished you many more “successful” trips like that.Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham who has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque@myfairpoint.net.