Archive for July, 2010
Tips on conducting business with Britishers and Americans..
This week I received two visitors I have known for a decade. They were relocating expats-turned-business partners and lifetime friends. Margaret is American and Suzanne, British.
One headed up Y2K for Continental Airlines, speaks the IT jargon and manages teams in India. The other speaks the Queen’s English, is a leader in the book publishing industry and interacts with India regularly for work and pleasure.
I asked myself what makes us all similar, I found at least 90 things; then I asked myself what makes the US and the UK different, and I found a few. So this article will be about the subtle differences in behaviour that strengthen business relationships when dealing with the UK and the US.
The naming game
The British are formal, they like to keep their distance. This has been passed on to some extent to us Indians, and we’ve added our own emphasis on respect and hierarchy. With the result, we’re formal in our interaction with business colleagues; we address them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ and feel uncomfortable doing otherwise.
In the UK, you have to wait for an invitation to use a person’s first name. But the Americans seem almost irritated by this stress on formality, and prefer to be casual. They’ll greet you with a “Hi there”, introduce themselves by their first names, and start calling you by yours, or even an abbreviation, from the word go.
To err on the side of caution with business acquaintances, always start with Mr or Ms and the last name; when they sign off with their first names and address you by yours — do likewise.
In the US, while things are pretty direct usually, disagreeing with your boss is done respectfully and indirectly. In the UK, it can be pretty direct. I have heard “I really don’t think that would work,” in the UK, while in the US it is more “that is one approach I guess, how about if we did this instead?”
Next comes job titles. In the UK, the titles are few and self-explanatory. You’ll be able to figure out easily what a person’s responsibilities are and how high he is in the pecking order by looking at his designation. US job titles may be a bit confusing. For instance, an HR Manager may be called People Manager, and a Finance Manager ‘Swaps and Deals Manager’. Also, a job title doesn’t automatically indicate importance. A US bank could have many Vice-Presidents. Not so in the UK. If you’re to meet the Vice-President of a British firm, you can be sure you’re going into a very high place indeed!
Business cards are important in the US and UK. The cards are exchanged early at meetings, and an American may place all the participants’ cards in front of him so that he can connect names and faces to positions. He might also jot memos to himself at the back of your card, to help him remember you. Ensure your cards are clean and in good condition. Americans won’t hesitate to tell you if they aren’t. “You seem to have egg on your card,” said an American to me once. I had placed it in my purse along with a kumkum packet from a temple, which had lightly stained it. I invested in a cardholder that day!
As for the meeting itself, a typical American business meet will last only about a half-an-hour, at the most 45 minutes. But if you’re going for a meeting with the Britishers, be prepared to sit in for an hour or so.
The two countries have different business writing styles. Americans are big on small — they prefer short, clear bullet points (in e-mails too). They attach value to numbers and statistics. A favourite saying in the US is, ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure’. Spreadsheets and checklists are much appreciated by the process-oriented US businessman. However, the British may use longer, prosy introductions, followed by key points. Tweak your style to suit the continent and you’re sure to be a hit.
Jokes and small talk
At meetings with people from the UK or the US, you’ll encounter jokes. The British are known for self-deprecating humour, while Americans use direct humour as ice breakers. Play along with them. But when you make a joke in your turn, remember there may be representatives of diverse backgrounds present, you don’t want to offend anyone. “Oh, I’ll save that for my second wife,” said an Indian colleague when asked if he would like to go shopping for a faux mink scarf in Russia. It turned out the speaker was a second wife and sensitive about it too.
The British may be well informed on India given our historic ties, but I have heard that only 35 per cent of Americans have passports. So they may not be that aware of the world outside America. In the course of small talk, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to explain something you think they ought to know about your country.
And to round off with a meal — it is much harder work for us Indians in the UK than in the US. In the UK, you eat only Continental style, which means fork in the left hand, pointing down, and knife in the right hand throughout the meal, even if you’re eating peas or rice. The American style allows the fork to be transferred to the right hand and used like a spoon, the knife in rest position once you’ve cut your food.
(The author is CEO of www.globaladjustments.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Beware, your assumptions may be well off the mark..
We had a Japanese client in the Global Adjustments office the other day. As usual, we greeted him in Japanese — saying irrashaimase or Welcome and konnichi wa or Good Day, and we bowed in the correct style, women with their hands folded in front, men with their hands at the side.
We expected him to be pleased and impressed, as expat clients usually tend to be when we show them we’ve taken the trouble to learn a little about their native land and its customs. But this gentleman seemed to take it very casually.
We told him about India and the many languages we have in our country, and how we all know a bit of several other languages, including foreign ones. And he told us a story of his own — a funny anecdote about the first sentence he learnt in Hindi. It was “ tum kahan se aake tapke ho?” which, roughly translated, means, “Where have you fallen from?” — not your average polite greeting!
We were dumbstruck when we found out that this Japanese gentleman was no stranger to India — he had studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, for four years, and worked in Bangalore for three more. He was well-versed in Hindi and was conversant about India’s cultural heritage. So, when a Japanese company was looking to fill a senior position here in Chennai, which is emerging as Japan’s gateway to India, he was a natural choice.
The incident set all of us thinking. Our mistake was to go with stereotypical assumptions. We realised that there are too many of these assumptions in the world today and we can improve sensitivity only by minimising, if not doing away with such assumptions.
We are all prone to making stereotypical assumptions about others — other nationalities, other genders, other religions. For instance, I have heard it said that Germans are mechanically efficient and lacking in a sense of humour; Italians as a nationality are thought of as food lovers and of being excitable; the English are portrayed as emotionless while the French are seen as suave and overly interested in clothes and appearance. I have also heard it reported that Jews are tight-fisted, and women are spoken of as poor drivers. As the people of the world interact more with each other, and cultures intermingle, we see how inappropriate such stereotypical classifications are.
It is time we unlearnt these assumptions and got into relationships with open minds. To do this, we need to take some steps —
Train ourselves to see things not as we are, but as they are. The Swastika is a great example of this. To the Indian, it means shubh, something auspicious, while to the European, it immediately brings to mind the horrors of the Nazi regime.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and try to understand, from the point of view of his culture or nationality, how something may sound or appear.
See if what we said or did was understood as we meant it to be. To ensure this, we need to ask a few questions, don’t presume or assume. Even a simple gesture or the use of a particular phrase could cause problems.
For example, there was this phrase — ‘the trailing spouse’ — that I first came across when I was an expat in the US.
Later, after I had started my relocations firm, I realised the importance of keeping the ‘trailing spouse’ happy if the other partner was to make a successful relocation, and that was one of the things we worked towards.
Asked to address expatriate employees of a particular company here in India, I used the phrase in my speech. Much later, I learnt I was blacklisted by that company because my audience that day found the phrase ‘trailing spouse’ offensive — they preferred the word ‘supporting spouse’.
The irony was that it was a phrase I’d learnt in the US, and had used it in a gathering of people of that country. The problem was that I’d not updated myself. From the experience, I learnt the importance of keeping in touch with evolving connotations of words and behaviour patterns.
Keep up with the times
Keeping up to date is what is required in today’s world. We may be good at Globish — a portmanteau word made up of Global and English — formalised by Jean-Paul Nerriere, who describes it as the common ground that non-native speakers of English use for international business communication, but we also need to get rid of preconceived ideas and keep up with current and changing nuances of words and actions to ensure that we are sensitive to other nationalities, cultures and religions, and that we ourselves are understood correctly.
What needs flattening are stereotypes, and what needs well-rounding are intercultural adaptation skills.