If you are polite, respect cultural differences and assume responsibility for misunderstandings, most foreign audiences will be on you side
Scott Simmerman had done his homework, so he knew something about the "face" issues he'd encounter when delivering training sessions in Hong Kong for the first time. Loss of face happens in "collectivist" or group-oriented cultures in the Pacific Rim and elsewhere when individuals are singled out for attention. Face issues come into play, for instance, when an instructor randomly calls upon a student, or a speaker singles out a member of the audience. Answering the question means showing up fellow classmates or audience members, resulting in a collective loss of face.
People in these cultures don't want to "gain face" for themselves nor contribute to others "losing face." Simmerman, who heads up the Performance Management Co. in Taylors, South Carolina, decided the best way to "faceproof" his highly interactive training method was to form small groups for discussion. He then asked each team to select one group leader to speak for others during an end-of-class summary.
But there was one problem. "When the group spokesperson got up to talk, he or she felt compelled to report every comment, perspective and thought their team members had contributed to the discussion," says Simmerman. "They didn't want any one person in their group to risk a loss of face. That was fine - but the reports took 15 to 20 minutes each, which killed my schedule."
Not wanting to cut short any of the spokespeople himself, which - you guessed it - would present further lossof-face issues, Simmerman solved the problem in later sessions by declaring that each group leader had three timed minutes to summarize comments.
Botched international presentations can result in much more than misunderstanding - they can cost millions in missed sales, scuttle important relationship-building opportunities and reduce the yield from international speaking efforts.
And while English continues as the most-studied and most-spoken second language around the world, that doesn't let American speakers off the hook. In most cases, the challenge isn't to learn how to work more effectively with translators or interpreters, but how to communicate more effectively with non-native speakers in English.
Global communications skills consultant Patricia Kurtz was inspired to write a book on the topic (The Global Speaker. An English Speaker's Guide to Making Presentations Around the World) after observing European executives struggle to understand presentations made by U.S. managers. The problem wasn't so much the Europeans' basic grasp of English, Kurtz believed, but rather the inability of the native English speakers to make themselves understood.
In countries that share a cultural past with the United States - including the United Kingdom, France and Germany - the interactions between speakers and audiences will closely resemble those at home, says Jan D'Arcy, a Bellevue, Washington-based presentation skills coach. And thanks in part to the media's growing reach, she says, issues once viewed as regional have become global. But don't be fooled; differences in cultural expectations and practices can still be vast. Even some countries that are economically Westernized may not be culturally Westernized, D'Arcy says.
A Bedouin's oil wealth may buy him all the trappings of Western success, but underneath he may still have the conservative mores or customs of his father. In some Arab countries, for example, a simple inquiry from a man about a business colleague's wife can end a relationship forever.
The English proficiency of a given international audience can vary widely, so the best approach is to simplify content at every turn. This doesn't mean using a "see Spot run" approach, says Kurtz, but rather using simple sentences, making clear transitions, avoiding digressions and synonyms, and reducing use of potentially confusing pronouns. Long, complex sentences require multilingual audiences to put great energy into following word order and grammatical structure. They'll welcome your use of headline phrases and words.
And while a varied vocabulary may stimulate American audiences, it's likely to confuse those who don't speak English as their mother tongue. For example, you don't want to first talk about benefits, then later refer to them as advantages.
Bill Weech teaches managers in the U.S. Department of State how to lead in cross-cultural environments. In a typical training session, he might have 20 managers from 20 different countries. He helps these audiences along by frequently repeating (not rephrasing) his main messages throughout a session.
"With native speakers I may say something once or twice, but with those who don't speak English as a first language, I'm consciously trying to restate my major points in the exact wording used before," Weech says.
Non-native English speakers also retain more of your speech if you speak more slowly and deliberately (but not so slowly as to appear patronizing), use more pauses and gesture to illustrate potentially vague terms.
This doesn't mean turning up your volume, something U.S. speakers often do unconsciously. In his classic book Do's and Taboos Around the World, author Roger Axtell passes on this advice: "Speak to the rest of the world as if answering a slightly deaf, very rich old auntie who just asked you how much to leave you in her will."
You also need to he in tune with your audience's cultural idiosyncrasies. Scott Simmerman tells of an American consultant who was presenting in Finland for the first time. Throughout his speech the Finns sat expressionless, hands folded, moving nary an inch. The consultant assumed he was doing horribly and sending them all off to sleepland, but found out later it was their way of showing respect. "That respect is demonstrated through completely focused, dedicated listening to the expert," Simmerman says.
Before you get too concerned about slip-ups, remember there is some margin for error. Experts say as long as you're polite, respect cultural differences and assume responsibility for misunderstandings, most foreign audiences will be on your side.
Here are additional tips on speaking effectively on the international stage:
• Screen out jargon, idiomatic expressions and acronyms. Familiar figures of speech can be confusing or even offensive in other cultures. The word piggybacking can be inflammatory in Israel, where the pig is considered a despicable animal. And if you pepper your speech with common American idioms such as harking up the wrong tree, dog-and-pony show or shotgun approach, you're likely to be met with visible confusion - or blank stares - from audiences in Beijing or Madrid.
"When I'm dealing with non-native speakers, I find my language becomes pretty bland because I work to remove idioms and anything else that's potentially confusing," Weech says. Avoid unpleasant surprises - particularly in your first visit to a country - by having your text and visuals pre-screened by someone intimate with the local language, business norms and taboos.
• Limit U.S.-centric references and examples. American speakers need to be careful about self-congratulatory statements because of certain sensitivities around the world. Any notion of superiority or "We're No. 1" might rub, say, a French businessperson the wrong way.
Communications skills consultant Dianna Booher understands the hidden dangers. The first time she spoke overseas, Booher sprinkled examples of model U.S. companies and leaders throughout her speech. Her consciousness was raised after the session, however, when several audience members commented that "over here, we use examples from the entire world, not just the U.S."
Even if all the good examples you can find originate in your own country, you can still win points by being apologetic about it up front, acknowledging that they might as easily have come from another place, say Paris, Singapore or Mexico City.
• Be aware of different values and lifestyles. Booher also warns of assuming that your own country's values apply throughout the world. "American speakers might make a sarcastic remark about a manager having his whole family on the payroll, but in other cultures nepotism is very much an accepted way of doing business," she says. "That's what you do in those cultures - you take care of your family."
U.S. speakers - men in particular - often try to export the same baseball, football or golf metaphors they use at home. But outside of a few countries, those sports aren't well known. If you're presenting in Brazil, France or Germany, for instance, try to relate any sports metaphors to World Cup soccer rather than the World Series.
• Run humor through a "cultural scan." If you're really looking to dig a hole, tell an Irish joke when you're in Dublin. Most foreigners object to an outsider attempting to make jokes about their culture - even if the same joke would result in hardy laughs when delivered by a local. Test any humor you intend to use on someone familiar with the country's - and the audience's - language, culture and customs.
• Understand that body language is far from universal. Pointing with the index finger is considered impolite in most Middle Eastern and some Asian countries, where speakers use a fully extended hand or closed fist to indicate direction. The American "OK" sign - a circle formed with your index finger and thumb - is considered obscene in Brazil. The "thumbs up" is considered a rude gesture in Australia; in Greece and Bulgaria, a head nod indicates no rather than yes.
In places such as Scandinavia where audiences tend to be more reserved, fist pounding and other emphatic gestures don't go over well. Those gestures may impair your credibility.
But these and other hazards aside, the non-verbals that serve you well in North America can do the same overseas. For instance, spreading your hands apart to indicate height or width can help clear up confusing language.
• Change your eye-contact habits - to a point. Direct eye contact, a key to establishing credibility in the United States, can be considered an invasion of privacy in countries such as Japan or the Philippines. Jan D'Arcy suggests sweeping your gaze across audiences in those cultures, rather than embarrassing individuals by focusing on them for too long.
But other experts say direct eye contact is such a crucial presentation skill that you should be slow to abandon it, regardless of culture. "It pays to remember that when you're in another culture, people in that culture generally expect you to behave in accordance with who you are and where you came from," Kurtz says. "If we find ourselves in the curious position of trying to adapt our behavior to cultural stereotypes of our audience, while the audience tries equally hard to adapt themselves to stereotypes of us, we will be like two ships passing in the night."
• Rethink audience participation techniques. Participatory techniques that shine a spotlight on individuals - frequent questioning, games or role-playing - need not be abandoned with multicultural groups, but they often need rethinking. Weech is candid about his desire to keep sessions interactive. "I tell my trainees up front that the only way I know to deliver the session is 'American style,' which means fairly participatory," he says. "But I have much more sensitivity with those from collectivist cultures like Guatemala. I almost never call on someone unless I get a strong signal from their body language that they want to be called on."
U.S. speakers also should be careful about encouraging open debate in multicultural classrooms. In collectivist cultures, any kind of open disagreement ruins group harmony, so audience members are more prone to repress their objections.
• Follow the formality protocol. Speakers and instructors in other cultures often have higher social standing than in the United States; in parts of Asia, they're viewed as figures of absolute authority. For this reason, jokes, casual dress and other informal behaviors can create a sense of unease. "Sharing a good laugh with these audiences creates; too much familiarity, and therefore discomfort," D'Arcy explains.
Booher was surprised by the reverence shown her as a first-time instructor in Malaysia. She was told it wouldn't be appropriate to mingle with students during breaks, and was encouraged to eat her lunch in a separate room. "On the final day, all the students brought cameras and each wanted to get a photo with me," she says. "They treat you as a celebrity."
Another such cultural phenomenon is called "uncertainty avoidance." Simply put, some cultures - particularly in Latin America, Southern Europe and Japan - are less comfortable with ambiguity than are Americans. People in these cultures are conditioned to expect absolute truths and they often prefer detailed, concrete instructions to broad guidelines.
In one of his multicultural training sessions, Weech projected on screen a sample administrative form. One class member - a Western European - immediately raised his hand to say the document format shown was different in his country. When Weech responded that a different format was acceptable as long as the same information was included, he sensed confusion - and unease - in the room. "They were uncomfortable first off because someone had directly challenged the teacher, and second that there may be more than one right way to do something," he says.
In addition, U.S. speakers often need to be more expansive in stressing their credentials in certain countries. "Some cultures have lower trust levels, and you cease to be a viable source to listen to if your credentials aren't amply established up front," says Pamela Pappas Stanoch, founding president of the consulting firm Window on the World Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
• Understand that icons aren't always icons. Photos, clip art, icons and other graphic symbols used in PowerPoint may have straightforward meaning to you, but foreign audiences can interpret them in different ways. Robert Griffin, an instructional specialist at Pennsylvania State University, conducted a study in which subjects from Japan, Sweden, Tanzania and the United States were instructed to identify 15 black-and-white symbols selected from the clip-art collection of a popular presentation software package. When asked to identify the star symbol, Swedish subjects provided 20 different interpretations. Japanese subjects offered a dozen more; one identified the star as a sea urchin.
"Many of these symbols are truly U.S. symbols, not crosscultural symbols," Griffin reminds. "Use them with care."
He also suggests using bullet-point word lists more sparingly with international audiences. According to Griffin's research, word-based slides have increased from about 50 percent of visual materials used by business presenters 12 years ago to more than 80 percent today. "Even if you know your audience is OK with English as a second language, using that many word visuals is asking for trouble," Griffin says.
Choosing colors for presentation slides is another potential minefield. An abundance of green on a humorous slide might be offensive in some Islamic countries, where green is considered a religious color. Purple is the color of death and funerals in Brazil and Mexico. And the sweeping use of red still carries negative connotations in some Eastern European countries.
• Visuals and handouts should correspond to cultural expectations. Many foreign audiences have voracious appetites for handouts and other paper-based takeaways - no surprise considering that reading proficiency for most non-native English speakers is generally superior to listening comprehension.
Weech strives to provide paper copies of his visuals in advance of foreign training sessions. "If I'm doing a workshop overseas, I send materials out before I get there," he says. "It gives participants a chance to look up words they might not know and scan materials to get a head start." You'll also win points if you include a glossary of key terms and make handouts available in native languages as well as in English, he says.
And whatever you do, don't turn down the lights. Doing so is a sure way to leave multilingual audiences - who rely heavily on your physical cues for comprehension - in the dark.
In sum, whatever your worldly destination or speaking purpose, applying this piece of advice from consultant Kurtz will keep you in good stead: "Whenever English speakers have an international encounter, it's wise to remember that while we may be the guests geographically, we are the hosts linguistically."
HOW CAN YOU TABOO-PROOF YOUR INTERNATIONAL SPEECHES? If you're fortunate enough to have offices or a company subsidiary where you're set to speak, ask someone there (preferably a native) to do a "cultural screen" of your text or visuals. Otherwise, contact a professional localization or translation service. But beware of fly-by-night translators or self-appointed cross-cultural experts. Translation is a profession learned at the graduate level for two years and requires skill beyond mastering two different languages.
Veteran international speakers use many tactics to prepare for their entry into new cultures. Presentation coach Dianna Booher's sponsors sometimes recommend she watch a few movies made in the country, or read local newspapers leading up to her visit. Some take formal cross-cultural training if they'll be working or speaking frequently in a given country.
Others tap into the research and networking power of the Internet. Before Bill Weech of the U.S. Department of State made his first trip to India, he posted a message on a popular training listserve asking about taboos, learning styles, health issues and other idiosyncrasies of a specific region in that country. In short order, he received a handful of useful responses, not only from American businesspeople who'd trained or presented there, but from residents of India themselves.
"All people are the same. It's only their habits that are different. " - CONFUCIUS
THIS QUOTE SHOULD SERVE AS A REMINDER THAT IN A GLOBAL ECONOMY, CROSS-CULTURAL AWARENESS IS NO LONGER OPTIONAL. Doing your homework is number one on the Top 10 list of do's and don'ts of visiting another country. To avoid potentially costly and embarrassing miscues when dealing with other cultures, remember the following tips:
1 Don't be uninformed. You ought to invest at least 30 hours studying your target country before doing business abroad.
2 Avoid being overly informal. In many cultures, using the first names of people you don't know is socially unacceptable, even insulting. Be prepared for a very formal atmosphere in all of your dealings abroad. If you're unsure, it's always safe to ask, "What would you like me to call you?"
3 Don't leave home without your business card. Most business contacts demand it. Have the local language printed on the reverse side and present the card in that language. When receiving a card, take time to look at it before placing it in the breast pocket of your jacket, in your wallet or your briefcase - never in your pants pocket. Present your card to the receptionist when you arrive at a company at home or abroad.
4 Sometimes Americans possess a strong sense of urgency and can come off as being rude and pushy. Don't be loud or abrupt, and don't be afraid of silence. In most cultures, silence is a sign of strength.
5 Be aware of personal space, which varies from 12 to 36 inches. You may insult someone if you back away or come too close and invade their space. Arabs tend to stand the closest and are insulted when people back away from them during conversation. Resist the urge to move closer to Japanese people, who often feel uncomfortable at a distance of less than three feet away.
6 Be sensitive to eye contact. In some cultures, direct eye contact is avoided and may be interpreted as rudeness. The Japanese practice eye contact before visiting the United States. The Arabs believe you can see into a person's soul through their eyes. When you talk to Arabs, their gaze can be quite intense.
7 Acknowledge everyone present with a handshake and a greeting. To stop halfway through even a crowded room is considered a rejection of those you omitted. The ranking or oldest person extends his or her hand first.
8 Be careful with gestures. Those innocent winks and well-meaning hand gestures may get you into trouble. Do not beckon with the second finger or with the palm up, and never point a finger. It is safer to merely close the hand and gesture with the entire hand. Don't cross your legs - it suggests premature familiarity and is considered a sign of bad breeding. In the United States, the OK gesture means that something is just right. In other countries, it could mean worthless, a homosexual invitation, or a lewd comment about a female. So be subdued with your gestures when you travel.
9 Gift giving is a revered custom in some cultures. Know the traditions of what, when and how to give gifts. For example, never give an Arab person liquor; it is forbidden by the Islamic religion. Never surprise a Japanese person with a gift; he or she may be embarrassed by not having one for you. Do not give a Chinese person a clock; its pronunciation is the same as funeral in English. Books are usually safe, but be sure there is no nudity in them.
10 Smile - it is a form of communication understood by everyone.