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7. When in Rome

The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.

óMy Fair Lady

I haven't been to Rome yet. Or Tuscany. In fact, I haven't been to Italy at all. But I have traveled in Paris, Hong Kong, Munich, Tokyo, London, and Montreal, where I've solicited a media interview or two. And even though I don't always speak the language, I do my best to be as appropriately attunded to the cultures and practices as possible. In general, follow these conventions:

That said, my first experience in Paris was far different from that of many of my friends. I'm convinced that it was because I continually started conversations with my best, in fact only, French phrase, "Parlez-vous Anglais?"

"Do you speak English?" I more or less pleaded with a helpless smile. It was certainly an appropriate question, and perhaps by not assuming that they would or should speak English just because I was an American gracing their French-speaking country with my presence, everyone was very accommodating. In a world, certainly a business one, where American English is more and more the standard, French is becoming an even more endangered species and is therefore held more dear and defensively by its native speakers. In France and the French-speaking city of Quebec, there is also a strong nationalistic pride in their centuries-old traditions, culture, and history.

My question provided the obvious benefit of speaking their English rather than my French in touring Paris, Lyon, Limoges, Dijon, Aix-en-Provence, and a few natives actually admitted that they enjoyed practicing their English on tourists!

Corporate Culture

The main guideline for Americans traveling to or working in France, besides an appreciation and command of the language, is that you invest time in building relationships.

In general, the French not only speak a romance language but also have a circular or feminine approach versus an American's linear or masculine-directed culture. The image of climbing a corporate ladder is a far cry from building a web or network of relationships in which to do business. Unlike America, where business drives the relationship, the relationship drives the business in France.

This basic difference is also seen in the overlap in a French corporate culture versus the hierarchal stepladder of American's organizational charts where the lines, or boxes, are finely drawn. As Americans, we seem to value our solitude and individual space or cubicle versus the power-sharing, familial approach of the French.

Secondly, if you are working in France, it's important to know and take an active role in the French decision-making process that not only seems to require debate and argument, but often begins from a neutral or negative premise. Conversely, Americans can gush enthusiasm for a project or idea at the beginning, but the Frenchman soon learns that there is almost always another shoe to drop in our "yes, but" style. Additionally, an American executive's eagerness to work things out as she goes is in direct contrast to a French madame's tendency to map the whole thing out before starting. The American is focused on the beginning, the French on the ending.

Time management is a cultural phenomenon that needs a better understanding by both sides as well. American business is dictated by external forces such as calendars and the clock. French workers are guided more by an internal sense of time and organization.

Original Spin-Doctors

A very charming, young Frenchman I know delights his Japanese hosts with his European ways, but in a more self-effacing and humorous than arrogant way. In working for both U.S. and Japanese companies, he has observed vast differences in corporate cultures:

The U.S. guys are very direct while the Japanese are the total opposite. ..which sometimes frustrates the Americans and embarrasses and dismays the Japanese. The original spin-doctors, the Japanese don't like to give bad news, especially protecting the hierarchy, so they spin, even internally. As an international player, you must be aware of this spin factor. If you are told, "we'll consider that," by a Japanese manager, it may well mean "no, not ever."

On the other hand, a Japanese client surprised me with his sense of humor and willingness for constructive critique. But in classic Japanese fashion, his lieutenants did not relax and enjoy themselves until their leader indicated his enjoyment of the process and his openness to self-improvement.

Another difference I've noticed among my Japanese clients is that the executives always put themselves through coaching first as a test of the benefits before expecting their direct reports to follow suit. Conversely, American executives are much more likely to let their lieutenants be the guinea pigs in testing a new idea or process before they risk it or take the time themselves.

Experience Teaches

Doing business abroad, whether based there or traveling, is one of the most broadening experiences any employer or client can give you.

In both speaking and writing, communicating with people for whom English is a second language requires thoughtfulness and patience. Consider how much trouble you would have trying to speak in someone else's native tongue. Avoid idioms, acronyms, jargon, and slang. Instead, choose words and phrases where the words actually mean what they say.

Another favorite client of mine is a Brit who is living and working in Munich, Germany, for an American company. His genuine love for his adopted country must be apparent to his hosts, because he is enthusiastically embraced as a manager. Not unlike the southern half of most countries and states in the Northern Hemisphere, the lifestyle and business atmosphere of Munich is more laid back, more friendly than in Berlin.

People seem to reflect the warmth of the cities nearer the equator. They often display a more relaxed attitude than their northern neighbors. For example, examine Munich versus Berlin, Caan versus Paris, San Diego versus San Francisco, and Houston versus Dallas.

That said, one might think that an Italian visitor who was trading her 200-year-old restored Tuscan farmhouse for a Malibu beach house, both from southern climes, might have been welcomed with champagne, a party, or at least open arms. But don't forget that the United States has become a very litigious society and instead, the poor Italian was greeted with a contract to sign, guaranteeing that both damage and injury would be covered by the visitor.

Another phrase I've learned from the French is "Vive la difference!"

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