Business travelers learn to adapt to foreign cultures
November 4, 2011
The simple act of giving the thumbs up in the United States means "good job," but in the Middle East it has the same connotation as the rude "middle finger" gesture. Crossing your legs might be a natural habit when seated, but showing the bottom of your feet or shoes in Saudi Arabia is offensive since it is the dirtiest part of a person. Giving a bouquet of flowers to an Asian host is an effortless gesture, but might mean something unintended if the flowers are a certain color or quantity.
These tips were just a handful of examples from the Cross-Culture and Anti-Terrorism Awareness training course presented Oct. 24-28. The class, sponsored by the Army Security Assistance Command, was attended by employees from USASAC, Missile Defense Agency, PEO Missiles and Space, PEO Aviation, AMCOM Security Assistance Management Directorate and members of the Madison County Commission. Many of the attendees regularly work with foreign visitors in the United States as well as travel to host nations around the world to conduct business.
The purpose of the course was to help students expand their understanding of different countries and how to communicate effectively with them. The major differences between American society and other cultures can be overwhelming and often result in culture shock when traveling abroad. By knowing ahead of time what to expect from other countries and what is and isn't acceptable in their customs will aid travelers in their international interactions.
"By understanding other cultures and respecting them, it helps to develop a personal relationship with someone," Bill Lisse, course instructor and lead trainer from J&K Associates, said. "That understanding can lead to a business relationship."
The first four days of the course reviewed significant historical and religious events on major regions around the world, the common verbal and non-verbal gestures, standard greetings and typical decision making processes. All information was shared in an effort to help the students anticipate how to act when visiting a host nation and avoiding embarrassing situations.
"In order to successfully navigate in an intercultural environment, students need to understand themselves and their own biases," Lisse said. "You need to find commonalities and build on them to help facilitate communication."
Lisse thinks the advantage of people who attended this course was developing an understanding of how other people view the world and Americans.
"Communication style is very important," Shawn Drake, a USASAC country program manager for Japan, said. Drake frequently travels to Japan and thinks the class was very beneficial for his job.
"Dealing with any culture, professionally or personally, it is good for us to know how other people think."
The last day of the course focused on anti-terrorism and ways to protect against attacks. Lisse explained how citizens could be considered a terrorist target when in other countries. Concerns could be the location where your business is being conducted, the political climate of the country you're dealing, being identified as an American citizen or a U.S. government official. Lisse suggested storing government documents, such as a government issued passport or identification cards, in a separate location from your other documents. If you were in a situation where government officials were being targeted, this would offer the chance to quickly provide civilian documents instead and possibly prevent being singled out.
Whether on official or personal business, travelers should pay attention to the location and surroundings. Lisse recommended varying your daily routine and understanding the U.S. strategic policies for any travel destination will increase awareness of potential threats or risks.
There are lots of things to consider when communicating in a foreign country, such as intonation, body language and gestures. Through deliberate and conscious thinking, personnel know what to anticipate when dealing with a foreign government representative. Knowing the appropriate response to situations will help and improve relationships with foreign partners.
For example, never dismiss a business card given to you in Asia by immediately placing it in your pocket. Accept the card and make a deliberate effort to read the information on both sides. This is a sign of respect for the person's credentials and position. Signaling someone to "come here" by moving your index finger or waving your hand upward is not acceptable in Central and South America and Asian countries. That gesture is used to call animals. Instead, face your palm down and wave your fingers up and down. It is considered unsanitary to eat or shake hands with your left hand in India, as this hand is used for cleaning oneself and is considered dirty. In African and Middle East countries, personal space is usually ignored and people stand very close to each other when speaking to the same sex.
"I think I am better equipped, if given the opportunity to interact with a foreign country, to understand the cultural differences and how best to engage them," Michael Ashanti said. Ashanti, an accountant with USASAC, hopes to have the opportunity to deal directly with foreign nations when doing financial reviews of the contracts for foreign military sales cases.
Lisse said when foreign people find out you are interested in their culture and traditions it makes a great impression on them and on their attitude toward Americans.
"You must be respectful and aware in order to succeed," Lisse said. "You have to take personal responsibility in an intercultural environment."