By now, globalization should have dispelled the illusion that American business does not need to cater to other cultures. Almost inevitably, all but the smallest companies (and even those, if they have Web sites) will start to have customers or suppliers in other countries. E-mail, airmail, telephones, and even video-streaming over the Net have some limitations that may only be lifted by meeting with buyers or vendors in person.
If you have the opportunity to make a presentation in another country, find out as much as you can about cultural differences. If your company has an international branch, talk with Americans who have lived over there long enough to make a full transition and understand the subtleties of speaking etiquette. Employees who have immigrated to the United States will also be helpful.
Other resources could be business associates from that country, friends at your synagogue/church, university professors, the nation's consulate, the library, and the Internet (searching on “cultural differences U.S. Philippines” gets 1.3 million results). Or look at the cultural tips in most travel guides.
Perhaps the most famous example of lack of thorough preparation for saying something in public in another language was President John F. Kennedy's statement in Berlin in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which literally means, “I am a Berlin-style pastry.” To indicate that he felt solidarity with the residents, he should have said, “Ich bin Berliner.”
When speaking, a few things will help make it more likely that a foreign audience understands what you are trying to communicate:
Keep it simple.
Avoid idioms (phrases that are not meant to be translated literally like “he'll do it in nothing flat,” “she's a smart cookie,” or “it's selling like hotcakes”).
Avoid industry jargon that is not internationally understood.
Quote someone from that country on the subject.
Use a local anecdote or case study.
Say something about the relationship between your countries and their shared values and interests.
Keep it short and talk at a moderate rate, especially if you are being translated live.
Provide handouts with the most important information from your presentation.
Even doing business in the same language can present communication challenges. As Oscar Wilde said, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” Find out the local lingo for English words that may differ in the other culture.
Be sure to have someone from that country read over your speech to be sure there is nothing that will be misunderstood or not a good cultural fit. If you use an interpreter, try to get someone who is a native speaker who also knows your industry.
Speaking in Tongues
It is dangerously naive to think that the best way to conduct global business is to insist that everyone you do business with in other countries learn your language, while you do not learn theirs. This makes you entirely reliant on a translator, perhaps one supplied by your hosts, assuming one is available at all. Otherwise, when it comes to understanding them, you will only know what they want you to know.
Even if you are going to give a speech in English to a foreign audience, you should know some phrases in the other language to open and close the presentation, and perhaps a few words to put here or there in between. The audience will appreciate the effort and you will build rapport. They may wonder how much you really know, and this could limit their candid discussions with each other during negotiations, which would be good for you.
A 2002 survey by the Modern Language Association found that just 8.6 percent of college students were enrolled in a foreign language course. Of the 1.3 million learning another language, 746,000 were studying Spanish and 202,000 were in French classes. Japanese was the subject for 52,000, while 34,000 were studying Chinese and 24,000 were taking Russian, with less than 11,000 learning Arabic.
If you can learn even a little of another language, it will also help you understand the way people think in that culture.
Today, advancements in language teaching have made learning conversational basics much easier than ever before. The easiest way is to take an “immersion” class for a few months, in which the new language is all you are allowed to speak. You can also take this approach in a less effective piecemeal form several times a week at most major language-training schools.
Other super-speedy language-teaching methods have been developed by Super-Learners of Beverly Hills, the Michel Thomas Language Centers, the Rosetta Stone company, Power-Glide Foreign Language Courses, Pimsleur Language Programs, and others, most of which have their courses on CD and audiotape.