How Not to be an Ugly American When You Travel Overseas

Let’s face it; Americans have a terrible reputation abroad.

We have controversial foreign policies. Time after time we have elected monolingual presidents (our Congress is mostly monolingual as well). We live with huge domestic problems such as homelessness, lack of health insurance, violent street crime and high school graduates who can’t read.

Europeans laugh at the fact that Americans can earn an M.B.A. degree in international business without owning a passport. That doesn’t happen in Europe — most European M.B.A. degree-holders are multilingual and much-traveled.

The world’s business press reports on American bankruptcies where the company directors seem to destroy shareholders, employees and creditors alike — and yet seemingly pay no penalty.

In overseas marketing, we fail an astonishing 82 percent of the time.

Our ethnocentrism is apparent. The United States is the only nation that refers to a national sporting championship as “The World Series.” Our executives travel abroad without knowing anything at all about the host county’s politics, history or language.

We often refer to the Czech Republic as being in Eastern Europe (it’s really central Europe), and confuse terms such as socialism and communism.

Our massive marketing machine, coveted media properties, and influence in the English language abroad can convince us the world wants to be American, buy American and act American.

A great example of this is the presence of Marlboro cigarettes around the world. This product is so successful that it doesn’t seem to matter that no one can pronounce it. It would be healthy to regard this as an interesting exception, not the rule.

Marlboro also enjoys a rather substantial marketing budget (bigger than most country’s GDPs).

Foreign countries regard many of our visible exports — unhealthy foods, tobacco, firearms, TV and video violence — as vices. Hence, many of our marketing successes have strong pushback abroad, and many are asking us to stop exporting some of our concepts.

Given that Americans are starting out at a disadvantage, how can we avoid being an ugly American?

  • Read about where you’re going to transact business. Learn some of the history, business practices and characters. Don’t set foot in a country without knowing who its leaders are.
  • Learn enough of the local language to at least apologize for not speaking it.
  • Don’t let the presence of Hooters in Shanghai or Mountain Dew in Kuala Lump­ur let you believe these countries have abandoned their values and mindsets.
  • When speaking, avoid sporting and military analogies. “Who is quarterbacking this?” “get a ballpark figure” and “we need a home run on this” are often unintelligible to overseas business people.

And remember, the sport that we call “soccer,” most everyone else calls “football.”

“Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it” can offend.

  • Avoid politics whenever possible (it’s not always possible). Politics and business are linked in most countries, so it becomes necessary to play ambassador when negotiating abroad.

When U.S. actions are brought up, a good way out is to explain that you were never consulted. Think of other useful phrases and techniques to avoid committing to ideologies.

  • If you’re going to do business with them, you must understand them. You also must commit to them.

Remember, your overseas counterparts probably know more about your culture than you know about theirs. Rectify this by reading, asking questions of experts before you travel and engaging your counterparts in intellectual discussions while you’re there.

  • Never do the classic American “10 countries in eight days business trip.” It’s better to spend the entire 10 days in one country and really make an attempt to get to know your counterparts.

If they’re distributing your products, meet their customers. If they’re manufacturing your products, understand how they operate. If they’re promoting your ideas, figure out how you can help them, and be in town long enough to assist them.

If you have only 10 days to travel to see everyone, then you’re not the best person to do business for your firm abroad. Dedicated, executive time will differentiate you.

  • Translate your materials into the local language (s). Your card, brochures, collateral materials, etc. should be easily understood by the locals.
  • Don’t leave without telling your local counterparts when you’re coming back. This shows commitment on your part. However, it also allows your local hosts to make plans for your next trip, whether it’s blocking time for you, setting up meetings or preparing demonstrations.
  • When discussing religion (again, often linked with business), try to do so with an open mind.
    Show curiosity. If you’re not genuinely curious about other countries’ cultures, politics and religious beliefs, then you probably don’t belong there in the first place.

Bill Decker is the managing director of Partners International, which consults with firms on global business and creates partnerships in foreign countries. Reach him at bill@partnersinternational.com.

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