Conducting Business Abroad

The following is an article I wrote for the December issue of Barnard College’s Career Connections:

Women experience a unique set of challenges working away from home. Even if a woman has discovered how to navigate a domestic workplace, a transfer abroad would throw a whole new set of rules at her. American women, in particular, have both advantages and disadvantages working abroad. By most measures, they are more accepted and respected within their own workplace. Therefore, women from the States may enter a foreign office with relatively little accumulated gender-bias baggage. But Americans are comparatively provincial when it comes to understanding other cultures. They don’t have the constant exposure to a variety of cultures experienced by their European counterparts. To sort your way through the many dilemmas presented by an assignment abroad or even working with a foreign customers and colleagues, consider the issues below.

Do I Need to Learn the Language? Some postings will clearly stipulate whether knowledge of the language is required but other job descriptions are more vague. I once asked the former head of Latin American Finance at Merrill Lynch if he spoke Spanish or Portuguese and he told me he didn’t. He added, “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but if the potential clients don’t speak English, their companies are probably not significant enough businesses for us to pursue.” Clearly his understanding was based on his seniority and his firm’s target market. He definitely had a large cadre of Hispanic speakers that reported to him. So experience level and playing field have a bearing on whether you will need to learn a language. The banker did tell me he was taking beginning Spanish lessons, though. When I asked him why, he told me that having an understanding of the language is like playing client golf. “You may not need to in order to win business, but you will learn a lot more about your client if you do.”

Get Briefed. When you’re about to work abroad, ask others about the cultural differences in the office, or if possible, get intelligence on specific team members and clients. Your informer might not be inclined to disparage an entire society but if your future client has specific hot buttons, that information could be helpful. I know now that I should have dialed it back a notch when I dealt with an Argentinean private equity investor who was uncomfortable with confident women professionals. You don’t have to agree with a foreigner’s value system to realize you can moderate your approach to further a relationship. Yet the cultural faux pas you commit may be as simple as adhering to rules of etiquette particularly important in that society. I knew a French businessman who turned down any interviewer who salted their meal before tasting it. As we know, the French take their food very seriously.

Personal Dilemmas. There may come a time when a female ex-pat needs to decide how to react when she becomes involved in behavior that’s, well, un-American. I remember scooting over to London on the last flight I could take before my daughter was born. With an obvious six-month bump, I was taken off-guard when my new British client asked whether I minded if he smoked. “What? Are you bloody kidding me?” I wanted to say, but instead mumbled, “No, go ahead,” and I sat there as he blew smoke in my face. That was my fault. I could have said, “No problem but I’m just going to move over because the smoke bothers me,” or even said politely, “Yes, I’m sorry.” I don’t think my client was being malicious, England just had different standards; a British friend of mine was pregnant at the same time and her doctor told her to cut back to one pack a day. At a different time, I was banker to a Czech Republic client who asked me to “take a letter.” I didn’t get it, “take it where?” I asked. “No, no…write this down” he said. Oh… he wanted to dictate to me, 1950’s style. “Just a minute,” I said, “I’ll get my admin. assistant, Michael, to take it down for you”.

Working abroad or even at home with colleagues and clients from elsewhere requires you to contend with issues that won’t likely arise in the U.S. Rules of etiquette may be similar across borders but one country may emphasize specific issues more than another country. And just as we judge foreigners for behavior we think is inappropriate, they will do the same to us. The most successful business people study the customs of the culture they’ll be exposed to before they arrive. If you are about to begin working with professionals outside of the U.S., be prepared- and find yourself a cultural mentor, or two or three, to guide you on your way.