I recently returned from a trip to Germany where I not only reveled in the beauty of the region but got to spend some time with several of my husband’s European colleagues. The experience of discussing politics, economics and business with people of other cultures was an excellent reminder of the fact that people are different, and they need to be communicated to differently.
While an ever-increasing number of U.S. companies tout their global business capabilities and networks, many assume that marketing abroad is simply a matter of translating from one language to the next. While solid business principles and market demands generally tend to fall in line in most countries, cultural biases and history must to come into play, as well.
Here are a few key examples where American business practices differ from other areas of the world.
- While Americans tend to be more informal in language and speech at work, in many countries, especially in Europe, people still tend to refer to one another as the equivalent of Mr. or Mrs. It is especially important to remember this in those counties, like France and Germany, where there are formal and informal forms of the word “you.” When in doubt, always assume the more formal term.
- Latin and South American professionals tend to dress up more for work. Never assume a casual Friday, and always pack a tie.
- In many Asian cultures, it is considered motivating, rather than berating, to openly criticize employees and co-workers. Be prepared.
- All cultures have different slang terms and idiomatic expressions. Be very careful with literal translations. One oft-cited example of this issue is Chevy wondering why its “Nova” wouldn’t sell in Spanish-speaking countries. A personal example is a male friend who made a table full of French executives laugh uproariously by finishing his meal by announcing “Je suis pleine!” While literally meaning “I am full,” he had inadvertently informed those sitting at the table he was pregnant.
Regardless of the challenges, our world is increasingly global and interconnected and isolation is not an option. While it’s important to understand the differences, good marketing is generally good marketing. Just like learning a language, when starting an international campaign, you should learn some key rules first, embrace what you know, recognize that you have lots to learn, be open to new experiences and points of view, and learn by doing.