US business finds cultural chauvinism doesn't pay
Boston — As an undergraduate at Amherst College in Massachusetts in the late '60s, Lewis Griggs campaigned to rid the school of its foreign-language requirements. Any effort to help understand the outside world seemed superfluous to him.
Fifteen years later, Mr. Griggs says that that ''myopia'' was a mistaken view. Moreover, too many Americans, particularly those in business, continue to hold it, he says.
An alumnus also of the Stanford Graduate Business School, Griggs is today producer and chief promoter of a series of films designed to help prepare Americans for the different world they enter when they do their business overseas.
Called ''Going International,'' the four-part series produced by Copeland Griggs Productions of San Francisco alerts viewers to the kinds of differences in culture and custom they can expect to encounter, as well as to the difficulties families often face in living overseas - and once they return.
Mr. Griggs appears to have struck a chord. After a year on the market, the films - which feature recognized consultants and former expatriates and their families - have been purchased by more than 1,000 companies, schools, and government agencies.
There is no question that American companies are confronting a ''tougher sell'' in an increasingly international marketplace. In 1983, Americans took more than 4 million business trips overseas, almost double the number of five years earlier. ''Within the past few years, the odds have grown much greater that a plant manager in Louisville will have dealings with people overseas,'' says Stephen Kobrin, associate professor of international business at New York University.
Despite the growth in overseas-orientation services, a number of international business observers say they detect no widespread effort by American companies to educate employees on the pitfalls they face in trading overseas. Griggs's own statistics show that less than 10 percent of the 35,000 American companies with international connections provide orientation to employees traveling abroad.
Touting a promotional packet for his films which lists such companies as the Bechtel Group, Levi-Strauss, and IBM as buyers, Griggs says, ''We realize that the first companies to buy were those who have a perceived need. It's the smaller companies who are new to the international scene that are going to be less sure about spending the $2,000 (for the films).''
That figure - as well as the consultants' fee of $30 or more per hour to provide orientation services - seems minuscule compared with the cost of an unsuccessful international business trip or a long-term overseas assignment cut short because of an unhappy spouse. With the annual cost of keeping a family overseas easily surpassing $250,000, repeated ''early returns'' can become a major blot on a company's ledger sheet.
Nessa Loewenthal, an Orinda, Calif., specialist in preparing employees and their families for overseas assignments, notes that simply moving a chair in a German office can violate a German's sense of order. But she and other consultants say that different conceptions of time - and especially the Americans' accelerated work pace - are the major obstacle to smooth international dealings.
And there are indications that much of the misunderstanding, confusion, and lack of adaptability that can hamper overseas assignments is preventable. According to Griggs, Bechtel cut its ''early return'' rate by almost 90 percent with orientation programs.
Griggs says he sees his films primarily as ''tools'' to be used in conjunction with more in-depth preparation. ''If the films can encourage viewers to read a book about the country they're visiting, then they've accomplished something,'' he says. The Commerce Department uses the films in seminars on export promotion, and in preparing its own employees for overseas work. In addition, colleges (which, like other nonprofit organizations, can purchase the films at a 40 percent discount) make the films part of orientation for study-abroad programs.
The need for such tools is leading to other innovative programs as well. In Boston, the East Asia division of the Children's Museum uses an authentic Japanese house - a gift of Boston's sister city of Kyoto - as a focal point for programs on Japanese culture. Daylong seminars geared to traveling business people cost an average of $250 per person and are organized on demand.
Ikuko Atsumi, a native of Tokyo, provides orientation services through her New England Japanese Center in Stow, Mass. A typical 30-hour package, tailored to a company's specific needs, costs $600. Among the options is a review - through Japanese eyes - of presentations planned for Japanese companies.
''Japanese businessmen may look at (the presentations) and say, 'Very good, very good,' but they may feel a different way,'' Ms. Atsumi notes. ''We try to point out how they might really react.''
And Nancy Adler, a professor of management at McGill University in Montreal, has made a film specifically for the wives of businessmen assigned to foreign posts.
''The number of businesswomen sent overseas has begun to rise in the past few years,'' Professor Adler notes; ''but 99 percent of (expatriates') spouses are still wives.'' She says dissatisfaction among spouses is the greatest cause of early returns.
The number of women offered overseas assignments is rising even as the total number of ''expats'' continues to fall. In a recent study of 217 major American-based international companies and banks, Professor Kobrin at NYU found that 41 percent of the firms expect a reduction in the corps of expatriates to continue, while 57 percent expect the number of Americans taking business trips overseas to increase.
Richard Robinson, professor of international management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, says the skyrocketing cost of keeping employees overseas, along with the transition of more American companies into multinationals, are reasons companies are ''localizing'' their operations through broader employment of natives. This trend, along with the growth in international commerce, means more Americans will be taking more frequent business trips overseas.
Responding to that trend, Ms. Loewenthal is opening a new company in San Francisco geared specifically to the needs of what she calls ''short-term sojourners.''
In addition, the localization process means that a trend toward having foreign nationals receive assignments in this country will continue, Professor Robinson says. Recognizing this, Griggs says his company is planning production next year of a film to help foreign business people adjust to life in the US.
After years of decline, language study is up in American schools
It's forgivable that Americans generally expect foreigners visiting the United States to speak a modicum of English. What foreigners find less acceptable is that many Americans assume English will be understood when they are the ones on foreign soil.
The low importance Americans assign to the learning of foreign languages is reflected in statistics from the Modern Language Association (MLA) in New York showing that by 1980 fewer than half of all US colleges carried a foreign language requirement - down from almost 90 percent in the mid-'60s.
But now there are indications that interest in foreign languages is growing again, - if slowly. Colleges are reestablishing requirements, and larger numbers of students - both in college and in high school - are taking a language even when not required to do so.
Much of the growth is in languages that students perceive will help them further their careers - in business, for example, or with the government. A recent study by the MLA shows large increases in the number of college students taking Japanese, Chinese, and Russian.
The increases, recorded between 1980 and 1983, include a 40 percent jump in the number of students enrolling in Japanese - to 16,127 - and a 26 percent jump in Russian, to 30,386. Spanish, French, and German still constitute more than two-thirds of enrollments.
Yet even with these increases, most students still do not take a foreign language in college. The MLA recorded 966,013 enrollments in foreign language courses during the three years. There are slightly more than 9.5 million undergraduates in the US.