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How Not to Be a Boor Abroad

American professionals polish their international etiquette. BUSINESS MANNERS

By Kirsten A. ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 26, 1989


LUCY PARKER sits behind a desk in her sky-lit office and tells a story that's all-too-familiar to her: An American businessman in London tried to get the attention of the desk clerk at a hotel. In a rush, he banged on the bell and frantically waved money in the air. To his surprise, no one responded. ``It was as if they didn't even hear me,'' he explained later.

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``The problem wasn't that they couldn't hear you,'' Dr. Parker said. ``It was that they probably couldn't understand you.''

Parker probably says that a lot. She helps American professionals communicate with and understand other cultures. Along with her husband, the Austrian-born Parker founded The Parker Academy, a school of applied professional education that offers a program in ``Culture, customs, and language.'' Here, United States executives learn about other cultures to aid them in their travels and business affairs.

As the global marketplace expands, this type of education is going to be increasingly necessary, says Parker in an interview inside the academy's picturesque 19th-century farm house. Such schooling can be as simple as knowing the social do's and don'ts that may make or break business deals. A Swiss business tea is going to be different from an American power lunch. How should you act? What should you expect?

American business executives start with a handicap: their reputation - especially in Europe. ``There's a general expectation that Americans will be brash, loud, spend money, and won't really respect the individual,'' says Parker.

Generally, Americans have maintained a certain arrogance about their country's superpower status. But now that US economic supremacy is no longer unquestioned, and American businessmen find themselves eye to eye with the competition, the haughty attitude is likely to change.

``Thinking that America is the center of the universe is what is changing,'' says Paul LeVasseur, director of the corporate services department at The Experiment in International Living in Brattleboro, Vt. ``It is an attitude that has stopped America from penetrating and appreciating other cultures and from doing as much business in those cultures as it would like.''

Everyone should learn survival skills for the foreign culture in which he will find himself. But if he makes the extra effort to learn more about a culture and applies that knowledge, it makes a difference. ``A big difference,'' says Carol Burke, a senior manager at Digital Corporation. She attended The Parker Academy and has traveled all over the world.

It's not just a good impression you're after (although that's part of it), ``you also want to conduct your business effectively,'' she says. Ms. Burke recalls the first time she went to Bejing to give a presentation. After she greeted 120 Chinese in Mandarin, ``they all clapped. That's indicative of how much they appreciate your trying. It makes a tremendous difference of how they receive you,'' she says. Plus, you're not only representing your business, but your country as well, she adds.

Americans in general aren't familiar with the value other countries place on protocol. For instance, it's customary in Japan to give gifts as tokens of respect, says Janet Goldman, a director at The Parker Academy, adding that gift-giving etiquette differs in Singapore, Tokyo, and Taiwan. There are also hierarchies and corporate levels to consider. Superstitions and symbols vary, too.