Lesson No. 1: the business world isn't an exclusively American world

Ask a Japanese businessman what language he speaks, and he'll say the language of the customer. On the other hand, say those who make such comparisons, when in Rome, the US businessman often asks the Romans to do as the Americans do - speak English and abide by American practices.

Statistics from a report sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education show that as recently as 1977, 75 percent of business school graduates had never taken any international courses, and 10 percent had only taken one such course.

But students at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) are being taught that the business world is not an exclusively American world.

While American universities continue to mass-produce MBAs in the mold of the ''ugly American,'' MIIS administrators say, the business community is becoming aware that it is profitable to understand the nuances of the customer's language and culture.

Although MIIS has built its reputation on foreign language training - most notably the total-immersion method - it is not surprising that this academic enclave 100 miles from the closest financial center and light-years away from traditional educational approaches is producing sophisticated business graduates. And with adoption of a master's degree program in international business administration - using language and culture as the context to teach business - MIIS may be several years ahead of the big guns of business education , like Harvard and Stanford.

At MIIS a student cannot even enter a degree program without having fluency in at least one foreign language. ''Business is finally coming around to recognize the importance of language,'' says Herschel Peak, MIIS spokesman and a former US diplomat.

''Citibank (foreign divisions), for example, will no longer hire anyone without a working knowledge of another language and some overseas experience. It costs too much to send someone to their gay, romantic vision of Rio and have them come racing home short of tour because the plumbing doesn't work and the supermarket isn't right around the corner. It can cost a company $100,000 to relocate someone, and it just adds to the image of the ugly American,'' Mr. Peak says.

American MBA programs in particular are turning out the ''ugly American,'' he continues. ''To get along and like it abroad means it's necessary to develop social skills that transcend your own culture. They (business schools) are not giving the needed attitude (to those who would go into international business). They're sending people out like it was L.A. or Chicago or East Hoboken, and it isn't.''

MIIS degree programs range from liberal arts to policy analysis and an international business program. The master's program in international business includes a course that requires students to produce a business marketing plan for a foreign country. Some plans have evolved into actual working enterprises for graduates.

Administrators here say awareness of the need to speak a customer's language and understand his culture is growing among those entering the business world and those already there.

Corporations are sending more employees to MIIS crash courses in Training for Service Abroad. These courses, ranging from a few days to four months, are designed to give an individual and his family some fluency in a foreign language. Also, there has been steady growth in the master's program in business , which draws a mature enrollment with an average age of more than 25 years and backgrounds of overseas work or study. Total-immersion courses, linked to living arrangements in which only the target language is spoken, are offered during the summer. Classes are held to 10 students.

MIIS's 450 students attend small classes on a campus made up of a cluster of converted Monterey cottages, including the home where John Steinbeck wrote ''The Pearl.''

Although US trade with Japan is bulging, perhaps nowhere is the cultural gap more noticeable. But there has been a growing interest in learning Japanese - one of the toughest languages to learn, says Leland Cagwin, director of Training for Service Abroad.

In just the early weeks of 1984, he reports, three companies have contacted him about Japanese instruction: two electronics firms and a Pacific Northwest lumber company that wants to get into the export business. MIIS had six courses in Japanese for corporate employees last year. That represented a marked increase from previous years. The summer program, says Glynn Wood, vice-president and academic dean, has increased from the typical 21 students studying Japanese to 40 in the summer of 1982.

The crash courses give corporate employees varying degrees of fluency in a language. While former students of the program often credit it with expanding their business opportunities, Dr. Wood warns that ''if I was to do dollars-and-cents business, I'd still have a native speaker (to interpret), because eight or nine years is the usual time it takes to learn Japanese well.''

Nathan Dickmeyer, director of the international management program, notes that most of his students have an interest in a culture first and want to use business as the vehicle to circulate in that culture.

''It's unbelievably difficult to work with the Japanese if you do it right,'' says Dr. Dickmeyer, rather enigmatically. ''You don't know when you're doing it wrong,'' he adds. He offers the example of a student involved in a group project last summer at Fuji-Xerox in Japan. The student was amazed to learn that his meeting with the head of the company had been tinged with discomfort because his hand was in his pocket during the interview. This, Dr. Dickmeyer's student was told, is considered distracting and rude.

These subtleties are what the students strive to grasp. Dr. Dickmeyer says traditional marketing is dispensed with in a month, and the emphasis is put on practical knowledge about the culture. Last summer he had students working abroad on plans for new business ventures in Japan, Canada, and West Germany.

''(Foreign businessmen) may wear Western business suits and make calculators, but they are (from) a different culture,'' emphasizes Dirk Yuricich, a Japanese-language major.

His classmate, Erin Morita, a second-generation Japanese-American and international-policy major, agrees. She is regaining the cultural nuances lost in her family's assimilation.

''It's important to understand that the problem-solving process there is different. Here, we want to get everything on the table, but there that's rude, '' she says, explaining that the Japanese will do everything to avoid getting things out in the open. ''In business contract negotiations there can be misunderstandings from this because one side may not understand at what point things are decided - it may put you off if it's too soon, or if you're wondering when things are done.''

Further, she says, a polite ''yes'' from a Japanese usually means he understands, not that he agrees. Students here agree it's better to learn this on campus than in an actual negotiating session.

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