How Not to Be a Boor Abroad

American professionals polish their international etiquette. BUSINESS MANNERS

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.

``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.

Americans are also used to ``getting right down to business.'' But in China, for example, it wouldn't be unusual for days to pass before the subject of business is brought up. Prospective business partners may be entertained, or perhaps taken sightseeing and shopping. Both parties would engage in small talk as part of a ``getting to know and trust'' ritual. ``The protocol of small talk - which we don't pay much attention to - is very important in business dealings,'' says Ms. Goldman.

There are also such things as table manners and body language to consider. In many Asian countries, one never uses one's left hand to eat or pass food. Pointing might be considered extremely rude. And taboos flourish about feet: In Thailand, for example, you never point with your foot or even use it to move a chair. In most Arabic countries, you never show the sole of your foot.

Some things Americans think of as friendly gestures don't translate favorably into different cultures, says Elizabeth Devine, co-author of ``European Customs and Manners'' and similar books on Asian, Latin America, and - soon - Middle Eastern customs. You don't touch people in Japan - especially a Buddhist monk. In many countries, you shouldn't pat children on the head, she says.

``On the other hand, in Latin America, people stand very close to you - they're quite literally breathing down your neck. If you back away, you're thought of as haughty and aloof,'' says Ms. Devine.

Dress sends signals, too. Women especially must be careful about what and how much they wear. That goes double in a board room, says Parker, where foreign businessmen might not be used to dealing with women. In many places, bright colors are considered inappropriate. In Brazil, wearing the colors of the flag (green and yellow) is considered foolish. For the most part, foreigners are tolerant of faux pas, says Devine, but are impressed when you know how to behave.

Still, when you're conducting business, a simple misstep can translate into a big blunder. Devine recalls a commercial Pepsi-Cola did for China. They wanted to say ``Come alive with Pepsi.'' But it translated as ``Pepsi will bring your ancestors up from the grave.'' (Coca-Cola executives didn't do much better: Searching for a Chinese sound-alike name for their product, they initially settled on words that meant ``bite the wax tadpole.'')

``Even Presidents have made them,'' says Devine. When Ronald Reagan was in China, he tipped a storekeeper, who then raced after him to return the money. It was considered an insult.

Learning what to expect leads to learning how to react: Take laughter in Japan, for instance. In a moment of great tension (such as signing a contract) the Japanese may laugh, says Devine, and that can be easily misinterpreted. ``That's their way of defusing something,'' she says.

One Japanese business custom has stuck with John Callahan, manager for Georgia Kaolin Co., an international mineral company. He's observed that Japanese businessmen will come out from behind their desk and sit by you during an appointment. ``They always come and sit at your level,'' says Mr. Callahan, who now uses the status-leveling approach in his own business dealings in the US. ``That really makes sense.''

``No one can ever be fully prepared,'' concludes Goldman of The Parker Academy, ``but they can start with the tools.''

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