To reach the highest levels of global business, a stint abroad is a resume requirement. But that means dealing with the world's perception of Americans, which, well, could be better. To get some advice on bridging cultural divides, we spoke with three Americans who've done it: a Nokia exec in Finland managing the wireless giant's worldwide developers, an ad exec leading an organization promoting better international relations through business, and a business professor who has worked with the United Nations.
Americans can be needy in wanting praise and feedback. How do you deal with a less expressive culture?
Lee Epting, VP, forum Nokia: Finns are generally much quieter than Americans. I remember I wasn't getting a lot of feedback, so I once asked about a presentation I gave. They said, "That was good." And I thought, Well, okay. But in Finnish, that means, "That was great, off the scale." They hold back a bit. My understanding from the Finns is that giving effusive praise can be regarded as insincere. It's better to temper the praise, be firm, but not overly emotional and explicative in delivery.
Is there a downside to the international perception of Americans as hardworking?
Keith Reinhard, President, Business for Diplomatic Action: The American way of doing business, the way we analyze and solve a problem, is still admired in most of the world, but we have to learn to adjust to the pace of others. I was in Melbourne having a dialogue with a business group and one of the Australian executives said, "You people are so proud of your work ethic—that you get things done quickly and that you have the greatest vacation deficit of any country in the world. You see that as admirable; we see it as gross inefficiency, that you have to work that hard and that long to get things done." Other cultures aren't as interested in rushing as we are. When we're visiting other countries, we've got to adjust, as opposed to trying to impose our pace on them.
What's the best way to deal with anti-American feelings caused by U.S. government policies?
Crocker Snow, Professor, The Fletcher School, Tufts University: You don't have to apologize for it, but it's a reality that troubles a lot of other people. The best way to counter it is to go overboard to listen, to be humble, and to learn the local business environment ahead of time. If you're going to Thailand for the first time and the first thing you think of is The King and I, you're not plugged in. For example, after the tsunami, what was once a very free press is now under the direct influence of the prime minister. If you don't know that, then you're not being sensitive to their business community.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.