We all have a mental picture of the so-called "ugly American" - brash and arrogant, with an ethnocentric belief in America's singular greatness. When ugly Americans travel, they tout Big Macs over local cuisine and offer firm handshakes no matter the local greeting customs.
The phrase emerged around mid-century, made popular by a 1958 novel and a 1963 film starring Marlon Brando. In my travels around the world as an executive coach, speaker and global leadership expert, I have observed that this cultural stereotype persists in the minds of my international clients.
For example, a Chinese executive I know remarked that Americans tend to start sentences with "I," as in, "I had excellent results last quarter," or "I found a great place for us all to have dinner." The executive doubted these American colleagues really deserved sole credit. In China, the collective is generally considered more important than the individual.
When working across cultures, sometimes it's less important to be "right" and more important to be aware of the impression you create. You may be exhibiting "ugly American" traits without realizing it. Even I have done it - and I am a global communications expert who was born in Taiwan!
Living in the United States since 1985, I've naturally taken on American behaviors and attitudes - like thinking and talking fast. That's good, right? Not always. When I led a leadership seminar for a multinational company, a Korean manager raised his hand to speak. I gave him the floor. His English was good, but not quite native. When he paused for a few seconds, I assumed that he had finished, and I sped on to the next person.
That assumption was wrong. It turned out that he was not done at all, and he was furious that I had cut him off mid-thought. He was actually about to leave the conference, but just before he could slip away one of his co-workers pulled me aside to tell me what was going on.
Immediately, I asked to speak with him privately. His face reddening, he told me that my insensitive interruption was a gesture of disrespect that caused him to "lose face." I told him that I understood why he felt that way, and I deeply regretted offending him. He agreed to stay, and he turned out to be an enthusiastic contributor for the rest of the conference. In the end, he gave the event an excellent evaluation.
The following tips will help you avoid (or recover gracefully from) communication pitfalls like these when working across cultures.
1. Respect the Hierarchy.
Americans tend to be informal and egalitarian. It's a badge of honor for a CEO or a politician to seem like a "regular guy." In many Asian countries, business is much more hierarchical - aimed at creating a culture of respect and stability. In Japan, for example, disagreeing with a superior is off limits. On the other hand, in countries like Australia and Canada people tend to be suspicious of formality. Know your international counterparts' expectations and be prepared to adjust.
2. Raise Your Cultural Antenna.
Interacting with another culture requires preparation. Read as much as you can about their environment and learn about the people you'll be working with. I recommend finding a cultural informant who can tell you what gifts are suitable, what traditions to observe, etc. A simple commitment to stay alert is important too. When I fly to another country, at some point during the flight I imagine a switch in my mind. When I flip it on, I have heightened awareness of the different world I'm entering.
3. Avoid Irritating Phrases.
My international clients complain about Americans' tendency to interrupt, their arrogant assumption that they already know the answers, their heavy use of acronyms and jargon, and the way they sometimes fail to say exactly what they mean. Sarcastic comments like, "That's just great!" might come off as sincere to some one unfamiliar with American culture and idioms. Non-native English speakers can also struggle to interpret vague answers like "I can't say," or "I'm not sure." And they don't particularly like being asked, "Do you understand?" because it feels condescending.
4. Use the Platinum Rule.
The Golden Rule states, "Treat others as you would like to be treated." But that can backfire if other people don't want the same things you do (entirely possible when the person comes from a very different place). So I've come up with what I call the Platinum Rule: "Treat others as they would like to be treated."
For that to work, you have to find out what others' want and value. To that end, I find it helps to inquire with an open mind - and leave all your assumptions behind. I was recently hired by a large private equity firm in Asia to coach a promising executive. He seemed to fit all the Asian stereotypes: quiet, reserved and hierarchical. And yet he actually grew up in New York City and feels a great affinity for American culture.
Don't let your global business ventures fall apart due to miscommunication and damaged trust. Wherever in the world you happen to travel and whatever foreign cultures you encounter, be sincere, curious and willing to listen - really listen - to someone whose background is nothing like yours. Your next deal may depend on it.