How not to be an “Ugly American”

At my work, a writer from India will be here for training during the next two weeks. So, my coworkers and I will be entertaining her and being good hosts.

As Americans, we like to think of the United States as The Greatest Country on Earth. Part of being great is being polite. So, I’d like to share a few tips on how we can avoid becoming “Ugly Americans.” Since a growing number of companies have teams spread across different continents, learning to get along globally isn’t just good manners, it’s good business.

Learn Cultural Differences

Let’s say you have to organize a dinner for people from different countries. What are you going to serve? Muslims can’t eat pork, and Hindus can’t eat meat. What color tablecloth will you use? Certain colors are acceptable in some cultures, taboo in others. What shape of a table will it be? Who will sit where? What time will you have dinner? A 6:00 p.m. dinner is fine in some countries, but too early in others. It’s important to learn about the cultural standards of the people you will invite to your event. There are a number of “Doing Business In…” books and Web sites that can give you general guidelines in avoiding taboos that can ruin your event.

Overcome Communication Problems

Even when people from different countries speak English, you can still come across cultural and language differences that can affect communication. Some words don’t have the same definition or connotation in different countries. In England, a scheme is a neutral term for a plan. In the United States, a scheme is a plan with something underhanded in mind.

The style of communications in different countries can also lead to communication problems. Some countries use a direct and blunt style of speaking that can seem rude to a listener. Other countries put such a premium on politeness that an answer might be unclear. Be aware of the cultural differences and ask for clarification if something is unclear or if you feel an answer is off-putting.

Be sensitive to those for whom English is not their first language. They may have problems with pronunciation and they might not be able to understand you if you speak too quickly or with a regional accent. Speak slower and avoid slang and colloquialisms your listeners may not understand. I’ve found that texting or instant messaging works for people with limited English. It is often easier to understand a written word than a spoken word. They could also use Google Translate to help them with words they don’t know.

Work Around Time Differences

Contrary to what you saw in NBC’s Olympic coverage, the world has different time zones. When you have meetings with teams in different countries, you have to work around those time differences. A good tool to help you plan meetings is Time and Date. Microsoft Outlook and Cisco WebEx can also display the times in different zones when you set up meetings. Be aware of daylight or summer savings times, which can affect time differences.

When my department has meetings with our counterparts in Europe, we usually schedule them at 8:00 a.m. US Pacific Time. That is 11:00 a.m. for our writers in the eastern United States, and at this time of year, it is 4:00 p.m. in England and 5:00 p.m. in Germany. This way, the meeting will be at the beginning of our working day and the end of theirs. Timing is trickier for our writer in India because there is a 12 1/2-hour time difference. We work around it by splitting up who has to call in at off-hours. Sometimes, we do it. Sometimes, the writer in India does it. In places where the office has problems with electricity or communications, such as our office in Vietnam, we always volunteer to come in after-hours for our meetings since they may not be able to come in at their off hours.

Enjoy Learning About Different Countries

Unfortunately, only 38% of Americans have passports. (I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not one of them. EDIT: Until 2013.) This means that most Americans (including me) are missing out on the opportunity to experience other countries — even Canada and Mexico, if they fly. But if we can’t go abroad, we can at least learn about other cultures, study different languages, and make those international contacts through our work and various vocation-related Web sites and forums. The key is to be willing to learn their culture and be eager to share ours. This way, we can avoid becoming “Ugly Americans” and become contributing members of the global community.