Friday, March 12, 2010

When in Rome, Shanghai, Tokyo...

In keeping with my last blog, here are some more tips on "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."  

I try to fit in whenever I travel.  Obviously, when I am in Japan, I can never look Japanese, but I can look like I know the ropes.  Learn some words in Japanese. Prepare for taxi drivers who do not speak English.  Moderate your speaking style to be more consistent  with those with whom you are talking. Walk on the correct side of the sidewalk (not always on the right.) Look both ways when crossing the street...that is something your mother always told you, but when you are in another country, it is particularly important because driving styles and rules of engagement are very different in other places.  

I recall one time when I was crossing the street in Shanghai.  The "Walk" light was indicating it was safe to cross.  I was almost to the other side when the light changed to "Don't Walk."  I'd seen a bus in the distance, but by my calculations, I would be out of the intersection before it would even get close to me.  I heard the sound of heavy and rapid footsteps behind me, only to be passed by my business associate who was only two steps behind me.  He was in a dead gallop and grabbed my shirt as he passed by.  The bus, which had been nearly a half block away, was traveling at an outrageous speed and was timing it to hit the intersection just as soon as the light turned green...leaving no margin for error.  Any slow pedestrian was going to be a fatality.  I was expecting the bus driver to show some caution, similar to bus drivers in the USA.  Not this guy.  He was focused on speed, not safety and it was up to anyone in the street to stay out of his way.

Another example comes to mind which deals more with business etiquette than with safety.  I had a boss one time who tended to wear sunglasses every time he stepped outside.  This is not the norm in the USA, but not totally unusual.  When he traveled to Japan, he noticed that the Japanese salesmen were suppressing laughter each time he put on his sunglasses.  After a few incidents, he asked the most "American" of the Japanese salesmen about it.  He was told that in Japan, no one wears sunglasses on the street.  They only wear sunglasses under certain conditions, such as when they go to the beach.  Each time he put on his sunglasses on city streets, the Japanese found it to be hilarious.  This was all good clean fun until they approached the office building where they were to meet with an important customer.  At this point, one of the Japanese salesmen turned to by boss and said, "Larry-san, please remove the makes you a stranger."

If he'd been thinking about it, he would have realized that anything that made him standout as different should have been minimized when doing business in another culture.  Keep your eyes open and follow the lead of those who live in the culture you are visiting. 

James Snider is an global marketing professional with 15 years experience in the semiconductor and high-tech industry. He is currently working as a consultant while looking for the next great thing and earning inbound marketing certification.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sometimes it is best to keep a low profile

Anyone who travels overseas has to be aware of the fact that Americans are not always popular.  I was astonished in Berlin a few years ago when a young man went way out of his way to help me when I became only slightly turned around in a large shopping mall.  I simply assumed that he was a scam artist or pick-pocket, so I gave him a cursory "thank you" and quickly headed off in a different direction, trying to look like I knew exactly where I was going.  I learned later from a Berlin resident that there is a sense of gratitude towards Americans dating back to the Berlin Airlift in the late 1940s.  This is not the case in other areas of the world.   

Particularly during the terms of our 43rd President, I sensed some negative reaction when people learned that I was from Texas.  Even the Japanese, who are known for their meticulously good manners, would ask me what I thought about our President.  I had to carefully craft my response.  I will never forget arriving in Narita airport and looking out the window of the taxiing aircraft, seeing a bed sheet affixed to one of the buildings just outside the airport property with block letters saying, "PRAY GOD STOPS BUSH'S WAR."

Sometimes you may be compelled to be a little subtle about your citizenship.  I do  not advocate going to extremes as Lisa Simpson did in Italy when she pretended to be Canadian.  However, you should not  make the mistake that Homer did in loudly professing his American loyalty.  I have seen seasoned business travelers who put American flags on their suitcases, computer bags, etc.  That seems imprudent to me...but honestly, I have seen these same "seasoned business travelers" complain loudly that the air conditioning was not cold enough or that they needed a menu in English or that the taxi driver did not understand the words "Hilton Hotel."

When overseas, I do a few things to keep my profile low. I learn a few words such as "Hello, Thank You, Good-Bye."  When I need to get to a location multiple times (such as my hotel), I print off the web page in the local language or get the concierge at the hotel to give me the name written in the local language.  There are a few tips you can pick up along the way.  For example, one of my friends lived in Tokyo and told me that I will rarely get a taxi driver who understands the words "Hilton Hotel" no matter how loudly or slowly I repeat it.  However, the words "Hee-Loo-Tone Hotel-oo" works every does.  A few years ago, I was attending a conference at the Opera City building in Tokyo.  "Opera City" does not work.  When I started saying "Oprah City," the taxi driver took me there with no problem.

When I go to a store in almost any country, I find the screen on the cash register which will show me the amount due and therefore do not require the cashier to tell me in English.  I can pay them, say "Thank you" in their language and they simply assume I understand some of their language.  It makes me look like less of a fish out of water.  Don't set yourself up to look helpless.  That is good advice anywhere, but particularly when visiting a city far away from home. 

And finally, read-up a little on the culture and on what is standard.  The Internet is a wonderful thing.  Learn about bowing in Japan and gift giving.  Talk to other people who have travelled to Taiwan to find out if it is reasonable to pay $45 for a car from the airport.  I paid $15 for a taxi from Beijing Airport to the hotel, but on my return trip, my Chinese friend only paid $7.  I got ripped off!  Learn about tipping.  You can not force a bellman to take a tip in Japan, but just about everywhere else, they expect a tip from an American.  Don't tip 15% for a meal in Germany.  It makes the locals mad because they only tip a "pocket change".  They say that we Americans make them look bad.  

James Snider is an global marketing professional with 15 years experience in the semiconductor and high-tech industry. He is currently working as a consultant while looking for the next great thing and earning inbound marketing certification.