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.

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