Not-So-Great Expectations

Dec. 21, 2004
Don't fall for cultural misconceptions.

Many executives dread their first business trip to a new country. It's natural to feel off-balance in unfamiliar surroundings. You might not understand the language or the customs. But some travelers add the additional burden of incorrect or out-of-date expectations. They forget that a good story isn't necessarily an accurate one. Unfortunately, some tall tales are die slowly. In 1940 an amateur linguist misinterpreted some 1911 research of Eskimo languages. The linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, claimed that while English has only one word for snow, Eskimo has many, with separate words for falling snow, slushy snow, and so on. Whorf's article contained two errors. First, English has several words for snow, including powder, sleet, and slush. Second, comparing word-counts between radically different languages has little meaning. The Inuits (the modern term for Eskimo) use lots of prefixes and suffixes, combining several concepts into a long, compound word. English-speakers can say the same thing by using several words instead of one long one. For example, in Inuktitut (an Inuit language), the generic term for snow is "aput." In English we add an adjective to describe the concept of "new snow." Inuktitut expresses the same concept by adding suffixes to make the single word "aputiqarniq." So Whorf's original article was misleading, to say the least. But the story of the Inuits' many words for snow grew. Some report it as 50, or 100, or even 200 words. (What is the correct number? The linguists at Canada's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs now report "over 30" variations of Inuktitut words for snow, all of them based on just a few root words.) Now, not many of us are conducting business deals with the Inuit. But we've all heard misinformation about other cultures. We need to regard these preconceived ideas with skepticism before traveling internationally. Take another stereotype: You only do business with men in Muslim countries. True, Muslim countries usually place more restrictions on the activities of women than they do on men. But there are still women in positions of power in Muslim countries. Pakistan--a predominantly Muslim country--had a woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Turkey, which is officially secular but is predominantly Muslim, has almost as many women executives as men. If you go to many Muslim countries expecting never to see a woman in business, you may be surprised. Our foreign expectations come from many sources, including stereotypes, ethnic jokes, and movies. Yet all of these can be wrong. We shouldn't expect accurate portrayals from stereotypes or ethnic jokes. And Hollywood wants to make profitable, entertaining shows; accuracy is never the primary consideration. But what about carefully documented research materials (such as the books written by the authors of this column)? Yes, these are accurate. But no book covers everything. Many countries are as diverse as the U.S. Would you expect a resident of New York to act the same as residents of Helena, Montana? Or a programmer in the Silicon Valley to act as an Amish person from the Pennsylvania Dutch country? Of course not. And you can find regional differences in many countries, not only in large countries such as India and China but in small ones such as Belgium. Furthermore, everyone is an individual. Are you a "typical" American? You probably share many traits in common with your fellow citizens, but differ in other ways. There are undoubtedly French citizens who hate wine, Italians who don't gesture when talking, and Japanese who never apologize. So, when you embark on that business trip overseas, try to leave behind any preconceptions based on suspect sources such as jokes or movies. And, while books and articles by experts are useful, don't expect every individual to act in predictable ways. Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries; Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World; and two new books, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America. For more information on Getting Through Customs seminars, online database, and books, telephone 610/725-1040; fax 610/725-1074; or email [email protected]. Or write to Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit the Getting Through Customs Web site at

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