We have written on Trade Secrets about the need to be sensitive to other cultures and other countries in an increasingly Internet-driven, global marketplace. I wanted to share an anecdote I heard about a writer who was asked to contact a client of a company for which he was producing an article, in order to secure a few quotes about their experience with a product. The writer, who is in the US, was copied on an e-mail from this client about setting up a phone call. The writer noticed that the client’s e-mail signature was in French. This is where things went wrong.
The writer, seeing French, immediately thought “foreign country,” and decided that perhaps an expensive overseas cell phone call was the not the most-cost effective way to communicate. He suggested to the client that they correspond by e-mail instead, since the client was in a “foreign country.” This was picked up by a contact at the company working with the writer, who took umbrage. Why? This “foreign country” wasn’t France—it was Canada, Quebec to be specific, where most everyone speaks both French and English. The company contact happened to be half Canadian and went to university there. And to top it off, the Canadian client had a toll-free number.
Fortunately, the writer apologized for any offense he had committed and assured all involved that he had the utmost respect for the “foreign” country of Canada. Everyone had a good laugh and the interview was conducted by phone without incident. But this tiny hiccup in the business relationship just goes to show how careful one must be not to be “America-centric” in one’s thinking.
The US economy is truly massive—with a GDP of nearly $15 trillion, it’s the size of the next three largest economies (China, Japan and Germany) combined. The US is also a large, geographically isolated country. Americans too often assume that when they are conducting business, it’s with other Americans is this vast land of ours. However, this isn’t the experience of the world’s other countries. For example, in Europe alone, there are more than four dozen countries or political subdivisions, with multiple currencies and numerous languages and dialects. It’s a similar situation in Asia, where Japan, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and southern neighbor Australia trade actively with one another. Not wanting to make an “overseas” phone call to a “foreign country” just wouldn’t fly there.
In defense of Americans, our geographic isolation and homogeneity have allowed most of us to get by without knowing a language other than English, or knowing much about world geography. But that era is coming to an end. The writer in my story learned his lesson—and hopefully, the staff at your company can benefit from his mistake.