Before you travel abroad, broaden your horizons

When you read this, I'll probably be in Holland, England Scotland or Northern Ireland. I travel to Europe and Asia a half-dozen times a year, and have been doing so for about two decades. Here are a few things I've learned -- usually the hard way.

* Read in. A couple of weeks before a trip, I start perusing appropriate newspapers, magazines and miscellaneous background material I've been accumulating. Staples include the Nikkei Weekly and Asiaweek (for trips to Asia), The Economist and Financial Times (for trips to Europe).


* Mind your language. Even in England, the language is very different. Over the years, I've learned to consciously translate myself during seminars and business meetings. In particular, I'm careful to simplify my phrasing -- and never, ever, resort to baseball, football or other American metaphors. It's not just that other people won't understand; often they do. But talk of "a full-court press" telegraphs cultural insensitivity.

* Watch your humor. I rely on humor at home, because I believe there's no better way to establish rapport and move a discussion forward. But overseas, I never joke around (even after 20 years visiting some locales). There's nothing more local than humor. The clever aside, let alone the one-liner your friends back home roared at, invariably leaves a perplexed look on the faces of your mates abroad -- in Australia as well as in Japan.


* Slow down. Tuning into body language and spoken language simply takes more time in another culture. We instantly "understand" thousands of subtle cues in our own environment, from physical trappings to the nuances of language. But in foreign settings, getting even a hint of what's going on calls for intense concentration.

* Remember who you are. Most of us more or less live up (and down) to our stereotypes. Compared to most of the world, Americans are abrupt and action-oriented ("let's skip the small talk and cut to the chase"). Translation: rude. Moreover, not so long ago we ran roughshod over many nations in our business dealings. Self-awareness (what we are, what we're perceived to be) can help us monitor our own behavior and attend to others' sensitivities.

* Watch your schedule. This holds for 25-year-olds and 60-year-olds alike. Don't overbook yourself. It takes a lot more emotional energy to do business and make personal connections when you're out of your element.(I routinely find myself literally sick with exhaustion at the end of a day of meetings in other countries.) Also, take it especially easy right after you arrive. At age 25, you think you're in fine fettle after a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. Take it from me (who was once 25 and cocky), no matter how you think you feel, you're in rotten shape -- and it shows. Schedule yourself accordingly.

* Make room for social interchange. Learning about other cultures, and your would-be business partners, comes mostly from schmoozing. The lengthy lunch, cocktails and the five-hour dinner can be as important as any formal presentation you'll make.

* Make friends. There's little that's more important for doing business in another country than having two or three natives whocan act as trustworthy sounding boards. It's probably best if they're not business associates. Then, among other things, they can freely laugh at you when you make a fool of yourself (as you inevitably do -- regularly -- in foreign settings).

* "Use" your weekends. Not for more meetings, but for hanging out, visiting pubs and museums.

* Contribute. If you open a one-person shop in another country, work from the start to become a member of the community.

* Learn the language. Just mastering greetings, pleases, thank-yous and a handful of useful phrases in someone else's tongue says that you care and are paying at least passing attention to the local culture. (Except in France, botching pronunciation is OK. It's the perceived effort that counts.)


* Walk the streets. Nothing helps you soak up the culture more than a two-hour stroll down Zeil in Frankfurt, the Galleria in Milan or Regent Street in London. Look at the toys, the appliances, the foods, the posters in the travel shops, the houses, the people. Buy a few papers and magazines and thumb through them -- you'll be surprised at how much you can "get," even if you can't read the language.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 839-5600.)