INTERNATIONAL CAREERS : A World of Opportunity : Behavior as Important as Language When Dealing With Foreign Clients : Lack of attention to local customs can turn a seemingly innocent gesture into a serious insult.


The fax from the Japanese company referred politely to the business proposal that had just been received. “Oh, thank you very much. It is very good.”


Believing his proposal had been accepted, the American businessman was pleased. But a few days later another fax arrived from the Japanese company, along with a totally new proposal. The old one wasn’t even mentioned.

The American was perplexed, but his Japanese language teacher at the Berlitz Language Center in Beverly Hills was not.


“The Japanese never say bad things,” Yumi Endo said.

Even face to face in a business meeting, the Japanese executives would probably show little expression so as not to betray their feelings about the proposal, Endo said. “Politeness is quietness, not telling the world. People are supposed to understand.”

The lesson for international business executives: Learning another language is just the beginning. Getting in tune with the culture and customs of the people you do business with must go hand in hand with language training, because deals can be won or lost based on behavior as well as words.

Dean Foster, a Berlitz official, recounts the story of an American company that had signed a deal with a Brazilian firm, with the top U.S. executive saluting the event by giving the forefinger-to-thumb sign that typically means OK in this country. But in Brazil it conveys the same message as a raised middle finger does in the United States.

“The Brazilian CEO walked out of the room and tore up the agreement,” Foster said.

It is important to teach business people who are traveling overseas “about the behaviors they might encounter abroad, as well as how they’re being perceived by foreigners,” added Rene Alberola, Berlitz’s regional director for the western United States.

Besides making sure her students know to use the formal sie instead of the informal du when addressing corporate Germans, Berlitz German teacher Anita Kaplan emphasizes the importance of table manners in Germany--no relaxing, no slouching, no elbows on the table, knife in right hand, fork in left.

“If you were perceived not to have good manners, you would be perceived not to be well-educated,” she said.


In many Latin American countries, long lunches--sometimes two or three hours--are not only a way of life but an important way of building business relationships, said Jordi Lluch, a Spanish teacher for Berlitz.

Glen Michel, a customs and international trade consultant in Long Beach for Deloitte & Touche who studied and worked in Japan for more than six years, says a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

He tells of an American woman who was talking on the phone to a Japanese banker using informal Japanese speech and gruff, male inflections--a no-no because there are marked differences in male and female speech in Japan. The banker was “quite upset,” Michel said.

Learning proper forms of speech in different contexts is extremely important. Makoto Sakai, a teacher with Oak Hill Academy, a Santa Monica-based language, vocational and avocational school, says he role-plays with students when he tries to teach them proper business Japanese, including distinctions between how you address colleagues at work and family members at home.

“The improper use of language would be very rude and might lose a contract or opportunity,” he said.

Oak Hill student Allison Inaba, who spent three years in Japan and is married to a Japanese man, is perfectly comfortable speaking the language conversationally, but finds business Japanese very difficult at times.


“You use completely different words and sentence structures if you’re talking to your superior, someone at the same level or someone below,” she said.

The endings of verbs--and sometimes the words themselves--change, said Inaba, whose employer, Treasury Services Corp. in Santa Monica, is paying for her schooling.

She says knowing how to use business Japanese will help her communicate more effectively with Japanese corporate clients when she helps them utilize her company’s banking software. But many clients speak enough English so that she doesn’t have to test her knowledge. “It’s a huge relief,” she said.

Ultimately, foreigners are often forgiven for language and etiquette mistakes that wouldn’t be tolerated from natives.

“I’ve never lost a deal over a mistake,” Michel said. “They realize that you’re a foreigner struggling with the language.”