Advice: learn a few words in many languages…you never know when it will help.
I’ve always been interested in languages and pride myself in being able to say Hello, Thank You and Please to people from many different countries.
When I first started my product business in 1991 it was all phonecalls, faxes and even, yes, believe it or not, hand written letters. Whether I wrote or called, people often complemented me on my few words in their tongue. I certainly was not fluent in anything but French, and that marginally so. It was more a thing of respect and courtesy, it shows you are paying attention, that the interaction is important, that you are invested.
When I visited one of my inflatable factories in Taiwan, it so happened that many of the workers were women from Thailand. As I passed them I put my hands together, bowed slightly and said “sa-wat-dii, khráp”, basically hello. Their faces exploded into beautiful smiles and they giggled and answered back, and were looking at each other and at me, pleasantly surprised that I knew any Thai at all. Later that day, my trading partner who was hosting my visit kept remarking about how impressive it was that I spoke Thai! I honestly told him that the only other thing I knew in Thai is a tongue twister that if said properly means “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?”…
When I was at a trade show in Paris in 1998, 1999 and 2000, held in the Louvre, I prepared by finding a tutor and working on the types of conversations I might actually have with new clients. I knew that I couldn’t learn too much more new grammar, like proper verb tenses, but I could keep refining my accent (already decent), and memorizing facts about my product line, like where we got our ideas, and terms of sale, like pricing and shipping conditions….For instance:
“Nous avons creé quelque choses inspireé par l’histoire de l’art, comme les gonflables de le Cri, le Sacophage, Les Garguilles de Notre Dame… (We have created several items inspired by the history of art, like inflatables of the Scream, a Sarcophogus (mummy), Gargoyles from Notre Dame…)
As long as the conversation was kept at a basic level, it got to where we could understand each other in French…it was Fantastique!
It turns out that they all spoke some English and they didn’t expect me to actually speak French. But after we conversed for a while I was often given the compliment: “Vous parlez francais tres bien pour un Americain”, “You speak French well for an American”, which I came to understand referred to my accent. The French especially get ill when they hear foreigners, yup, usually Americans, butcher their language. So when they hear someone actually pronouncing things pretty close to what they are familiar with, they are quite pleased, and will forgive a lot of grammar and vocabulary. And how do you nail an accent, or at least get close? You have to practice with a native speaker, and frankly, be willing to sound stupid, almost like you are doing a caricature of the accent. Then your tutor can help you scale it back for acceptability. Remember, your overseas associates will see that you are trying to honor their culture, that you are showing respect, which is the groundwork for a good relationship, and as many of us already know:
ALL BUSINESS IS ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS !
…as is most anything else that involves two or more people. Going even further, it is in our relationships with everything in the world, people and otherwise, that determine our character and how we are perceived by others. Respect the world and the world will respect you…nuff said.