By Greg Bathon

I’ve been lucky enough to have lived and worked for a long time outside the United States-in Europe, in Asia, and in South America-and I’ve seen hundreds of American executives coming and going in the international marketplace.

And in my view most of them did just fine without the help of the culture cops, who feed on the notion that it just won’t do for dumb Americans to be let loose among the sensitive souls in older and more civilized societies until they’ve been through a boot camp of costly culture-study programs.

I’ve got a bug in my ear about this, because I was reading an article recently by one of these experts, who says that Americans doing business overseas are too much influenced by our frontier past. The expert says we come to the bargaining table with a “do or die attitude that often defeats our purpose.”

The expert further says, “One of the biggest mistakes an American can make is to take his table manners with him to France – because the French get very disturbed watching an American switch his knife back and forth, so it can be embarrassing for a French person to be seen eating with you at a good restaurant” And so forth.

There are people who actually pay good money to be exposed to this kind of rubbish. Here’s the expert again: “US executives only make things difficult for themselves and their companies by saying to executives in Tokyo, Paris or London, “Just call me Pete.” The expert thinks this kind of stuff gives fainting fits to foreigners.

Well, OK, you don’t get too familiar too quick in an American boardroom either, unless your resume includes a few years on a used car lot.

But one thing is for sure: You can insist on them calling you “Pete.” You can insist on their calling you whatever you want if the deal is interesting enough, and if it is, you can be on first-name terms with just about anyone but the Queen of England in about five minutes.

“Dumb American” Story

My favorite dumb American story is the one about General Motors introducing the Chevy Nova in Venezuela, where “no va” means “doesn’t go.” But it’s only a dumb American story because you have to be a dumb American to believe it. To get technical, a native speaker of Spanish would simply not understand “no va” to mean “no go,” in reference to a car. In Spanish, a car can “no marcha”; a car can “no camina”; a car can “no funciona.” But a car simply can never, under any circumstances, “no va.” So the story has no point, except possibly to someone who doesn’t speak Spanish.

General Motors has been selling cars all over South America for maybe seventy years, with in-country staff largely made up of local executives, and I just could never believe they would let themselves get set up like that. As it turned out, they didn’t. I called them up a while ago to ask about it. The guy laughed. As far as GM knows, that story was cooked up on a college campus in Illinois.

And it’s retold as a solemn warning to us yokels-or as a snide joke about us yokels-by the kind of ignoramus whose international business acumen comes right out of the college library. As far as that expert is concerned, the minute you’re in that plane seat, the Lone Ranger rides again. The expert says, “You have a do-or-die attitude that often defeats your purpose.” I say, if you lack the basic business skills of negotiation and compromise, how come you’re in that seat in the first place?

Here’s another quote: Are you “competitive, argumentative and impatient?” You are? Well, don’t feel so bad. Because that blandly smiling Japanese negotiator on the other side of the table is hiding it just as well as you are.

There’s a whole laundry list of dos and don’ts some people are asked to study before they leave on an overseas trip. Don’t give red flowers here, don’t give white flowers there, and don’t give any flowers at all somewhere else.

Here’s a great one, taken, I’m ashamed to say, from my own company’s newsletter. In Asia, a person’s head is considered to be the residence of the intellect and the spirit. When in Asia, you are advised never to try to touch someone’s head.

Can you remember the last meeting where you tried to touch someone’s head? Never mind in Shanghai. In Baltimore, you don’t go around trying to touch people’s heads. And if you don’t do it in Baltimore, or Irvine, please, see if you can restrain yourself from doing it in Shanghai-and that’s pretty good advice for just about any kind of personal behavior overseas.

I don’t think you should waste a lot of time worrying about cultural correctness.

One recent story has it that an American had to make a speech to a Japanese group, and he had been told that the Japanese are modest folks who always start their speeches with some kind of self deprecation or apology. So the American cooks up something to apologize for in his opening: about the best he can do is to say that he’s very sorry to impose on their time by giving a long speech right after lunch.

And the Japanese crowd breaks up. He gets a huge laugh.

When he finishes the speech, he asks his Japanese manager, “What the heck did I say that was funny?” And the guy says, “Nothing. They were told that Americans always start their speeches with a joke!”

If you behave with reasonable common sense and keep a smile on your face, and if you just eat the way your mama taught you, you don’t have to waste a lot of time playing cultural head games.

But We Need Research

That said, I’m going to turn around and say that we should put much more effort than we do into researching what people will think, not about us, but about our products, and the way they are presented and documented in overseas markets.

When I worked in India, the people in government thought that anyone from Madison Avenue must have the last word on influencing consumer behavior.

There were then, out of a population of some 600 million, more pregnant women in India than the entire population of Australia. So we were asked to work on the development of a national birth control program. We came up with a slogan, do ya tin bhaccha bas-in Hindi, “two or three children are enough,” and we superimposed that on a big triangle-shaped logo that ran on posters all over the country. Soon people got so used to seeing the triangle that even without words it would whisper “do ya tin bhaccha bas.”

It took about a month before the full effect of that campaign kicked in, and the results were stunning. We absolutely killed the national sales of Vicks cough drops, because Vicks cough drops are shaped like triangles. So every time you put a Vicks cough drop in your mouth it whispered “Two or three children are enough.”

We weren’t through yet! The little Philips transistor radios were very popular: You’d see men all over walking along the streets holding them up to their ears. In two short weeks we sent sales of Philips transistor radios into a death spiral with a campaign promising a free transistor radio to every man who signed up for a vasectomy.

Pretty soon, I couldn’t find anyone to sit with at the Bombay Rotary Club lunch. Friends in the business community started crossing the street when they saw me coming, afraid that I might be hatching a new marketing idea for them.

These events started me on a lifelong collection of well meaning stupidities that could have been avoided by research.

You can’t do it without research. It’s expensive; it takes time. But you have to know everything there is to know about the potential relationship between your product and your customers in their home market. You can make zero assumptions.

In Mediterranean countries, most of the stores are still mom-and-pop shops with limited shelf space. In Greece, 77 percent of the people walk to the store, and they have to be able to carry their purchases home. In Holland, most people bike to the store, and if your product won’t go off the shelf and into that bike basket, you’re in trouble. These are big influences on packaging decisions.

Some countries want a washing product that’s gentle on their lakes and rivers. Germans will pay for it. Spaniards won’t. Europeans wash clothes at very high temperatures, and that means a different detergent formulation.

To prepare your product and its documentation for a foreign market, you have to preserve its quality and design but allow it to make no assertions at all about human behavior and local customs. And you have to be really careful with symbols and icons.

An underarm deodorant brand, for example, came up with a cute symbol showing a smiling octopus busily dabbing deodorant under its eight little arms. The marketing department said, “Forget the research, we need a new campaign right now in Japan!” Unfortunately, as it turned out, the Japanese do not look upon the octopus as a creature with eight arms. For the Japanese, the octopus is a creature with eight legs. Get the picture?

A large European food company wrote a brochure for young mothers. One piece of advice was to dip an elbow in the baby’s bath water: If your elbow turns pink, the water’s too hot. It was a big success in Europe, so naturally they sent off thousands of copies-to Africa.

The Japanese think that sweat represents a healthy body. To the Japanese, sweat gives off good vibes. A Japanese company tried to market a soft drink called “Pokari Sweat” in the United States.

Because there are so many languages in Africa, people have come to expect a food product’s label to have a picture of what’s in the jar. WYSIWYG-”What you see is what you get” – to eat. A manufacturer did launch its baby food with a picture on the label. It should have been a picture of carrots. It was a picture of a baby.

A British software application used the wise old owl as a help file icon, and just assumed that it would be fine in the international market. In Hispanic countries, however, the owl is a symbol of evil, and in India, if they call you an owl, it means they think you’re crazy.

I could go on forever about design mistakes made by software engineers. The little e-mailbox, with its red flag? Utterly mysterious to Europeans. They don’t have mailboxes like that. They think it’s a loaf of bread. (The trashcan on my e-mail interface does look like something, though. It looks just like a British mailbox.)

Finally, a computer company sent worldwide a technical update documentation called a Major Release Document, or an MRD for short. Pronounced in French, to the ineffable joy of its recipients in that country as “merde.”

The Bottom Line

Which neatly segues us back to those solemn folks who want to change your eating habits. Please, eat the way your mama taught you. It’s not your table manners that need work. You need research to adapt your product and its documentation for the target market. That’s what makes the real difference between success and failure in overseas markets.