Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"You Don't Know What You Don't Know"

A bit about cultural competence in the business sector today from Wall Street Journal. I'll just quote the fun bits..

"Tom Bonkenburg, director of European operations for St. Onge Company Inc., a small supply-chain consulting firm in York, Pa., headed to Moscow in 2008 to develop a partnership with a large firm there.

But when he met the company's Russian branch director, "I gave my best smile, handshake and friendly joke... only to be met with a dreary and unhappy look," says Mr. Bonkenburg, who had already helped St. Onge land clients in 30 countries. It got worse, Mr. Bonkenburg says: The more he turned on the charm, the gloomier his counterpart became. The potentially lucrative partnership, he figured, was surely blown. Later, however, Mr. Bonkenburg received an email from the Russian, thanking him for a great meeting. Mr. Bonkenburg later learned that Russian culture fosters smiling in private settings and seriousness in business settings. "He was working as hard to impress me as I was to impress him," Mr. Bonkenburg says. Fortunately for St. Onge, the Russian was prepared for American business joviality."

Some were lucky to use a local talent..

"Last Spring, Dakar Sushi-owner George Ajjan wrote to a Senegalese government official—using the French language but in an American English tone—to request a business license for the restaurant. "I'm direct and I shoot to kill," Mr. Ajjan says of his usual correspondence. To proofread his French grammar, Mr. Ajjan gave the letter to a Senegal native who noticed that the tone was too jarring. If not rewritten in a more deferential voice, the request would likely get denied, his friend explained. "It wasn't just about translating, but about adapting phrasing to make sure you are in line with what people expect," says Mr. Ajjan.

Some were miffed, even in their native English..

"After Ron Gonen expanded his New-York based company, RecycleBank, into England last year, he encountered an unexpected language barrier. The company, which sets up rewards programs for individuals based on the amount they recycle, was offended when the press called the program a "scheme." "I would try to tell them that it was not a scheme, that it was a service," says Mr. Gonen, the firm's co-founder and CEO. "But then they'd turn around and say, 'Right, so it's a scheme.'" Because the press coverage was otherwise positive, Mr. Gonen soon pinpointed the miscommunication: The word "scheme" holds no connotation of deceit in Britain, as it does in America.

Some were outright unlucky..

"The price tag hit seven figures at Toronto-based AlertDriving, a firm that provides online driving training courses to companies with vehicle fleets. Between 2005 and 2007, AlertDriving, incorporated as Sonic e-Learning Inc., expanded into more than 20 countries before realizing that the product had cultural flaws. The dialogue in the lessons had been poorly-translated and the driving instruction failed to address geographic nuances. For example, AlertDriving teaches that the center lane is the safest on a multi-lane highway, but that is untrue in Dubai, where the center lane is used exclusively for passing. According to Gerry Martin, AlertDriving's chief executive, it took years to realize that the foreign clients were unsatisfied because "in some cultures, like Japan, criticism is considered disrespectful." Once the company got the negative feedback, it "had to redo what already was in the market," says Matthew Latreille, AlertDriving's director of global content development. The company spent about $1 million over 18 months revamping its existing product line, honing language dialects and local driving habits."

Thank G-d no one got "killed in translation".

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