Depending on who you believe, the quote about Britain and the United States being
two nations divided by a common languageis variously attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw or Winston Churchill, all eminently quotable chaps. But when it comes to doing business, is it the difference in cultural and business attitudes that are more likely to divide us - regardless of the language spoken?
Having been born in Germany, lived in Moscow and Kuwait, and studied languages at university, I believe that learning a language is a powerful launchpad for understanding a different culture. It helped me develop a curiosity about other people and an interest in being understood by others that still stands me in good stead today.
In my business, working with companies setting up or wanting to trade in the UK, I am always fascinated by the questions clients ask us about life - and business life in particular - over here... and sometimes shocked by the questions they don't think they need to ask, like is organising a networking event on a Friday night in late December a good idea? Or will all the right people attend with less than two weeks' notice?
Then again, I've heard from these same companies about the advice they have received from 'local experts'. Chinese companies have been coached on how to eat spaghetti during a business lunch (seriously, I wouldn't bother, choose something easy), on the acceptable length of skirt and height of heels for a business meeting and that green is never considered a good business colour (a colour which I happened to be wearing that day).
Surely, reducing advice to a few basic, and potentially scaremongering, guidelines is patronising? First impressions always count, but would a business person from overseas really be that influenced by my colour choice? I'd rather hope it was the quality of my advice and recommendations.
My Chinese colleague says that in China the philosophy is that outer garments are not important, it is the inner wisdom that counts, as well as the ability to listen patiently, slow down the pace of our spoken English, whilst responding to enquiries immediately. She reminds me that we won one of our Chinese clients through being the first to respond.
It is a shame that the UK is still perceived as lazy when it comes to foreign languages. We are undoubtedly lucky, but spoilt, that English is considered to be the language of business. But this shouldn't make us complacent.
'Meeting' or talking business long-distance over Skype or video conferencing means you have to be adept at conveying information at speed and with huge clarity. That is sometimes hard enough face to face but even more so with time delays and/or echo on the line! You need to build trust so that you can give forthright feedback early on in a relationship.
In my experience you can be an overly optimistic over-promiser in any language, the one who tells you they are the decision maker, entrepreneur and risk-taker, but who suddenly vanishes and fails to respond to your email or proposal. A business can be a time waster in any language. And many people do not want to talk about specific budgets: they are always hopeful that the figure you propose will be less than the one in their budget line.
So, rather than generalising, my perspective is to treat each company or company representative as a fellow human being, with a distinctive personality, someone you can engage through conversation - rather than believing that they represent some national identity or characteristics. In a world of instant global communications we have the chance to treat each other as individuals, not stereotypes.