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"American" isn't the international language of business

As Americans, we often feel we have a tremendous advantage because our mother tongue is spoken throughout the world. English has now passed Mandarin Chinese as the world's most widely spoken language.

In the United States, we learn English from our parents. However, in much of the world, people learn English in school. When the educational system is good, people learn English well. Conversely in the United States, when our parents and community don't use proper English, neither do we.

Europeans often are amused by the word "ain't." But novelty aside, Americans can be at a disadvantage in international negotiations.

Incorrect grammar, colloquialisms and expressions that don't translate are often our demons in our international dealings.


Notice the expressions as well as the sports and military terminology. This can serve not only to confuse our foreign counterparts, but also to alienate and offend them.

The United States is a controversial country; the planet has seen our sports heroes misbehave, and our military occupy regions of the world where many think we shouldn't. Thus, the constant reminder of our military mentality can be quite upsetting to overseas business people. Just recently, the Chinese government referred to the United States as "the country most willing to go to war."

The European joke is, "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks just one language? American."

American arrogance is a difficult obstacle to overcome. And rather than try to temper it, believe it or not, we actually market it. We are constantly reminding the world that the United States leads the human race in technology adoption.

Incidentally, this marketing point happens to be false. In parts of Europe, people download movies to their cell phones. Chinese send more text messages on cell phones than we do. The Swedish were the first to have their taxicabs accept credit cards. Japanese cell phones soon will have credit card capabilities built into them. German engineers pioneer the best automotive technology. And the list goes on.

American Internet companies continually brag about the United States' e-commerce usage, which is greater than the rest of the world combined

In the e-commerce argument, there's a simple alternative explanation. It's not that we are superior technologically, but more apt culturally to purchase things without any type of relationship or even a personal introduction.

Americans are the only people in the world who do business with strangers.

The best evidence of this is cold calling, which is largely an American phenomenon. Even on a consumer level, we get calls at home from strangers, who often won't even disclose their full names ("I'm Willie, operator No. 10").

These strangers call every night to sell us products that we already have, such as long-distance telephone service or a mortgage. It must work some of the time, or the practice would have stopped by now.

This helps to explain that if an American's current vendor doesn't offer a product she wishes to have (for example, video messaging on her computer) she can simply find another vendor who offers it. A European or Asian counterpart would work with her vendor to find a solution to the problem and perhaps do without the product until it's offered.

Europeans, Asians, Africans and South Americans do business by introduction.

In business, the personal introductions serve as an entry barrier to other vendors, a qualification of the vendor and a built-in troubleshooter (the introducer). The prequalification of being introduced by the correct source is therefore invaluable, and in most countries, a necessity.

Rather than change our entire way of thinking, we can win abroad by simply being sensitive to the fact that others think differently. We need to remember that we may be chosen as suppliers for business partners because of who made the introduction, not because of our pricing or technology.

The United States is lucky to have excellent institutions, a large work force, a free press, an entrepreneurial spirit and laws that help us to succeed. We can live wherever we can afford and leave any time we want. We enjoy the right to criticize our institutions, and improve continuously. But let's not forget our own impediments, one of which is our ethnocentric overconfidence.

Anyone who doubts the point of American arrogance has only to remember this: The United States is the only country in the world that refers to a national sporting event as the "World Series."

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