Global business means more foreign business people are working in the US.  While it might be home for us, it can be a cultural maze for them.  We need to be creative and sensitive enough to see the situation from another perspective.  In short, how do we un-baffle our foreign colleagues?  Here are four areas that repeatedly confuse others:

  1. Language confusion
  2. Politeness masks reality
  3. Who’s in charge
  4. Personal relationships

Language confusion:  How do you answer the following question? 

Understand this one?

“Don’t you want to go?”

Most native English speakers in the U.S. would say, “Sure” (meaning, yes I want to go).

In reality, the proper response would be either: “Yes, I don’t want to go”  OR  “No, I do want to go. 

While we might not be confused, many foreigners stand baffled, almost stunned, trying to figure out the answer to a negative question.  Just imagine the double negatives….

“Don’t you not think that’s a bad movie?”


Politeness masks reality:  Sometimes our politeness masks what we really mean.  A Korean colleague told me that when he started working in the U.S., his boss said:

“You might look at this report and see if you think we should change this part.” 

He looked at the report he had written and returned it to her, unchanged.  Then things got hot.  What she really meant, of course, was “change it.”  In Korea or Germany, the boss would simply say, “make the change.”  Not in the U.S. 

Other foreigners complain that when Americans says “come by anytime,” we don’t mean it.  Watch out for the newcomer from Mexico who stops by unannounced at his neighbor’s house. 

Who’s in charge?  In Vietnam, work culture in traditional organizations can actually be dictatorial at times – the boss says, “do this,” and employees do it, no questions.  Other times, consensus may rule: the boss has to get buy in from everyone, a long involved process, and sometimes the change doesn’t happen.  So it baffles my Vietnamese colleagues to see Americans giving input and arguing during a meeting, and then, when  the boss says, “ok, here’s the decision,” everyone gets behind it.  So who’s in charge, they ask!? 

Personal relationships: Last, many foreigners say Americans get “right to business” and don’t care about building relationships or getting to know each other first.  Fair assessment.  We focus on “not wasting time” and we do that partly because we start from a an assumption of trust (or at least trusting a contract once we've signed).  In Asian, Latin, European and other cultures, trust comes first, then business.   

Get RIGHT to work!

So, lessons for us?  Just a few. 

  1. Speak more clearly than you might normally.
  2. Use a “cultural interpreter” -- someone who knows about the other culture and can help reduce confusion.
  3. Ask the other person what she understands – not if but what.
  4. Expect to take more time to build relationships.

And remember, don't think that you'll not make some negative blooper.  It just happens, even when we try not to. 



About the Author

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D.

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., is Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University.

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