I’ve been traveling abroad this week meeting with seven different public relations/communications partners (among others) who represent different countries and regions in Asia. Each country has its own customs, traditions and formalities. And, as you can imagine, it was a little nerve-wracking as I prepared my thoughts/presentations thinking about important cultural nuances such as what might generate enthusiasm from a Vietnamese business executive versus one from China. Or, how I should present (and how vocal should I be) when discussing our partnership needs with a Philippine business owner versus one from Hong Kong.
Ironically, those potential land mines haven’t really been much of an issue. So far, everything has gone well. That is, except for the fact that I never really gave much thought to something much more important and critical to every day conversations. I know it sounds obvious, but in almost any discussion we use dozens of clichés and “industry lingo” to make points. I never realized just how much a part of my vocabulary these “Americanized phrases” are until I found myself stumbling (and bumbling) through a few of them attempting to communicate to our partners. Of course, most of our partners speak very limited English (thankfully their comprehension of my language is better than mine of theirs or we would have been doing a lot of nodding). More to the point of this post, I found that I had to work extra hard to further define the clichés (think about how you would explain “media by the pound’ or “pay for play”) I had just uttered in these meetings… and that quickly took me out of my rhythm. Even worse, some of the clichés could be considered quite offensive… as I soon found out.
I was having a very successful meeting with our Chinese agency partner, when the topic arose of how our respective firms handle client conflict situations (for those not in the business, it’s around the issue of representing two clients who might compete in some ways with each other). I told the proud CEO (and his other three senior executives) that we don’t have too many conflicts. But, when one arises, and both clients feel comfortable with Peppercom representing each, we then set up strong and tall “Chinese Walls.” Well, that was a show stopper…
All four executives gasped, mouths wide open and gave me an “I’m offended and are you making fun of us” look. And, then they waited for me to qualify the statement. I quickly realized what was said (and couldn’t believe that those words came out of my mouth) and proceeded to punt the football as far as possible to get myself out of the awkward and regrettable situation. I think my words were something like, “er… uh… er… we set up strong walls between those two account teams so that all information is confidential. Do Chinese firms work the same way?” Lucky for me, they decided to just answer the question and move on. And, the comment wasn’t fatal (at least, I think).
After thinking about it, I realized that this innocent cliché in our country is absolutely insensitive to the ethnic identity of the Chinese. In fact, the phrase seems to have originated from a court of law to imply a “cone of silence” or “ethical walls.” But, a number of judges have actually banished it from their courts because of the issue at hand.
Clearly, my lesson of the day is to banish most of the American clichés/metaphors that I use on this trip. Well, I’m off to Singapore this afternoon. Thankfully, no one ever talks about Singapore Walls. So, hopefully I will be safe.