A Question of Culture

Here’s a fun topic: the challenges of doing business internationally.

I’ve blogged previously that when Agilent was first formed, we carefully chose a name that did not mean anything in any language.  After all, we conduct business in more than 100 countries around the world.

Outside of Agilent, there are many stories about the unintended consequences of going international.

You may have heard some of the classics.  The French automobile “Citroën” failed in the U.S. because its name means “Lemon” (American slang for a useless car).  Conversely, the America auto “Nova” failed in South America because its name means “doesn’t go.” Here are more examples:

  • An Iranian razor manufacturer had a successful product called “Tiz,” which means “sharp” in Persian. But their expansion into Qatar failed.  Why?  In local language, “Tiz” means “buttocks.”
  • Japanese tech company Panasonic tried marketing its touch-screen PC in the U.S. using the cartoon character “Woody Woodpecker.” Their advertising tagline was “Touch Woody!”  One day before the launch of the campaign, they learned that the phrase has impolite connotations in the U.S.
  • America’s Braniff Airlines ran an ad promoting its leather seats with the tagline “Fly in leather.” When translated into Spanish, the term “en cuero” sounded very similar to “en cueros.”  In other words, “Fly naked.”

In addition to language differences, there are important cultural differences that business people need to be aware of when traveling to different countries.  Some examples:

  • Asian people refrain from saying “no”; instead they will be vague and uncertain. Middle Eastern people also do not like to say “no”; instead they will say “maybe.”
  • Middle Eastern cultures regard direct eye contact as a sign of respect and importance. Asian cultures avoid direct eye contact.
  • In Western cultures, raising one’s middle finger is akin to a raised fist (or worse). In Eastern cultures, it is simply how some people point.
  • In the U.S., a circle formed by the thumb and index finger means “Okay.” In the Middle East, it means “I wish evil upon you.”

So when you travel, travel safely.  But also travel wisely!

Today’s blog post topic was suggested by Agilent employee Marina Makhratchev, who provided all of the examples mentioned above.  Thanks MARINA!


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