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How Business is Done Outside the US.

Guest post by Ann Woodward, world traveler and author of [truly awesome] travel blog, East Village Nomad.

Ann has been traveling and working outside the US since October 2011, visiting 47 countries in Asia, Europe, Central & South America. Before that, she was a Group Account Director at Ogilvy leading global business. Here are the major differences she’s observed between US. and foreign work styles. 

If you’re working within a global ad agency or for a global client, chances are you will deal with international teams that operate much differently from US workers. Below is a list of some key differences I’ve experienced. By no means is the list definitive, and it does include some broad generalizations. My intent is to simply share items that are helpful to be aware of when dealing with global colleagues. Formal business etiquette and specific cultural guidelines are well-documented in other sources. Here goes:

Less email & more face-to-face meetings.

This is a biggie. For New Yorkers in advertising, as well as many Americans, company-issued phones are an appendage for easy access to emails and messaging. During my agency days, I felt like the majority of communication and business happened over email (with the expectation of an immediate acknowledgment and response). Elsewhere in the world, your email may not be read at all, may not get a reply, or the response time might be measured in weeks instead of hours.

Other cultures are more relationship-focused than in the US. Hence, the desire to handle communications in-person vs. over email. I had a German client who was willing to pay a great deal of money to have a constant agency presence on-site. And when that wasn’t possible, they preferred videoconferences to teleconferences for most discussions. For this company, face time trumped cost savings.

Additionally, in New York City, the absolute worst possible thing you can do is waste another person’s time. If someone looking for a job emails you saying “I’d like an hour of your time to tell you about myself,” you’d probably laugh at their audacity and delete the email. In the US, emails need to be concisely written and make it quick & easy for the reader to help you at their convenience. However, when I was networking recently in Colombia, everyone I contacted insisted on meeting in person for an hour so they could learn more about me. In fact, if I’d initially sent my resume with a brisk “Will you please forward to HR?” email in an effort to save time, it would have been perceived as incredibly rude.

Less multi-tasking.

Other cultures tend to focus exclusively on the business at hand vs. trying to do too many things at once. In 2014, I received multiple messages to the effect of ‘I’m travelling for work now; let’s meet in 3 weeks when I’m back in the office.’

On one hand, this can be infuriating. Is it so hard to do a quick Skype call from your hotel room one night?

On the other hand, it means people who are on the road are focusing on the clients or colleagues they travelled to see and their business issues. Remember the days of having enough time to take clients out to dinner?

A different way of working.

In Spain & Latin America, I observed people working 7 or 8 hours a day over a 12-hour period, which usually involved a two-hour lunch outside the office, as well as morning and afternoon coffee/snack breaks. Work is happening, but at a more relaxed pace.

More vacation.

According to recent studies, American workers were given 15 days off in 2014, but only used 14. Less than 14% of Americans take more than one week of vacation at a time. And 61% of Americans admit to working while on vacation.

Elsewhere in the world, it’s not uncommon for workers to take 2 to 4 weeks’ vacation (or more) at once, and work is completely off the radar during this time. Europeans earn 28 days off on average, and tend to vacation during the month of August. In Colombia, the popular vacation/travel time is December and the first half of January. In Chile, it’s the month of February.

Less advance planning.

I noticed this more in countries with a history of unrest (Middle Eastern countries or Latin American countries where there has been conflict). The overall attitude is ‘Things change quickly, so why waste time & energy worrying about the future? Let’s enjoy today.’ Which can be challenging when you’re trying to plan a formal event for 125 people.


Less sense of urgency?

The jury is still out on this one. Most of the business approaches outlined above tend to require more time. However, client service industries do have specific workarounds for hitting aggressive deadlines.

I’ve rarely heard anyone in other countries complain about work. Job satisfaction and quality of life are quite high, compared to the US. Although many of the practices I describe above may seem foreign to many Americans, remember we’re the strange ones scarfing sandwiches at our desk for lunch and checking email on vacation.

Jen: If you’ve got to check your own wanderlust for now, you must live vicariously thru Ann’s blog. She lets you experience the culture and history of a place at street level, from female entrepreneurs in Oaxaca to architecture in Cartagena. 

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