Wednesday, November 4, 2015

I'll Take the 'Merica Training from Here

We have wonderful new neighbors who just moved here from France. The father works for a major U.S. company and their young family of five was relocated to California. The parents speak great English, but their three children arrived a few months ago speaking only French. At least, it sounds like French, but we really have no way of knowing.

Son Number Three became instant best friends with their middle boy, and all three of their kids are rapidly learning English, despite Number Three’s best efforts. My son immediately picked up a weird, high-pitched French accent and ESL speech pattern that he uses to communicate with them. I guess he thinks “You want play ball?” asked in a squeaky Pepe Le Pew voice is helpful. He’s wrong.

One day a few weeks ago, over a beer at the American Embassy (that’s what I’m calling my garage now), my new neighbor informed me that his Americanization training was set for the following weekend. I was justifiably upset, since I thought I was in charge of the ‘Merica training program, but apparently his major U.S. corporation had hired Riverdale Global Relocation Services to teach a “How to be an American” class for his wife and kids, and a “How to not offend everyone in the boardroom” class for him. I was already happily doing all that for free. I guess these big companies just like to waste their money. Go figure.

The training was home-based and took place over two full days. I asked to sit in, but apparently it’s only for employees and their families, and the “instructor” gets pretty annoyed when you question her credentials and ask to observe to make sure all the information she’s going to present is accurate.

My neighbors were kind enough to deliver the class materials over to me after the training was complete, so I could spot check them for accuracy. “Right on the bat” I noticed some flagrant errors in the Popular American Expressions section that was obviously not written by an American or anyone with any baseball knowledge whatsoever.

“Ballgame” was defined as “whatever it is you are doing; refers to a negotiation, a deal, an activity, as in, ‘This has been quite a ballgame.’”

To “drop the ball” was defined as “following through irresponsibly with a task.”
If “following through irresponsibly” means not following through and totally blowing it, then maybe.

A “curve ball” was “an unexpected or difficult remark, usually requiring a defense by the receiver.”
A defensive receiver isn’t even a thing in football. And no, I don’t mean soccer.

A “foul ball,” or “foul play” was “a curve ball in really bad taste, as in, ‘Hey Steve, that remark was a foul ball.’”
No, no, no.

And “the ninth inning” was “the final hour, or the final deadline, sometimes referred to as the ‘top of the ninth.’”
You had a 50/50 shot. Close, but no.

Besides the fact that the baseball idiom section was obviously written by a lifelong cricket fan, what I was most struck by was not the inaccuracy of the information on how to do business in America – most of it seemed to be “right on the baseball” - but rather the fact that any of it needed to be mentioned at all.

Here are Riverdale’s handy tips on boardroom etiquette from the General Principles of Business Communication section.

For U.S. Americans, ‘yes’ means ‘yes.’ They tend to use low-context communication – which is when the speaker relies more on the verbal content of his/her message (rather than on nonverbal or contextual clues) to get the intended meaning across.

That is true. We do not use interpretive dance to let you know that we want to purchase your product for under seven dollars a unit. We’ll just say that. We also don’t tell you we are interested in partnering with your firm while, at the same time, throwing feces at you. We stay away from nonverbal and contextual clues. If we don’t like you, we’ll tell you without lying and flinging dung.

Americans are not comfortable with extended pauses or periods of silence. Conversation goes back and forth in regular ‘beats’ – something like a ping-pong game.

Yes, it is true we don’t like uncomfortable silences, hence the name. But I’m not sure “ping-pong game” is the best way to describe conversational flow here in the good ‘ol U.S. of A.

“Hey Bob.”
“Yes, Jim?”
“Grab Lunch?”
“You bet.”
“Triple syllable. My point.”

Eye contact is very important. Frequent, though not too intense or prolonged eye contact, expresses to your counterpart that you are sincere and trustworthy.

Yes, eye contact is important. It’s really the main way we know you’re talking to us and not someone on your Bluetooth. Careful with that fine line of “intense and prolonged” eye contact, though. That can take you from sincere and trustworthy to stalker/serial killer in just a few uncomfortable seconds. Frankly, if you don’t already understand appropriate eye contact lengths, you should probably just stay home and keep not looking at your own countrymen.

American business people tend to keep a standard distance of about two feet (roughly an ‘arm’s length’) between themselves and their conversation partners.

This is true, and never to be violated. Also, don’t ever say “conversation partner.”

Apart from handshakes and an occasional pat on the back between men, physical contact is generally not part of the American business culture.

Allow me to make major corrections to this. Let’s replace the term “pat on the back” with “manly slap on the back while guffawing at an exceptionally funny joke.” That way you won’t be confused into thinking that a hand on the other dude’s back should do anything other than leave a red mark. There is absolutely no rubbing or lingering of any kind.

And we need to get rid of the word “generally” and replace it with “absolutely.”

“Hey, Jim, I’m really happy about this plan. Let’s hold hands while we sign the contract. Then, let’s hug it out and go get some lunch. I’ll rub Bob’s shoulders from the backseat on the ride over to Applebees.” These are all things you will never hear in America. Be very careful with this one, or you will find out quickly at what point punching becomes acceptable in the American boardroom.

And lastly, When handing items from one person to another, it is acceptable (and not considered disrespectful) to do so with one hand, or even to gently toss it across the table.

Yes. If you are going to hand me the Peterson file, a one-handed handoff or a table slide is really the only way to go. Handing it to me with two hands would look really weird, and don’t even think about doing anything stupid like bowing during the handoff, or presenting the file to me on a platter or a tasseled pillow. Things like that will never get you invited to Applebees.

There is one last thing that the folks at Riverdale forgot to put in the training manual, but it’s very important. The guy from overseas always buys lunch. And drives. Wait... where are you from again?

Never mind. I’ll drive, but you still have to buy.

See you soon,


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  1. Dear mister Ambassador,
    Can be baseball or (american) football, even english cricket, it's still not real sport... The only real sport which could be helpful for daily talk is the french "p├ętanque" where you can "be young" and naturally wrong, and "make a golf" and loose all
    Please accept the assurances of my highest consideration

  2. I had to Google it. Isn't that just a Frenched-up version of Bocce ball? Do you really want to be taking credit for Italian games?

    1. you will have to start reading French and Marcel Pagnol in "Fanny" :
      You can't be more french than that :)