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Correct Cultural Cues: Lanie Denslow of World Wise Intercultural Training & Resources

Lanie Denslow

Onboarding an Italian with a trip to a US winery, toasting the correct official in China, and agreeing to a dinner even when you are tired. Lanie Denslow, the CEO of World Wise Intercultural Training & Resources, shares many insights about cultural do’s and don’ts that can determine business success or failure. While many world practices are similar, the ability to be curious, open, and willing to learn and adapt are often the keys to establishing trust. And with trust, Lanie’s advice can bring you across the Finish line.

Highlights:

Lanie’s journey to international cultural training

Successful ventures

Cultural blunders

To-do list before visiting a new culture

Advice for younger people

Lanie Denslow Bio:

Lanie founded World Wise Intercultural Training & Resources in 2000 after observing that culture (shared beliefs, expectations and practices) varies significantly around the world and profoundly influences the conduct of business. Her firm provides customized, interactive workshops for professionals providing the information they need to navigate culture differences that show up in today’s complex, fast-moving business environments.

Her mission is to ensure that her clients understand the fundamental aspects of culture, key differences and how they shape common business activities … ranging from what it means to be on time to contract negotiations and relationship building.

Today, relationships are the key to doing business everywhere. Understanding cultural differences is essential. With that in mind, WorldWise offers a series of programs offering practical pointers ranging from how to manage a networking event, host a client dinner, and be seen as polite and professional in both business and social settings.

Lanie is the author of the book World Wise: What to Know Before You Go (Fairchild/Bloomsbury Books), and co-author of Working With Americans (Routledge, London).

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome to Global Gurus. Every Friday, we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. I’m your host, Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com). Thank you for joining us. 

As many of you may know, we start each podcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays,” where we explore a funny blooper or a mistranslation that does not quite convey the professional image that your organization wants to project, and since today’s guest works all around the world, I thought it would be appropriate to give you a sign in a Tokyo bar that says very simply in English. “Special cocktails for the ladies with nuts.” 

Today’s guest is Lanie Denslow. Lanie founded World Wise Intercultural Training and Resources in 2000 after observing that culture, which has shared beliefs, expectations, and practices, varies significantly around the world, and profoundly influences the content of business. 

Her firm provides customized, interactive workshops for professionals, providing the information they need to navigate cultural differences and show up in today’s complex, fast-moving business environments. 

Her mission is to ensure that her clients understand the fundamental aspects of culture, the key differences, and how they shape common business activities; these range from what it means to be on time to contract negotiations and relationship building. 

And today, relationships are the key to doing business everywhere. Understanding cultural differences is essential, and with that in mind, Worldwide offers a series of programs offering practical pointers ranging from how to manage a networking event, host a client dinner, and be seen as polite and professional in both business and social settings. 

Lanie is the author of World Wise: What to Know Before You Go (Fairchild/Bloomsbury Books) and the co-author of Working with Americans, published by Routledge in London. Welcome, Lanie. I’m delighted that you’re with us.

Thank you very much, Philip. It’s a pleasure and an honor to have been invited to share it with you this Friday morning.

Thank you.

So, before we dive in, could you tell us a bit about your background, how you grew up, how you gained your global experience, and how you came to start your company?

Thank you. This question made me think about my background in a different way. And I realized that my first encounter with cultural differences in a personal way was in the 5th grade because my family moved from Seattle, WA across the country to Nashville, TN, and yeah.

Oh, wow.

And thinking about it today, I realized I never thought about it as a cultural difference until I was getting ready for this podcast. But it certainly was a different culture, and by the time I was 15, we’d lived in Seattle, Nashville, Washington, DC, and back to Seattle. And I think, in a way, that maybe that sparked some of my curiosity about how people do things differently. 

In terms of not just growing up and living around the US, I was also fortunate to live in Paris and go to school. and work there as an adult, not as a child. My background isn’t all international. I have what one of my friends called a “portfolio career,” which means I’ve had three different careers in my life. I consider that very fortunate.

 I started in the real estate development business in California. I ended up not staying in Seattle but coming to California. And I’ve lived in both southern and northern California, two different cultures. So I was in the real estate development business. I loved it. It was thought that it was becoming global. I was intrigued by that. I took myself to graduate school to get a master’s in international business and an MBA. I thought I’d go into the real estate business. It didn’t happen that way. 

I was recruited to be the director of International Affairs for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FDM), a private college here in California. And that was my in-depth international experience being launched because I worked with the consular corps, the foreign trade community. I had the opportunity to create specialized programs for people from countries other than the United States, and much of it was study abroad programs for college students. 

There are all kinds of stories that I could tell you about… especially young women, 18 to 22 years old, who’d never been outside the US. part of my work was to take them to London, Paris, and Rome. Some of them had never been on an airplane, much less been outside the United States. 

So, I did that, and at the same time, I was developing a worldwide business, which I’ve continued since I left FDM. So that’s my… I hope this is a brief enough background statement.

That’s fascinating. I was intrigued when you talked about moving from Seattle to Nashville. I was raised in an upper-middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, and when I was going into 11th grade, my parents moved to a small place called Pottstown, PA. And I hope that the Mayor of Pottstown will forgive me, but at the time I described it as physically 40 miles from Philadelphia, but mentally, it’s 400 miles from Philadelphia. And I don’t think it’s as isolated anymore, but to some extent it still is.

Yes, there’s a difference. So, it’s quite an experience to navigate it when you’re a child and you just go with the family, right?

Yes, exactly. and helps to make all kinds of adjustments. You know, psychologically, of course, but also mentally. And, you know, different kinds of friends and assumptions about what reality is and what people know or what they don’t know. It’s very fascinating in that way.

Yeah, it says, “Well, I think in a way we’ve shared that experience and I think saying that it was fascinating is from this perspective because I don’t know about you, but I found living it was not so attractive at 7 at some points. But, looking back, what a fantastic experience and opportunity. Friends are still in touch with one of my friends from the 7th grade. I can’t imagine it.

Yeah, and for me, it was also a wonderful experience socially because it exposed me to people and backgrounds and ways of thinking that, of course, I had never been exposed to, and that helped to launch me on my international and intercultural career. So, it was fantastic.

We were fortunate without even knowing it.

Yes, the time. I thought my parents were crazy, but it turned out well.

Well said.

So, of the many ventures that you’ve had in your business, which do you feel would be perhaps the most successful, and what made them so?

The one that I always think about that was the most successful was going back to doing a workshop in Texas for a trucking firm that wanted an introduction to cultural differences. My expectations about what I’d found were all wrong. It was quite a sophisticated group, and the workshop went well; they were a very engaged group, and afterward, the VP of Sales said to me, “I have some thoughts that I’d like to discuss with you, and I’ll call you.” And off he went to another meeting, and off I went back to San Jose.

And a few days later, he called and said he was bringing a salesman from Italy into the firm to be based in Seattle. The guy’s name was Antonio, and he’d never worked in the US before, and the sales VP, Danny, said to me, “I never thought about having to do anything special to onboard him until I listened to you talk today. Is there anything we could do or something I should consider doing that would be different? 

That was It is extraordinary to be able to think of having opened somebody’s mind differently. And we decided that they would assign someone to be his mentor to help him understand some of what wouldn’t be obvious to him. Furthermore, to demonstrate that this is a sophisticated individual, they are bringing special interests. 

So, he knew Antonio was a soccer fan and a wine collector and that he was coming with his wife. So, Danny ended up deciding to give him season tickets and some swag for the professional soccer team. They have that in their hotel room, a collection of They bought Washington State Wines and set up a tour of a winery for Antonio and his wife so that they would both feel welcome and see that things that were important to them at home existed in their new environment.

And for me, that was a huge success to be able to contribute to making a difference for somebody.

That’s marvelous. It’s just, yeah, that’s so fulfilling to see the immediate gratification that way.

Yeah, it was extraordinary. It’s still, I think, a favorite of mine. 

Yeah, definitely.

Perhaps you can share another success story, another one that you know, another wonderful venture that you were involved with.

I can’t, you know, off the top of my head, I can’t think. Well, I can think of a few more snippets.

That’s fine, yeah.

Try doing a workshop. I don’t have to tell you at all that one of the big cultural differences is how people communicate. And one of the things that I hear from Americans, especially those who are first introduced to this idea of culture shaping how you communicate, is that people just write all these emails that go on forever and they want to know how your kids were and how your weekend was, and I still remember in a workshop after talking. This woman said that there is a why behind those communications that are not just so transactional. Oh, my goodness, now I understand why they write those crazy emails. They’re not so crazy after all. OK, this will change her view of how she connects with her colleagues, who I think are from Brazil.

That’s the kind of thing that for me, sometimes it’s a small thing that I know. It sounds like a small thing, but I understand it as a shift in thinking that’s going to make a difference.

Yes, definitely. Especially in a family-oriented culture like Brazil’s, it’s very important, right? 

Perhaps you could also share the opposite, which is some business blunders and cultural blunders that you’ve encountered. And I’m sure you could write a book about them. We’ve worked around them.

Well, as soon as I read that question and you were kind enough to send a list of questions that we might touch on, I had visions of being in a restaurant in I think Beijing… I think in China for sure, but I think in Beijing… Because one of the projects that I worked on was a special program for Garment, the textile and garment association in China. 

And they had come to the college to see if we could develop a special product development program for them. I worked with their consultant and with the head of the association, who was Mr. Pan. The consultant was Mr. Sidney, so Sidney, Mr. Pan, and I did a tour of about half a dozen cities in China to talk about this program we were providing, and they were fantastic people to work with. And it was a great program, and the trip was interesting and fun, and you know, all those great things.

This was the last lunch, and there were several people at the lunch. And I wanted to express my appreciation in front of everyone for all the work that Mr. Pan had done as the head of the Association, and he was also the senior person at the table. So, knowing that seniority in China means older people are respected and honored, I thought it would be appropriate to express my thanks to him first, so I made a very nice little toast. Everybody is toasted. Then there was a moment when Sidney sort of giggled. “That’s not a good sign,” he said to the group. I want you to understand that one thing I know about Lanie is that she always wants to know if there’s something that’s done differently here in China than in the US. So, she will be happy to have me explain to her, and at that moment, you can imagine… I’m not breathing… She’ll be happy to have me explain to her that although it was very gracious to offer thanks to Mr. Pan, she really should have offered the first toast to Mr. Lee, who represents the government and who is going to be helping with the funding of this adventure.

Now, I don’t usually blush, but I’m sure my face was bright red that day, and I was horrified but also, gratefull because he explained it to people. Why did I make what they might have seen as a blunder, a mistake, even an insult, and that he saved me a level of embarrassment with that explanation? 

So that was the blunder. That was the save, I suppose, and the kindness, even though at the moment I was just mortified. Yeah, like the old Southwest Airlines commercial. I just want to get away.

That’s fascinating. So, was this Mr. Lee, the Communist Party minder? Was he involved with what you were doing, or was he in the background?

It was not clear, and it wasn’t something to be explored. He had been at the presentation we made that morning, I think vetting us. And, of course, I practiced my presentation. They kind of coached me on what to say, and I did my presentation in English, which they translated into Chinese, and I was quite clear that they had given a different presentation than the one I gave, but there was nothing I could do about it. They were making sure that everything was appropriately focused and said.

That’s fascinating. I think it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful that of course you had that experience, and that your colleague Sidney saved you in that way.

And I think that one of the things that makes a difference is if you connect with somebody who is part of the culture, they can guide you in several different ways.

Right, absolutely. And that sort of leads to another question: What do you think people need to learn or to experience to thrive in doing international business?

I think it begins with your outlook. 

Your mindset, you know, now there’s a lot of talk about developing a global mindset. But I think it’s three things. It is perhaps four accepting that there will be differences, but also that there will be similarities that you can find if you look and are curious. Keep an open mind to the idea of discovering what might be different or similar to your expectations of how you do things. And being willing to learn and adapt. Not change who you are but know when there’s a time to shift how you communicate. 

Maybe you write about how your weekend was. It was not just pleasing to answer my question. 

Build that relationship. But, in my opinion, the first step toward thriving in an international setting is to be curious and open.

Yeah, that’s fascinating. If you are adjusting to a new culture for the first time, what do you think you need to study? Alternatively, what resources would you use to research something?

Well, you could call me.

Of course, because that’s a new business.

But setting aside that silly answer.

Once you have the idea that there are cultural differences, there’s a wealth of resources. If you look online, some companies do training programs; there are consultants. There are great books like Kiss, Bow, and Shake Hands, which is a wonderful resource as an introduction to the idea of cultural differences and the woman who is the author is, you know, really caring and very creative. The other thing is their resources. There you’re talking about it, there are consulates, embassies, there are organizations, and maybe a French American Chamber of Commerce in your city. It is all about building relationships and businesses. There are lots of what we’d call dual-named chambers of commerce. So, there is a wealth of it. But it all starts with your willingness to consider the possibility that there are lessons to be learned.

That sounds fascinating. You’re right. Could you share with us another blunder that you’ve encountered, either one from your own company or someone else’s? Because you’ve got this wealth of information about doing business internationally, surely, we should emphasize both the similarities and the differences.

I think another blunder came from a different trip to China. 

On my first trip to China, I think some of my blunders were probably not recognizing that everybody around me probably spoke English. And so, whatever I said, even when we used to take students to Paris, one thing I used to tell them was, “When you’re on the subway, remember that everybody can hear what you say, and they all understand you. So don’t talk about that woman’s ugly green dress unless you want her and everyone else to know that. 

Oh my God, I can think about it. Being on a Yeah, don’t get me started. 

A more serious one is that Americans tend to be very independent. I’ve read about it, but I’ve seen it in different forms. So, when we travel, we’re also very independent. I’ll tell you this story, it’s about having a delegation from another country come to see your company. So, let’s say you have a delegation coming from someplace in Latin America. And they come to see you in San Jose. Send a car to pick them up. Do not think that they should be like we Americans, so I’ll figure out how to get to the hotel. I don’t want to bother anyone. It’s a sign of respect and welcome to make sure that you pick them up, take them to the hotel, and make sure they’re settled in. Then, if I’m advising Americans, I tell them that no matter how tired they are, they must say “yes” to going out to dinner. Because when you arrive in a new city, someone invites you to dinner. You should say yes, even if you’d rather be back in your hotel room, checking your e-mail and going to bed.

It’s about building a relationship and saying thank you.

Yes, the relationship and the trust and the rapport, so business then can flow from it.

And that is the heart of business in every country in the world.

Yeah, it’s fascinating.

If you had the chance to give your current self some past advice, what do you think you would tell yourself?

Travel early and travel often. Live outside your home country. Live outside the US. I had that experience, and it was transformational, not just in going and living in France, but the experience of coming back and seeing the US in a different light. And that’s not talked about enough, but I tell myself to study languages, and my French is rusty, but it’s serviceable. But I would be happy if I tried to study Spanish and Chinese. And both of them still came out in French, no matter what I was saying. But I would tell myself, really immerse yourself. Go study languages and travel the world.

Yes, my Italian gets mixed up with French and Spanish if I attempt to speak it, so I generally don’t. 

And you reminded me of a story when I came back from France. In France, I only remember that there were policemen. I don’t remember any policewomen. When I came back to this country, I had an immediate encounter, something like a very minor traffic stop or something with a policewoman, and I could not think of how to address her. Ah, because I didn’t know how to call her. Yes, I was referring to her as the Madam Policeman or the Lady Policeman, I kept saying. I just simply didn’t know. I forgot in English how one did that. And I did not remember that we had female police officers here in this country, at least back then. a long time ago.

Well, that’s a great story. One of those moments where you’re just blank, right?

I also forgot the American and English words for the trash can when I moved back from Paris because I never had to… You know, I know it in French, it’s Poubelle. But I never had to say it in English when I lived there, so I couldn’t remember telling my parents, how do I, you know, take out the Poubellel or something?

So, I think you may have had an experience similar to mine with the French. It took me a long time to figure it out, and I still have to do it sometimes if I want to figure out if it’s going to be warm or cold outside. I had to go back to Celsius. Celsius, yes.

Oh, Celsius.

Yeah, because it took me a while to learn what it meant in Celsius, and then for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what Fahrenheit was. It’s like a little trash can. I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.

Well, I guess it’s fortunate that I’ve only dealt with Fahrenheit when I’ve been around the world. People say to me it’s 30 degrees. I don’t know if that’s hot or cold. I just look outside and figure out what the weather is. You know, I was raised in Fahrenheit, so that’s one thing that I can’t quite figure out. And I know there’s a formula to do it. 

Never mind. It’s just that there’s always something that you capture in the other language and the other culture that is hard to unravel and translate and shift back.

I could dream in Japanese, but I couldn’t think of how to do the temperature in Celsius.

Dreaming in Japanese is very impressive.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us before we close?

I think I would just go back to what we talked about. As you think about or begin an international-based career or expansion of your business, start by being curious. And know that there are going to be differences and let people help you explore them and understand them.

That’s wonderful. And find a colleague, both in this country before you leave and when you arrive, who can assist you.

Absolutely.

That’s great. Well, thank you so much for all of your wonderful insights into your stories and your great experiences. It’s been a wonderful pleasure to have you with us today.

Thank you very much. It’s been a joy to be with you and to share some of my stories. And thank you again for inviting me.

So, this has been Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com). Please join us again next week for another edition of Global Gurus and stories of international business.

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