China, the Arab world, Nicaragua and more. Having worked with clients in 62 countries, Dr. Liz Nuñez owns the international consultancy Pivot Rx that helps overseas businesses enter the US and English-speaking markets. Her interview presents a wealth of amazing knowledge about global mindsets and business practices. What do serious foreigners assume when they interact with laid-back Americans? What cultural trait often causes Americans and Chinese to clash? How do voice tone and body language affect communications worldwide? How does a US Latina do business with Arab men? How does a young-looking American establish credibility with older executives abroad? What US gestures have very different meanings elsewhere? What causes many confident foreign business people to fear speaking English? What should you do when served some food you don’t want to eat? How should you follow up after a meeting with overseas prospects? Dr. Liz answers these questions and many others based on her personal approach to “keep moving forward.”
Bringing foreign companies into the US
How business is different in different countries
Tips for working in the Arab world as a woman
Etiquette to know
Pace of business in different countries
Dr. Liz Nuñez is an awarded consultant, strategist, coach, and educator who has been featured in numerous publications and journals. She is the founder of the consulting firm The Pivot Rx, co-founder of English Speaking 101, and co-founder of the International Society of English Language Learners™ – the largest private continuing education community and association worldwide, with over 1.5 million English language learners. She is creatively pioneering the future of English as a second language with her Neuro-Pathology™ methods and helping diverse businesses pivot and scale in foreign markets with ease.
Hello and welcome to Global Gurus where every Friday, we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. I’m your host, Philip Auerbach, at Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com). Thank you so much for joining us.
As most of you know, we start each podcast with a running segment called Faux pas Fridays, where we explore a funny blooper or mistranslation that does not quite convey the professional image that your organization should want to project.
And since today’s guest has started an amazing program about teaching English worldwide, I thought we would have a blooper from the country whose English is perhaps the worst in all from around the world, and that country is China because their countries’ signs and their English leave a lot to be desired.
There are whole books of Chinglish, as it’s known, and this is an excerpt from one of those Chinglish books about a stuffed animal or a cartoon or something. And it says, “Fatty cat PIPI. PIPI is a very cute and fatty cat. The Pipi cat likes to eat donuts. Its name is Pipi, a very fatty cat. Its favorite foods are fish, cake, sandwich. Its favorite sport is to bite the navel to bath. It is a very naughty cat.”
So, there you have it. Whatever all of that means, that’s what it says.
So, today’s guest is Doctor Liz Nunez, an award-winning consultant, strategist, coach, and educator who has been featured in numerous publications in journal journals.
She is the founder of the consulting firm Pivot RX as well as the co-founder of English 101 and the co-founder of the International Society of English Language Learners, which is the largest private continuing education community and association worldwide with over 1.5 million English language learners.
She is creatively pioneering the future of English as a second language with her new neuropathology methods and helping diverse businesses pivot and scale in foreign markets with ease.
Welcome! It is a pleasure to have you on our show.
Thanks! I’m so glad to be here with you Philip.
I usually start by asking guests to tell us a little bit about their background, such as where they grew up and how they got their global experience.
Yes, so I am a first-generation American because my parents immigrated from another country to the United States. And they came in search of that American dream and realized it with their kind of spirit, or you pick up when moving from one country to another. You realize sometimes you’ve got to do something in an entrepreneurial effort to reach that. So they went through many entrepreneurial endeavors.
And as a middle child, I was always the one there, helping them with the paperwork, making sure they were compliant, translating things, and making sure everything was the way it needed to be. So that was my taste in business.
They were always pushing me to also continue and start my own business and do whatever I wanted because, over time, they were able to have a lot of success. So, for me, that was the drive to jump into business. However, I was kind of running away from it because I thought it wasn’t for me.
So, from there, what I ended up doing was studying. I went to school. I went through medical practice, became a Doctor of Medicine, and pushed myself so that while doing so, I always kind of wanted to jump into Education because English is my first language. But I first learned what we call the Queen’s English because of where my mother had come from. Her father was British, so this is the English that I learned, and then I had to relearn good old American English through my regular studies.
So, because of that, I’ve always had a love for language. It has haunted me. It has stalked and captivated me over the years. So, I share that with others as well.
That’s wonderful, and where is your father from?
The Dominican Republic.
Ah, OK, so did you grow up speaking Spanish as well?
Yes, we spoke both languages at home, mixed them, and did Spanglish as well.
Well, does your mother speak Spanish at this point?
She speaks Spanish and English, yes.
I understand that you’ve worked in many countries around the world and have a consultancy dealing with strategies for bringing foreign companies into the US or English-speaking markets. Is that correct?
Yes, it is.
Yes, tell me a bit about that, how it works, and what countries you deal with.
So, we’ve served a variety of countries; we’ve worked extensively with businesses based in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, as well as a variety of Arab countries, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in general. The entire group, because once you start working with one company in one of those countries, the others follow.
We have also worked with many Asian countries. Mostly what we do is, since I have had experience from an early age, to develop a lot of strategies hands-on with a brick-and-mortar business. My parents’ businesses started becoming something that became international businesses because they started to delve into scrapping metal, so they started to import and export, so that was my jump into international practice. So I helped these companies understand how to pivot slightly.
That’s what we call a “gentle pivot” that they need to make when they’re jumping into these English-speaking countries where the culture is different, the language is different, how we approach each other for businesses, the mindset is different, so we help them bridge that gap and bring their team up to par.
That’s fascinating. Can you give me some examples of how you did that? Or, more specifically, with which countries did you do so?
Right, so one of the things I can say at most is this concept of respect, which they call being serious in the United States; we would just say we’re being professional. But for them, it’s respect and seriousness. That’s something that carries on throughout a lot of what we do.
We try to explain to them that the laid-backness that they see in Americans when it comes to professionalism is not a sign of a lack of seriousness in business. So, we try to help them understand that the US culture is a lot more laid-back. In some of these countries, for example, if you directly translate how they address their mothers and fathers, they say, sir and ma’am, whereas many of us in the United States say mom and dad. We just call mom, mommy, or dad, papa. So, how do you see that changing as a child how do you transact with people? So that’s one of the big things we work on, as well as helping them.
So, what I mean by that is not undervaluing what they’re seeing in this English market. It doesn’t mean that it’s not professional, that it’s not serious, or that people won’t jump into working with you. They will. It’s just going to look a little different on the surface, but underneath, we all work the same.
In which countries do people…
I speak many different languages, I have studied many different languages, I know señor or señora or Mein Herr or Meine Frau. In what countries, in what languages do people refer to their parents as sir or ma’am?
So a lot of Asian countries do refer, do give that name in their home. They will call their parents mom and dad, but when they are in front of others they have titles and they refer to their parents out of respect with the title.
A lot of Spanish-speaking countries as well say “señor or señora” when they’re referring to their mothers and fathers out of respect as well, so that’s a big thing all over South America, and also into Africa as well.
So, what you mean is when they’re referring to their parents in front of others.
Not what they do at home, right?
I don’t even do it at home, but it is not as common.
Yeah, that’s fascinating.
You mention the seriousness and respectfulness abroad versus the laid backness in the United States. Are there other ways that you see business done differently in other countries?
So the approach is, for example, let’s say that I’m from another country, and I’m going to get to know someone else for a business venture. The overall approach will not be one of wining and dining. I’m going to use that term because that’s kind of an American thing, so we’ll take him out for lunch or happy hour. That is, uh, very laid-back, and then business happens on the same day. In that same conversation, you’re already pitching them for business, right? That’s a very American way.
But when you’re from another country, they want to get to know you. They want to get to know your family. They want to see how moral you are. Are you a person who commits and finishes what you commit to?
So, rather than just kicking back, they’re looking at what you do with your company and who you are as an individual. After having a good time, see if it feels right or good, or if the numbers align, and then jump into a business venture.
Yeah, that’s the same theme that’s resonated with other podcast guests: that Americans tend to be very transactional and plunge into business right away, whereas most other cultures outside of the U.S. are different. Americans and Canadians are the only people who speak English in North America; the Canadians are a little more European, but not by much.
But it’s basically what you were saying: get to know you. Ultimately, do I trust you? Do I respect you? Can I believe that what you say in fact will happen, and so on? Have you discovered that this person’s personality is much more important than the products, the price, or whatever the company is offering? Is that correct?
Yes, very much so. Sometimes the price is not even mentioned when I am in a transaction with someone from an international business; they just say, “I like it; let’s go.” And we discuss it further, not with the company’s owner but with someone else down the road.
Have you found, as other guests have mentioned, that you also have to negotiate with the middle managers on occasion, and you have a great rapport with them? They agree to whatever you’ve suggested. But then it goes back to the CEO, and the CEO may reject it, and you have to start all over again.
Yes, I have.
I think having that experience and an open mind to know that it’s just like when you’re a child and you ask your mother, “Hey, mom, I want to go out with my friend,” you’re still with your mom at first. She might be like “sure, but you need to ask your dad.”
No, not exactly.
Oh, Dad, come on. Mom said yes.
I know you’ve done business in the Arab world, and to me, that’s very intriguing, especially because you’re a woman. How have you been treated both as a woman and an American? And as a Latina woman? Do they treat you the same way they would treat white men, for example?
I would say that… I don’t know exactly how they would treat a white male, because I haven’t had that experience. However, I would say, “time is in my favor.” These countries are becoming a lot more flexible and open-minded. And it’s also in my favor, because of my academic background, when I approach them, many of them recognize that I’m a brown-skinned woman, and many of them are similar in shade, so they don’t look at me so much as color, but more wanting to know my seriousness, my professionalism, and how I portray myself, I think it’s also helpful in, just being very honest about the fact that I work with a team of people rather than standing alone because I believe that if I stood alone, I would face more challenges than I have so far.
Many cultures, particularly in Asia, particularly East Asia and particularly in India, value companies that have a long history. And they have an interlocutor, the person with whom they are interacting with you. They would tend to respect you more if you’re older and have gray hair than if you’re still young and don’t have gray hair. That is, unless you dye it, which I doubt. You appear very youthful. Does that change anything in terms of the dynamics?
At first, it was very misleading.
I have over 15 years of experience with our consulting firm, and I do have to often explain that because there’s a saying, “Black don’t crack.” So, because they say black doesn’t crack …
That’s true, right?
So, I look a lot younger than I am, but it is something that I think about because of a lot of changes that are happening. Especially technologically, a lot of millennials are having an opportunity that they didn’t have before to have a voice, and people are finding that yes, perhaps our systems need a little bit of revamping and a little bit of assistance from someone with a younger and different perspective.
So, it opens that door for me in a sense again, as well. As I said, working in collaboration is beneficial. If someone is younger, I would say that working in collaboration with other people who are more experienced and who can vouch for you is more beneficial and something I’ve used a lot over time.
That’s fascinating. It’s great.
So you have a lot of, let’s say, older business colleagues around the world.
I do. I think I’m an old soul, so the majority of my friends in general are maybe 15-20 years older than me that I go back and forth with speaking to, so it’s been very helpful in that sense. I’m catching up with them.
That’s great, and as they move that up and out of the business field, then you will become the wise guru as well.
Yes, it is crucial to passing it down to the next generation.
Can you give some examples of different cultural issues that you’ve encountered? Such as with dining or etiquette, or greeting people or their behavior and assumptions and that kind of thing?
Yes, I can share.
I am a picky eater, so a lot of business is done over food everywhere in the world, even if it’s just getting to know someone.
It’s offensive in many places, especially Arab countries to refuse what they’re offering you to eat. So that has been an issue where sometimes I will just have to stomach whatever that’s being offered to me, or you can insist on the fact that I’m just not hungry and try instead to nibble or taste things just to push me out of my comfort zone. As an American we live in a Disney bubble, if you will. We kind of got it and accessed whatever it was that we wanted.
So having that mentality and then dealing with other people who show me their delicacies and the things they love, as well as the fact that they eat snakes and other things like this are not my cup of tea.
You know, but I’m there to try to show them again because this is an international business. I’m trying to show them my character, so I need to show them that I’m flexible. I need to show that I’m not stuck inside the four walls of my own experience thinking that somehow I’m better and looking down on them because that will refer to them and that will reflect directly in my business transactions with them as well, where then they would think that I would be less honest or that I may be treating them as a second- or third-class customer or client when they need to have the best treatment possible, like anyone else.
That’s fascinating. Have you ever come across any language barrier issues?
Most definitely, I think the biggest issue is with the translator present.
For me, there are some things that people say differently depending on where they are from. For example, I have a lower tone than most women do over those who are using their voices around me. So what ends up happening? And I kind of wake up and go to sleep. The voice drops even lower. So, depending on where you find me that day, my voice may be lower, so as I speak with people, I find that their expectations of what a woman would sound like are a little bit different.
So sometimes, for example, in Asian countries, Vietnamese women. Her voice is softer, she’s sweet, so she says, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you,” and they’re up here and nice, where maybe my voice is not like that, or if they’re a man and they’re speaking, they want to have a guttural, very masculine voice. You know what they want to pick them out, they have that kind of growl to them, depending on where they’re from. And so I will. Sometimes I’ve had to either translate for someone or be translated, and it’ll sound like their voice indicates that they’re upset, that they’re argumentative, or that they’re not happy about something. And then the translator tells me this. What they’re saying and sounding is completely different, and sometimes, as someone on the receiving end, you’re doubtful as to how factual that translation is because you’re trying to pick up the body language.
And the tone, pitch, and pace with which the person is speaking. You believe you know if they are soft-spoken because your perception is based in America.
That means they’re unsure whether they’re insecure or not. Their voice will project more if they are more professional. If their pace is slow, they’re more serious. Do you know what they’re saying? These are things I go through with a lot of people. There are so many little boxes to check that you might think someone is saying something other than what you’re hearing in body language, facial gestures, and expressions as well.
Have you found that the interpreters actually are not…
They are interpreters by the way, and people make this mistake all the time and that is perfectly understandable.
Yes, yes, yes.
Interpreting is spoken communication and translation is written communication. So the interpreters … if you ask them… the counterparts seemed very angry and you seemed very calm. Do you ever challenge the interpreter and ask what was this person really angry about?
I have asked before, and just because there are some words that I can pick up in certain languages, I have asked before. Are they saying it as nicely as you are?
That’s the question that I’ll ask.
And then, you know, they’ll tell me how. However, they feel, or sometimes they take the time to explain it to me, that it’s their cultural expression. It’s not so much something for me to receive or to think of in a different light.
You brought up body language. Have you made a study of how body language works around the world, for example? Arabs are very much in your face. They’re physically much closer than Americans are.
Americans maintain a minimum of a foot’s distance. If not sometimes 2 feet with COVID. It’s usually more. And in other cultures, you know that the people are much closer or the expressions are much more serious. You can’t do it within East Asia. They tend not to smile a lot, and you can’t tell from their facial expressions. How have you dealt with those issues?
Right, So what we try to make sure that people understand is that if you were trying to convey something that you would reflect with your body, it’s best to put it into your words directly.
So if it’s a copy that they’re writing and it’s going to be received in written form, be very expressive as to how you are feeling or what it is that you’re trying to convey while you are conveying the actual message, so instead of leaving space for a wrong interpretation, you know, especially when we’re writing, you often have that disconnect because you’re not picking up on anything and are simply letting them know how you feel about something. Let someone know.
So, for example, I might tell them to be open about how they make them feel about whatever they’re about to say. So for me, I’d say I’m so excited to be here. This is great. And then I’ll go into whatever it is that I want to say instead of just being so cutthroat and going to business and expecting them to pick up what they wouldn’t pick up for me because even some signs are different.
Something indigenous to my family, as I’ll put it. So like the OK symbol in the United States, you know this symbol is that. The same is true for your hands; for example, putting three fingers up in a circle with your pointer finger and thumb is very different from, say, the Dominican Republic. This is asking for a ride. Yes, yes, it’s like hitchhiking, huh?
Requesting a ride like this while hitchhiking in the US.
So very different. So, some things are done very differently, such as a thumbs up. I passed by a police officer once, and the police officer gave me a thumbs up. I was on my way to an airport in another country when I gave him the thumbs up. He’s on the side of the road. I give him the thumbs up because it already makes me nervous. And I keep on driving, and then they start blowing whistles and calling all kinds of people because that thumbs-up to them meant for me to pull over.
They wanted to verify who I was. You know where you’re going when you’re being driven to an airport at 5:00 a.m. So then I had to show my passport and all of that. But we kept on going.
In which country was that?
We were able to leave. We kept going because we were similar to, “Yeah, thumbs up.” Good day to you! We kept on going because we Were just like that. Hey, yeah, thumbs up. a good day too.
Yeah, that’s fascinating.
I assume you know about pointing—that Americans point with one finger, and that’s considered extremely impolite in most cases. As a result, I teach people to point with their hands or palms. You keep all the fingers together. You point with your palm. And if you’re going to point, you use the palm up or the palm out, but never with one finger, because in many countries like Brazil, I think, that it’s extremely impolite.
Yes, yes, these are hard things to learn as a basic traveler, much less when you’re trying to jump into doing business with someone else.
If you haven’t had that experience, you know that maybe you are a rock star or a maverick in your company in your home space. But when you cross that border, it’s like when COVID happened and everyone all of a sudden was on Zoom or in a virtual meeting, and then we were all feeling awkward. I wasn’t, but many people were feeling awkward because they weren’t used to being on camera, kind of speaking to themselves, so to speak.
What about the pace of business? Not the pace of this. But in many countries, like Latin America, for example, traditionally, there’s the idea of the siesta, and therefore everything is slower in Spain as well.
I’m not sure how they even joined an organization like NATO and the EU.
That was so long ago. But the slower pace of business in Africa is much slower. Do you find that this is the case? It has an impact on your interactions and how you interact with others in your company.
Me at first. Personally, it was irritating because I was trying to think of the best word, but that’s what it was going to be. It was irritating or frustrating because I was like, “Can’t you just respond with an email,” but that’s what it was going to be.
I would say, “Can’t you just send back the email?” Or can’t you just respond? Like, how hard is this? But it was learning this over time and understanding that the conversation and the pace at which they make their decisions are part of their regular lives.
And if I can’t respect that, how can I expect to be able to respect them as a customer and always give in general, what I expect to receive is kind of how we’re raised, but when you give and you expect, and you’re open to the reciprocation according to them, it’s much more helpful to be respectful and understanding of others as they’re trying to do whatever business with you.
I try to teach others as well, so it’s already in your head. You have your steps. We all do this. We have our whole action plan. We have our processes already written out, maybe on Asana or Trello. If you’re feeling fancy, wherever you already have this item, just make sure you’re doing your part and then follow up with a simple, low-pressure follow-up.
Follow up just if you think you’re in the loop and you’re trying to wait for something to go through low-pressure follow-up by just saying, “Hey, do you have any questions?” that I can answer for you, as you’re still, you know, thinking this through. Or something of that nature.
Because if they start to feel pressured, I have experienced personally and through others a lot of loss from pressuring someone else because they start to say, “I don’t want to do business with someone who’s going to be down my throat all the time.”
That’s also fascinating.
What has been the most unusual, or shall we say difficult, a country in which you’ve done business as an American?
As an American, I would say a lot of Asian countries, specifically China, are getting used to some of the ways that things are done concerning, to be very specific, me. I’m learning and dealing with my approach towards them because, as an American in general, many Americans think of themselves as superior. I do not, but many do.
I actually have found myself in some situations where I’m dealing with someone in China and they have that superiority because of how they are taught, and so it’s offsetting. So it’s a challenge because I don’t think that I’m any better, but I’ve seen some of my clients. They think that they are in some respect, and so they bump heads with someone else who thinks that they are as well who will even argue because of what they’re taught that they are superior, they’re better, or their way is the right way. Or if you can’t do things as I say, then I don’t want to work with you. you and a lot of things like that—a lack of flexibility on both ends has resulted in something chaotic for me.
At first, it was just a matter of understanding where they come from and what they make. Why are we even having the conversation the way that we are, not because of the words that are being said, but because if you’re sending me an email, what was the thought pattern behind sending me this email in the first place?
I’m into a lot of neurology, which is where the minority side kicks in. I’m interested in the brain and how it functions with language. So we learned that there’s an area in the brain called Broca’s area, which is like the front of the left hemisphere, and it controls speech. But also, it has been found to work with social cognition, so a lot of times, how we speak our culture and our language affects how we perceive others and how we think others perceive us as well.
And what is this part of the brain called?
How do you spell it, B R O C?
I have never heard of that part of the brain. Thank you.
If you could give past self some current advice, what would you tell yourself?
If I could, I would say I had a very varied path to where I am right now, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll see some say the same thing a few years from now.
I think I’m giving myself the grace to experience and acknowledge my different interests and let them form my path in the future. Even though I am both inside and outside of business, particularly in business, like I said before, I didn’t think that I would be a business owner, so I allowed myself to get to that place.
And, while remaining humble and learning along the way, I would tell myself that it is OK to do what you think. Don’t make sense of why you’re there. Doing them just keeps pushing things forward.
That’s great. Tell me a bit about the Society of International English Learners.
How does that dovetail with your consulting practice? Are they two separate companies, or are these clients? your business clients as well?
These are two separate companies, but many of them are clients of mine for the consulting firm as well.
So, in our society, we don’t teach English as a second language, but we do work with people who have been learning English but have not completed the course. All of them have studied and still feel like they can’t necessarily speak as fluently as they would like, so we put in a lot of practice time.
What I discuss about Broca’s area and a couple of other kinds of brain-based hacks that we use for practicing tips. We have a somewhat safe space where people can practice and perfect their English.
I think the biggest problem is that people want to speak English to someone and be seen and revered. And so there’s a lot of pressure and a lack of confidence. You can sense when they are perhaps a very big professional in their industry, but you know they come from another country. Now they’re trying to say what they want to say in English, and they’re stuttering or mumbling, even though they know and understand clearly what they want to say. It’s kind of breaking down that anxiety while also providing them with tools to develop muscle memory.
I suffered a stroke during childbirth, which led to a speech impediment called aphasia. So, as I previously stated, language has haunted me. Anyway, I had to relearn a lot, and I teach others that by focusing, practicing, and teaching yourself, you can better yourself more than just having a tutor in front of you and the tutor just telling you every single thing you’re doing wrong. You need to get in the mud, get your feet wet, and practice it because that’s when it’ll stick to you the most.
It’s very interesting, and it’s very true.
Yeah, I speak good conversational French, but I know I also have problems with it: How should I express this concept because it’s not my native language.
What do you like to do for fun?
For fun, I like to spend quality time with my family.
I think that’s something I devote a lot of time to when I have the opportunity because it feeds my soul. Apart from that, I like to help others, the kind of startup companies I work with, there are a lot of minority businesses, and simply assisting them in organizing their thoughts and ideas into a structured pattern can lead to greater success.
So it’s kind of like, in the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with over 250,000 black-owned businesses in the United States, really helping them. And when I say black, I mean even people of color, because that’s really what I mean by that. But they haven’t had the opportunity to perhaps take their brilliance and set it in a structure that leads to success.
So I try to do that all the time. Listen to them and assist them in putting their ideas into action. It’s like what you’re saying is great. However, you don’t know how to structure it so that you can execute it, let alone have others execute it beneath you.
How many countries have you visited or done business with?
I believe we are now in more than 62 countries. Right around there. I haven’t visited all of them. I wish.
But we’ve done business with them. I have probably had the opportunity to visit maybe over 12 countries, and I’m looking to kind of not repeat the same ones and go somewhere else next time.
But doing business in over 62 countries—that’s pretty impressive. That’s at least half the world. That’s pretty amazing.
Yeah, yeah, it’s so exciting. It is exciting.
I learned so much. One of the first things that I learned in doing business in that way was how our calendars and our seasons are so different. I was very ignorant in thinking that, because in the States, you can just jump into a Target or a Walmart. It depends on where you raise Publix or Kroger or wherever you get a banana year round
You know the concept that there’s seasonal fruit, or seasonal produce…This blew my mind.
And you can’t do that in other places, right?
You can get what’s actually in the markets on the street.
That’s right. That’s right.
And you have to wait all year for things like mangoes, your mango season. Then you splurge.
That’s great. Well, thank you so much. This has been wonderful. An insightful talk with Dr. Liz Nuñez. Thank you so much for being here today.
Thank you so much, Philip, for having me.
So, this has been Philip Auerbach. Please join us again next week for another edition of Global Gurus, where there will be international business stories and information on how to contact me and my company, Auerbach International.
Thank you very much.
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