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When I first came to Europe I thought that most important thing was to learn languages – I was wrong. Most European business people accept English as lingua franca of international business. However, you don’t want to risk seeming ignorant. A reasonable level of conversational French or German, for example, will come in useful. I have found that many Europeans have a prejudice about perceived American ignorance of outside world. Showing a little linguistic skill – and, more important, willingness – will be to your advantage.
My experience is that knowing local language is particularly useful in France. The French have traditionally been very protective of their mother tongue. Today, many native speakers consider French to be in a state of crisis, attacked on all sides by international English – so your French hosts will warm to you quickly if you seem keen to speak it to them. Again, showing you are willing to try is more important than being fluent.
Even so, skills learned in language classes back home are useless unless basic cultural differences are understood. Once again, do your research: time talking to locals or reading about European culture and history will be well spent. Knowing a little history is especially important if you’re working in Greece or any of nearby EU satellite states in Balkans. Educated people there will often talk about events of a millennium past as if they happened yesterday. There is a perception all over Europe that Americans follow Henry Ford’s maxim ‘history is bunk’ – I made friends quickly when I disproved this prejudice.
The good news is that Europeans are more like us than they are different: general cultures of both continents respects business and promotes honest dealing - but it’s important not to let small differences cost you money.
Steve McLaughlin founded Global Market Insights, with offices in Europe and the U.S. Steve is a graduate of Rice University, where he was student body president, and completed post-graduate studies in International Economics at the Universidad Mayor, Santiago, Chile. A former U.S. Marine Corps Officer, Steve’s hobbies include running marathons and reading history in three languages.