Open Letter From Colonel Steve Huffman (USAF, ret.)

I’m increasingly amazed how the world is coming together, but still so far apart. Technology has transcended geography and the unique problems of overseas operations. We can now talk, communicate, work together, and work for people thousands of miles away. It happens at the speed of electrons (in most cases). It’s easy and getting easier…If you’re willing to keep pace…and pace is both important and necessary.

However, with all the technology available today there is still a barrier to engaging in overseas activities. Cultural differences, for the most part are a very real encumbrance to anyone seeking to enlarge the scope and scale of operations into the international arena. The most obvious hurdle is language. While computer translators have come a long way toward eliminating the language gap, there are still numerous problems that any corporate professional must overcome to both open a business venture, and keep it open. Digital translators do indeed help us with the written word for correspondence and contract writing and development, but they do very little with the “last three feet” of any deal. Typically, this is the hardest and probably most important part of any transaction where your potential customer doesn’t speak the language(s) that you speak. Therefore, having someone readily available who is well versed in both languages is necessary, but that still might be insufficient. Being able to speak the language doesn’t mean that the person understands or comprehends the cultural meaning and nuances of the language.

Let me give you an example. A while back I had the opportunity to sit on a National Security Council committee which had a mission to develop strategic messages for deployment in Iraq, and specifically in Baghdad. At one of our committee meetings I had a Joint Staff desk officer for the Middle East accompany me. He happened to be born and raised in Egypt and was fluent in Arabic. At the meeting State Department representatives wanted to present a brochure listing the positive outcomes of our presence in Baghdad, which in turn would be distributed to the residents in and around the city. They had copies of the brochure in both English and Arabic for us to review. As they came around the table, I reviewed the English version and just glanced at the Arabic. The brochure looked high quality. The text and the pictures looked fine from my standpoint as well. My friend, who was not only a desk officer, but a skilled Middle East Foreign Area Officer (FAO) from the Army ignored the English version and scrutinized only the Arabic brochure. He turned to me and said, “This will absolutely not work! It reads like a Coke commercial and is just another American marketing piece being spread across an Arabic community which right now they abhor. While the language is Arabic it doesn’t read like people of Iraq would talk nor write, and there are no references to Allah which is offensive to omit in their culture. This simply just won’t work.” I was more than floored since the brochure was the product of the State Department, the very people who were supposed to be the most culturally aware in the Government. I asked him to address the committee with his concerns. Of course, the State Department developers were disappointed and said they would go back to the drawing board…a good decision.

This is a simple illustration where knowing the culture is a must when dealing in the international arena. The ability to speak the language of the customer is always a positive, but not always sufficient. Having someone who truly knows and understands the culture is the best alternative. Keep this in mind as you search out new opportunities overseas, interact with foreign partners, and develop strategic marketing campaigns and you will bridge the “last three feet” of any international venture. Good luck.

Very Respectfully,
Col. Steve Huffman (USAF, ret.)