Traveling abroad for business can be tricky

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It’s been almost 20 years since Jean Palmer Heck and her husband, Gary, returned from their temporary home in Japan. But one memory is as fresh as the entree served at a dinner they attended there.

The Zionsville couple resided in the city of Kobe from 1986 to 1990 while Gary Heck, since retired, established an Asian distribution system for Eli Lilly and Co.

Warnings Palmer Heck heard from fellow Americans of live fish jumping from platters couldn’t prepare her for the crustacean placed on her plate—with a claw still moving.

"You have to be adaptable to the culture," she recalled, "but I decided I would have to pass on the still-living lobster."

The conundrum faced by Palmer Heck, an international communications adviser, underscores the fine line Americans must tread when traveling abroad for business.

Familiarity with a foreign culture and its traditions can mean the difference between success and failure, or at least avoiding embarrassment.

Just this month, British traditionalists went ballistic when first lady Michelle Obama placed her hand on the back of the queen of England—a huge faux pas. Royal protocol dictates that no one touches the queen unless it’s a handshake. But in this instance, Queen Elizabeth made an exception.

For those preparing for an overseas business trip, the International Center of Indianapolis provides a helping hand. The not-for-profit last year hosted 18 sessions to help familiarize travelers with their destinations.

The courses, which might last as long as a day, prepare participants for unfamiliar customs and formalities.

Giving the hand gesture for "OK" in Brazil, for instance, is considered inappropriate and vulgar, said Diane Thomas, president and CEO of the center.

"Each country has [its] culture and " Thomas said "You need to be informed."

Indeed—particularly when visiting such countries as Israel, where the security presence can be overwhelming.

Joerg Schreiber’s friends and family were concerned when they learned he would visit Israel through the life sciences development firm he formed in 2005, White Arrow Consulting LLC.

Now, 18 months after starting the trips to Tel Aviv, Schreiber has learned the city is considered relatively isolated from Palestinian violence, unlike Jerusalem, which straddles the war-torn West Bank.

"You see an immense amount of military and police," said Schreiber, a former executive of Roche Diagnostics Corp. in Indianapolis. "But they will not bother you; they are there to look out for you."

On a lighter note, Indiana University professor Marjorie Lyles recalled a China trip four years ago in which a student’s mistake dampened the opening celebration of a grocery store that featured a Lion Dance.

During the festivities, the student mistook the store owner for someone else who provided services to the group, and paid him with money sealed in a white envelope. Confusing the people wasn’t the problem, but the color of the envelope certainly was.

Unbeknownst to the student, the Chinese prefer red envelopes for the color’s supposed good luck and power to ward off evil spirits, said Lyles, who teaches international strategic management at the Kelley School of Business and takes students to China annually to provide consulting services to business owners.

"It was especially inappropriate, during an event like that, to pass a white envelope with money in it," recalled Lyles. "She felt terrible."

Who knew? Certainly not Elias Kerzabi, who astonished a waiter by ordering a cappuccino at 9 p.m. while in Florence, Italy, earlier this month.

"If you take cappuccino after noon, you’re considered a foreigner," said Kerzabi, a project manager for an international corporation. "That gave me away."

A cab driver once detected his naivete and attempted the oldest taxi trick in the book—taking the long way to a particular destination. What the driver didn’t know was that Kerzabi had seen enough of Florence to realize he was being duped.

When Kerzabi questioned him, the driver became so embarrassed that he offered the ride at no charge. Kerzabi, though, paid him what he thought was fair, and now can chuckle about the experience.

David Russell, who practices international law at Harrison & Moberly LLP, also had a transportation mishap, but his involved a high-speed train in Japan.

Traveling with an Indiana trade mission, Harrison went back into the train to retrieve the last of the contingent’s luggage containing seminar materials. Unaware of the strict Japanese departure schedules, Russell couldn’t get back out and was stuck, destined for a journey he didn’t expect.

"Nobody speaks English, and I’m headed for Nagasaki at 150 miles per hour," he said, "a couple hundred miles from where I thought I would get off."

At least able to decipher Japanese numbers, he boarded a returning train to Nagoya and arrived about an hour later, to the laughter of his colleagues.

No matter how prepared one might be to travel abroad, it’s nearly impossible to know every intricacy of a particular country. Russell’s advice: "Keep your head, don’t panic, and be patient; things will work out."

Or, as Palmer Heck, who lived in Japan for four years, offered, simply try to avoid being the "ugly American."

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