I am currently on a two-week trip to five cities in Asia teaching two of my favorite courses: Precision Questioning and Answering, and Executive Presentation Skills.
I pride myself on traveling light, and in fact was able to get everything I need into a briefcase and one carry-on. But to accomplish that, I had to think very carefully about what to bring and what to leave behind.
Actually deciding what to physically bring is the easy part. Deciding what to bring and what to leave behind mentally is harder, and far more important.
Although the scenery in Asia is certainly different, there is so much that is the same as in the US—from familiar brands to what’s on TV in hotel—that it’s easy to assume that communication is just the same, and that what works at home will work just as well here. But people here think differently, and express themselves differently, and that has important implications for anyone wanting to conduct business successfully as well as to simply make the most of the experience.
Mental Baggage You Should Bring
An open mind. The most important item of mental baggage you need to bring is an open mind. Be willing to try new foods, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Don’t go to the extreme of those irritating folks I run across who are fond of criticizing everything back home and thinking every little thing is wonderful over here, but by all means withhold judgment, and try to understand things from the local point of view.
Curiosity. Bring a healthy dose of curiosity. Learn a few words in the local language and try them out. A book that I’ve found helpful is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, which describes customs and business tips in over 60 different countries. It taught me the secret of how to keep from getting plastered when your Chinese hosts take turns proposing toasts to you—tell them you would be honored if everyone would join in.
Situational and cultural awareness. I remember one time in Japan when my host asked what I would like to in my free time, and I suggested attending a sumo match. Rather than respond directly, he suggested something else. I insisted on sumo, and he got more and more uncomfortable as he made other suggestions, because he was mortified to tell me that it was impossible because it was not the right time of year for it.
What to Leave Behind
The assumption that our way is the only way or the best way. Sure, the scientific study of management began in America, and we lead the world in business schools, but other countries are catching up and in some areas surpassing our best practices. You can learn from anyone.
Excessively direct way of speaking. There are a few countries that are more direct in their manner of speaking than the US, but very few, and certainly none in Asia. What you take as merely clarity and directness can seem excessively rude or unsophisticated in other countries. It’s actually quite difficult for us to learn quickly how to express ourselves more indirectly, but at least we should be alert to what our hosts are trying to tell us between the lines.
Politics. Frequently when I travel I get a lot of people who want to question me on my views about American politics, and then inevitably try to turn it into an argument. I avoid it by saying I left my views at home. It hasn’t yet come up this trip, but only because it’s not election season; our elections have an oddly fascinating appeal to the rest of the world.
The world may be getting flat, as Tom Friedman says, but there are still enough lumps and bumps that you should be very careful what you pack when you go out in it.
 I’ve found that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a sound policy when it comes to some foods.