Years ago I was at a meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, attended by senior executives of the Irish company I then worked for. Two Irish brothers founded the Dublin-headquartered company; one was the executive chairman of the board and the other was the company's CEO at the time. Also attending were the Irish CFO and other senior executives who were American, English, and German.
One of the reasons for having the executive team meet in Frankfurt was to give some of the Frankfurt-based employees an opportunity to make presentations to the senior executives. In one of these, a German employee presented the plans for developing and launching a new product. An executive asked how firm the described schedule was. The German employee struck a somewhat stern pose and declared that the schedule "was a German commitment, not an Irish estimate."
When no one else in the room reacted, I barely managed to swallow my own strong desire to laugh out loud. At the next break there was finally a response from one of the other (non-Irish) executives, who said to me - I think in jest - that there was no word in Gaelic that had the immediacy of mañana
Obviously, the European Union is a much more diverse place than, say, China (which I wrote about for this publication last year ["Navigating China
," June 2012]), or for that matter, the United States. But as I quickly discovered when I began traveling in Europe more than a dozen years ago, there is at least one unifying force that every American doing business there needs to understand.
No, it's not the importance of the EU, nor the latest political maneuvering in Brussels. It's football - or soccer, as we refer to it in the states.
Do the words "Manchester United" mean anything to you? How about "Sir Alex?" Or "Ronaldo"? If so, you have a good start. But it's nowhere near good enough.
Imagine you are in a London pub on a Tuesday evening in March and Manchester United is playing Chelsea on the "telly" above the bar. Turning to your English business colleague standing next to you, you ask, "If Manchester wins, will they be ahead of Chelsea in the league standings?" Feeling good about the local knowledge that this query suggests, you then take a sip from your pint, expecting a somewhat surprised compliment from your colleague on how well informed you are about English football. What you get instead, though, is a look that says you're a complete idiot.
"What's the problem?" you ask innocently.
Your colleague, speaking slowly as if to a four-year-old, explains that Man U. and Chelsea are playing a Champions League match, not a Premiership, and that therefore the game will have no impact on Man U's position atop the Premier League table. My advice at this point is to just start fumbling with your BlackBerry, and ask what time the next morning's meeting will start.
If truth be told, it took more than a year of traveling around Ireland and the UK for me to realize that there are numerous European professional football competitions going on at any one time. Which means that any given match between Man U. and Chelsea could fall into one of four completely different categories.
Why is this important? Because if you travel to Europe on business, or even just for fun, it pays to distinguish yourself from the rest of the often clueless American crowd.
Here are a few other things I've learned along the way: Many, perhaps even most Europeans are friendly to Americans, but sometimes they have issues with America. I am as patriotic as the next guy. In fact, immediately after 9/11 I spent several weeks in London wearing an American flag pin and sometimes a flag tie, and more than once I wandered through Heathrow Airport wearing a U.S. flag sweater. But it is important to remember that Americans can sometimes come across as overbearing. Although my Irish colleagues obviously were extremely sympathetic about my reaction to the terrorist attacks, some of them did grow a bit weary of my conspicuous attire.
In Paris, always say bonjour
in the evening) upon entering a shop or restaurant.
In London, know that many high-end restaurants expect you to surrender your table no more than two hours after you're seated.
And especially when you're in England, be aware of language differences in the meaning of words. For example, suggesting you're "stuffed" at the end of a hearty English meal could be interpreted as announcing you've just had sex.
On the continent, beds that appear unmade are actually made a different way, with a duvet folded down at the bottom and no top sheet. I learned this when I once complained to a confused desk clerk, who then put me in another room where the bed was made up exactly the same way.
On matters of substance, the Financial Times
website is superb. Far less well known, but helpful when it comes to legal developments in Europe, is the website Out-Law.com, run by Pinsent Masons, an international law firm. It organizes legal news on multiple topics, including IP, competition law, and international litigation.
Finally, if you find yourself in London, the most valuable advice I can give is about where to go for dinner. The Oxo Tower restaurant has very good food with a terrific view of the Thames River; Simpson's In-the-Strand (which originated as a chess club and coffee house) and Rules in Covent Garden are good bets as well - albeit pricey.
My favorite, however, is Le Boudin Blanc, which the New York Times
called "a bit of Paris in Mayfair"; making reservations in advance of your trip is highly recommended. For more reasonable prices, check out these reliable chains: Pizza Express, Byron (for high-end burgers) and Côte (French bistro).
Rich Gray is the Silicon Valley-based vice president and group general counsel of Spirent Communications.