Atahuallpa’s Complaint

After complaining about the poverty of the translation provided by the Spaniards at their first critical meeting in 1532, the Incan emperor Atahuallpa responded to the Spanish address at great length.  Unfortunately, according to one of  the translators, “the Spaniards present who could not tolerate the length of the discourse had left their places and fallen on the Indians.” 

Business negotiations for American leaders rarely end quite this badly but communications and cultural differences will play a huge role in the coming wave of acquisitions by foreign companies of US assets.  Today’s financial coverage alone reports on four related developments that suggest it is time for both sides to develop better understanding of different communications cultures.  Here they are:

1) US steel makers press administration on Chinese plans to buy US steel assets 2) Felix Rohatyn warns against US antipathy to foreign infrastructure investments 3) Turkish mega caps invest abroad 4) China mooted to split sovereign wealth fund from state-owned banking stakes to overcome US restrictions on foreign investment.

Issues of pride and prestige, differing interpretations of post-acquisition control and a myriad of other cultural misunderstandings threaten what could be critical investments in the US economy.  We have written before about the vanishingly small number of emerging market executives on US corporate boards but this remains a significant blind spot.  The time for quaint primers on which hand to eat with, what colors signify bad luck and which way to point the soles of your shoes is past.  The US needs some intense research industry by industry, country  by country into the decision-styles, prejudices and expectations of business leaders from all over the world.  Failure to invest in this intelligence seriously endangers  a new engagement between US and emerging market titans that is good for American jobs and global economic stability.  Let’s give Atahuallpa the last word: “if we seek to talk through interpreters and messengers who are ignorant of both languages it will be as if we were conversing through the mouths of beasts of burden.”*

*from Nicholas Ostler’s “Empires of the Word.” (Harper Collins, New York, 2005)


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