Business travelers abroad may get grilled on U.S. politics

U.S. politics is a hot topic abroad every four years during the election season. But business travelers going overseas now say the political curiosity of their international colleagues is unlike any they've seen in the past.

This year's race has revealed several narratives that have stirred great interest — an African-American candidate with an international background and his promise of more diplomatic engagement; the unwinding of the eventful Bush administration; even the uniquely American imagery of a moose-hunting mother who cites her proximity to Canada and Russia.

For business travelers, this means more blunt questions from cab drivers, heated discussions with colleagues and awkward silences at dinners.

As a fashion executive in New York, Jeff Rosenthal travels through Asia and the Middle East up to 20 days a month, with frequent stops in Europe and Africa. "I have been doing this for almost 20 years, and never before have so many people from so many different cultures been so interested in our government and asked my opinion of who I think will win the election," he says.

A recent Pew Global Attitudes poll of 24,000 people in 24 countries confirms Rosenthal's experience. More than 80% of Japanese said they're interested in the election, exceeding even the USA's 80%. Nearly 60% of Germans say they're interested, followed by Australia with 52%. In all, 11 countries registered at least 40%.

Mercedes Alfaro, founder of international business-etiquette consulting firm First Impression Management, advises clients to avoid political discussions "as graciously as possible." By talking politics, people can become too emotional and possibly jeopardize a budding business relationship, she says. "In international business, everything is based on relationships."

But even as they try to steer away, business travelers are often cornered into unplanned confabs of sensitive topics — from Bush's legacy and the USA's role in the Middle East to domestic race relations.

Keith Dunne, a financial service company owner in Orlando, found himself "in a heated discussion" defending John McCain last month when he was attending a conference in Sydney. His foreign colleagues were "strong (Barack) Obama supporters," and "it's hard for them to understand how it works," he says.

Some business travelers are forced to bite their tongues because their employers require discretion. U.S. federal government employees, for instance, often remind themselves of the Hatch Act, a law that limits civil servants from engaging in political activity during working hours.

Americans are also predisposed to keeping politics at arm's length and aren't as politically engaged as people of other countries, says Steven Livingston, a professor at George Washington University who teaches diplomacy and political communications. A recent poll by communications skills training firm VitalSmarts says 77% of Americans avoid talking politics with friends and family.

But Livingston argues that overseas Americans don't always have to be reticent. In holding back, they "may be seen as being rude or not being engaging or not capable of having an intelligent conversation. If you have an intelligent, respectful exchange of ideas, you're doing far better than 'no comment.' "

Kevin Hartmann, a sales manager from Plano, Texas, says he is willing to enter into conversation with "a reasonable, curious person," but avoids "others that are seeking an inflamed argument to make a point."

Foreign colleagues' deep familiarity with the intricacies of U.S. politics can surprise some U.S. business people. "I was amazed at how much they knew about American politics, and they were very opinionated," says Alfaro, the etiquette expert.

Because Obama's father is from Kenya, some business travelers to Africa have noted particular excitement. James Lawrence Wilson, an IRS anti-money-laundering specialist from San Jose, says he was training in several African countries a year ago, and "participants (in) my classes were thrilled that Barack Obama had a chance of becoming our president."

"If Obama wins, the African countries will celebrate," he says.

Those who've had enough of political talk may take a cue from Hartmann, the sales manager. In August, he toured Munich, Germany, and stopped at several beer gardens. Each time, he was asked of his nationality and was bombarded with questions about the election.

"So when we stopped at the (next beer house), we sat down at a long table with (several) locals, my answer to the first question was 'Canadian.' I drank my beer."

TRAVELERS: Have you had any encounters with overseas clients wanting to chat politics. What etiquette tips would you share with other business travelers to avoid sticky situations?