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World Classes

[whitespace] Geonexus schools Americans in the ways of the world

By Traci Hukill

'You can always spot the Americans in Cannes," a French friend observed a little primly over dinner recently. "They're loud, they're pink and they're fat."

Praises be to Ugly Americans. Without them Geonexus couldn't exist. A cultural training facility based in Palo Alto, Geonexus corrals Americans before they go overseas on business and teaches them the etiquette of Rome or Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo--whatever's appropriate. Too many gaffes have ruined lucrative business deals in the past for companies to just turn their bumbling employees loose on the world's economic capitals.

But that's only part of the problem, says Lance Descourouez, an instructor at Geonexus. "The big reason companies pay for training is one that has more to do with defending against losing money," Descourouez confides. "People who were supposed to go overseas for two or three years were bailing, leaving early. And no one wants to talk about that. This is the black secret."

Two such potential deserters fidget at the table in one of Geonexus' conference rooms on a warm spring morning, occasionally exchanging laden glances. In a month the two will repair to Guadalajara, known in some circles as the Silicon Valley of Mexico, for a year of joyful habitation among the friendly natives there. Make that a year of cheap living in a three-bedroom house on a golf course along with other expatriates enjoying the dollar-to-peso advantage in exotic surroundings. Thanks to those favorable conditions and Hewlett-Packard's willingness to enroll them in this course, they probably won't abandon this mission.

But one member of the duo seems uncertain. Jennifer Barber has never been to Mexico. Unlike her cohort, she doesn't have a job waiting for her once she gets there. She'll be a moderately wealthy patrona whose point in life will confound her maid. She'll almost certainly have a maid.

"Houses come with maid's quarters," shrugs Sally McReynolds, one of Geonexus' instructors. "You expect to find them just like you expect to find a bathroom. A lot of Americans feel funny about having a maid, but it's expected.

"We're not here to change the world," she adds, just in case anyone was considering speechifying about servant classes.

Jennifer looks at her boyfriend. Eric Lutter, a financial analyst at Hewlett-Packard, is all schoolboy attention except for occasionally fiddling with his pen. As if taking heart from his poker face, Jennifer schools her expression, turning her gaze to Jorge Prado, who is delivering a concentrated history lesson: 5,500 years in an hour and a half.

Prado, a former Mexican high school teacher, lingers like a forlorn lover on pre-Columbian civilization, describing in detail the misunderstood practice of human sacrifice. "What is the most precious thing you can give your god?" he asks rhetorically. "Your blood." Prado on the subject of gender equality makes for a cultural crash course in itself: "Nowadays women are into liberation. Liberation from what?" he asks, throwing up his hands in mock dismay. "You already rule the world!" Jennifer laughs. Eric smiles.

Before the daylong session is over, McReynolds and Prado will have covered business practices, confrontational styles and some communications theory about cultural concepts of time and organization. But theoretical constructs pale before the more concrete knowledge discovered at lunch over real Mexican food served in real Mexicon polychronic time. As we wait for chips, then salsa, then iced teas, McReynolds and Lisa Sharon deliver the skinny on how to comport oneself in polite Mexican society.

"Women who get dressed up for business and then wear their Adidas to catch the bus--" McReynolds gestures vaguely at her foot--"they can't stand that."

"If you're invited to a party, it's impolite to show up on time," Sharon warns. "Your host will be in the shower. A half-hour to two hours later is good."

"Feminine adornment is valued. You'll do fine," McReynolds says with an approving glance at Jennifer's accessorized look.

"If you throw a party, have plenty of food and drink. Your guests will raid the refrigerator if you run out."

"Once I stayed up three nights in a row to meet a deadline on Good Friday. I turned it in, and the clerk said, 'But this was just the deadline!' "

"People smoke at dinner. You'll get used to that."

And on and on it goes. At the end of the barrage of tips Eric and Jennifer look shell-shocked and, I think, just enough wiser to not show up at a party on time.

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of Metro.

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