With the U.S. in the throes of a widely watched election, it is not surprising that American business travelers abroad are often asked to engage in a conversation about American politics and the election. And I suspect that this will continue for some time after the elections as well, the question then being not "what do you think will happen?" but "what do you think of what happened?", which in its own way may be an even more treacherous question. The intense international interest in the U.S. election is nowhere better illustrated than in a Pew Global Attitudes poll (published along with an article in last Tuesday's USA Today) indicating among other findings that a higher percentage of Japanese (83%) describe themselves as "somewhat/very" interested in the U.S. election than the percentage of Americans (80%) that claim to have the same level of interest.
At some level, the rules on topics of conversation when trying to build a business relationship abroad are somewhat like the old rules for polite conversation everywhere -- best to avoid religion, politics, sex, and your personal finances. Obviously, if you're trying to build a relationship with a potential business partner, best to avoid a heated argument or needlessly indicating your position on an issue that they might feel, correctly or not, diminishes your standing in some way. In the same USA Today article quoting the Pew Global Attitudes survey, international business etiquette consultant Mercedes Alfaro advises that political discussions should be avoided "as graciously as possible." The article summarizes her advice in a sidebar as "Don't bring up politics yourself", and "Don't get involved".
While this advice is worth considering as a starting point, the problem is that your foreign associates may be looking for someone who is wordily and informed and capable of having an engaged conversation about a topic of obvious global importance. Trying too hard to avoid the topic may leave you looking more like someone who is uninformed, unengaged, and lacking the strength of spirit necessary to persevere in the international marketplace, which could kill a deal quicker than a political argument. Along these lines, Steve Livingston, a professor of diplomacy and political communications at George Washington University is quoted in the USA Today piece as arguing that failure to engage in a political discussion "may be seen as being rude or not being engaging or capable of having an intelligent conversation."
So should you dive in or not dive in? Whose advice do you follow? As a starting point, if you are on the front lines of international business, hopefully you have the people skills and sufficient cultural sensitivity to sense whether the other person is looking to engage in an interested discussion, or looking to pick a fight. The first one begs indulgence, the second should be avoided. Here's a few other tactics you might employ:
(1) Turn the question around to them in a polite and interested way -- "Who do you think is likely to win?" or "What do you think of the results?" Or more generally ask them, "From your point of view, what qualities do you think would be important in the president of the U.S.?" If done correctly, this shows that you are interested in their opinion, not just in spouting your own which they will take as a compliment -- a good way to build a positive relationship. In general it seems that whatever people ask in a conversation, they are often more comfortable speaking themselves than listening, so the other person will usually take the ball and run. And of course if successful this also allows you to smoke out where they're coming from so that you can tailor your own comments to be engaging but avoid needless argument.
(2) Turn the topic from the result to the process. For example, if someone asks who you think will win the election, rather than giving a simple choice answer off the top, try explaining that it is a difficult question to judge even for professional pollsters since so much of the result depends on the oddities of the American electoral college system. If you're prepared, in my experience, this can lead to an engaging conversation about political systems and electoral politics generally without having to stake a claim to one side or the other. Another variation on this is to ask your host, on the global political spectrum from left to right, where would they see the real divide between American Democrats and American Republicans? Of course this assumes that you understand that both American political parties are relatively centrist compared with the extremes operating in many other countries around the world. If, on the other hand, you do view the battle between Democrats and Republicans as a do-or-die struggle for the ultimate fate of humanity, then this approach won't be of much help.
3) If your foreign counterpart has at some point indicated an interest in government and politics, ask them about their country's government or politics -- not in a critical or ignorant way of course, but in a way that shows your genuine interest in their country. You should have hopefully done enough homework on their country before meeting up with them to know who their key leaders are, what form of government they have, and whether there are any elections or other upcoming critical political events. They will be happy to have the opportunity to talk about their homeland and just having asked the question likely will set you apart from the average American that they've had occasion to meet before you.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that if your foreign business contact is sincere, they too are interested in building a relationship with you, and that commonality should go a long way toward allowing you to feel your way through this minefield the same as with any other budding relationship. And remember if you do wind up in a political conversation directly related to who you think should win or should have won the election, your foreign contacts can't and won't vote in our elections, so there is no percentage in trying to convert them into true believers of your point of view. Your goals should always be to (1) learn as much as you can about them and where they're coming from, and (2) leave them with the impression that you are a smart, capable and trustworthy business person.