Growing business abroad - cultural awareness

Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
28 Feb 2011

28 Feb 2011 • by Changeboard Team

So, what is culture?

Very simply, culture is how we do things around here. And why. When other people do things differently, we notice. Sometimes we mind. I’m sure you’ve all seen the HSBC ads on television, showing how an Englishman abroad can get it wrong if he doesn’t know the etiquette. 

What do you need to know

The first step is to recognise that people from other countries and other cultures are different. They think differently, they reason and process information differently, and they communicate differently. 

They may do international business in English, but a Norwegian’s English is not the same as an Italian’s English, and neither uses English in the way that you do.

Therefore, the potential for misunderstanding is always great. It's no longer enough to speak slower and louder when you are dealing with someone who does not speak your language very well. It's now essential to get on the same wavelength, to make a connection, and above all to try and meet their expectations.

Clearly, it can be a minefield when you do business abroad, so let me offer you five guidelines to help improve your understanding.

1. Contracts

You probably think that when a contract is signed, all negotiations are over, and all you have to do is carry out the work. If you think that, you are in for a shock. In many countries, signing the contract only signals the start of real negotiations. The contract is not more than a statement of intent – now the business of striking a deal can really be done.

Not only that, in some countries, a handshake matters more than a written contract. And in some places, asking for a written agreement implies a lack of trust. In yet other countries, the contract is between you and the individual employee who signs the document, not with the company. So if that individual leaves, you may have to re-negotiate.

That’s why it is always wise to find out how contracts are regarded in the country you are dealing with.

2. Deadlines

The English-speaking nations in particular, are time-driven. We even have expressions like 'Time is Money'. Other nations may be driven by other imperatives. For example, they may insist on achieving the highest standard of quality, even if it takes longer than originally estimated.

Many cultures’ lack of punctuality and their ‘ability’ to ignore time can drive foreigners like us crazy. For example, if Brazilians meet an old friend, even on the way to an important meeting, they would probably choose to chat and would find it very difficult to interrupt the conversation. They would most probably prefer to be late for the meeting favouring relationships over punctuality.

Learn to be less rigid about deadlines. And if you are in Spain, you will quickly get to understand that Mañana may mean Tomorrow to you, but to the Spanish it simply means Not Today.

3. Meetings

Brits have meetings all the time, and we follow a certain protocol, but it’s not the same all over the world. A European team was working on an aid project in Guatemala. After the first regular meeting they expected minutes to be circulated. None came.

So at the next regular meeting they explained that it was customary to write minutes and circulate them soon afterwards. Still no minutes.

At the next meeting they explained why minutes were important, not only for those who attended, but also to reassure their masters back home about the work that was being done out in Guatemala.

Now, the Guatemalans did not regard meetings as occasions for decision making, rather as opportunities to get together and reinforce relationships. They could not understand all the fuss about minutes. So at the next meeting, they arrived with the minutes already written – just to satisfy the Europeans.

The lesson here is to establish how meetings are run and for what purpose, when you are in another country.

4. Communication in general

I want to make two points about this. The first is about the style of communication, and the second is about the use of language.

First style. Some nations, like the northern Europeans and the Japanese like facts and figures, while others, such as the Americans, like lots of emotional appeal, and always open their presentations with a joke. It would be a mistake to use the American approach in northern Europe, and vice versa.

Second, use of language. Native English speakers use a lot of colloquial expressions that are meaningless to other nations. For example, someone went to Russia and used the expression, Out of sight, out of mind. The Russians translated it as Blind idiot. Sporting expressions should also be avoided:

• A ball-park figure
• Level playing field
• Knock it for six

To you these expressions have meaning. They may even seem commonplace. But not everyone knows baseball or cricket. Colloquialisms get in the way of clear communication abroad.

5. Face

This is a concept that is second nature to Orientals, but little understood in the West. At its simplest level, it's about never making someone else embarrassed or uncomfortable. But it’s much more than that.

Face lies at the root of all business relationships in the Far East, and is an essential ingredient in all social contact there. It's about giving respect, and about not undermining someone else’s self-respect.

It's about acknowledging one another’s place in society. It's so important, yet there is not a line about Face in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and not one item about Face came up when I did a Goggle search on the internet.

A colleague of mine, Bill, was giving a talk in the Far East and he mentioned a mistake he had once made. In typical British fashion he said: “Hands up anyone who has been stupid enough to have made the same mistake.”

Everyone in the room froze. No one even blinked an eye in case it would seem to be a public admission that they had been so stupid. They would have lost face.

So, when Bill gave his next talk, he said: “Hands up if, like me, you have been stupid enough to make such a mistake.” This time every hand in the room went up. They did not want him to lose face by being the only stupid one. Even when we try to get it right, we can get it wrong.

Cross-cultural knowledge

Understand their values, what makes them tick and, above all, how they communicate; do they speak frankly or do they ‘hint’ at what they mean?

Few people take offence when a mistake is made and the intent is good. But, when things get tough or are continually ‘going wrong’ we revert back to our own worst stereotypes and resentment begins to build. Don’t take things personally; reach out and try to put yourself in others shoes to get a different perspective. Then, you just might see a different world and enrich your own vista.