When entering the global market, some American companies lose an immeasurable edge by overlooking cultural nuances that can halt negotiations or deteriorate international business relationships. Of all the aspects companies take into account when building or merging with an international company, they may overlook an area of critical importance — international etiquette and protocol.
Living abroad, studying seven languages, and traveling to more than 25 countries has given me firsthand knowledge and insight into cultural mores and nuances that some American companies rarely consider. Whether hosting international clients or traveling overseas to establish partnerships, understanding cultural distinctions is crucial.
Although many international partners are educated in the West, their business culture is influenced by their traditions, customs and belief systems. Lack of understanding for their culture may result in disappointment and insult. Most often, a new client will contact me as they are contemplating a global venture. They want to be poised for success. Some new clients come on board after financial losses to international partners who took advantage of their inexperience. Being aware of cultural differences makes you savvy, builds trust and shows value in the relationship.
To prepare clients for profitable overseas business, I provide coaching on more than 35 subjects to increase the success rate of their global interactions. To position your firm for this level of success, executives, leaders and support staff involved in the global venture must commit to learning more than the financial side of the business deal. Training topics include business and communication styles, prejudices and biases, superstitions, ceremonial colors, business dress codes, how female leaders are received, and working with translators and interpreters.
If you need an interpreter for meetings and negotiations in a foreign country, I recommend you hire one in the U.S. who speaks that country’s official language fluently as well as additional dialects. They should be familiar with cultural nuances as well. Add them to your team and make them a member of your travel entourage. Hiring an interpreter at the foreign destination is risky. Be mindful that any interpreter or translator secured and provided by your potential international business partner will have an allegiance to them, not you. The advance planning and investment in an interpreter will give you a reliable resource and team player.
How personal should you become with your global contact initially? South American cultures want a personal connection established before entering into a business partnership, while certain European cultures are focused strictly on a business relationship. A misstep can be misunderstood, potentially offensive and cause a loss of business. Move slowly and take your cue from your host before making personal inquiries.
I teach clients common greetings and phrases in the language of the host country so they can use them upon arrival and during meetings. International contacts appreciate the effort you make to use these civilities. Unless you are fluent in the language, do not attempt to deliver an entire speech or report in the host’s language. Provide your interpreter or translator with all documents, materials and speeches they will interpret or translate well in advance. Never try to convey humor through a joke or funny story. Humor is specific to every culture. Do not interject American slang or use hand gestures like the V for victory or thumbs up. Make no reference to current or past political leaders, wars, corruption, etc. Discussing failures creates embarrassment and leads to unnecessary tension.
All of this information is essential for outbound global business dealings. However, there are additional guidelines I provide to domestic clients who host international business partners and potential investors.
Treat your international visitors as guests at all times. Every point of contact is scrutinized and is a reflection of professionalism and efficiency in your organization. This includes the driver and car service you select to transport your guests. Never expect your international guests to drive to or navigate their way to your offices or a hotel. Always provide private transportation with a driver that you have personally used. Prior to their arrival, send them the name, phone number and a photo of the contact person who will greet them at baggage claim along with the name of the transport service. This alleviates any concerns or fears they may have. Consideration and convenience are priceless long-term investments.
Accommodations should be secured in internationally recognized properties with the following amenities:
• 24-hour room service (access to food after a long flight)
• A fruit basket, snacks, dried fruit, nuts, bottled water, coffees and teas in their hotel room
During meetings, hospitality should include:
• Supplying individually wrapped snacks, mints and chocolates
• Offering global brand waters like Evian and Perrier
• Using glasses for water and cups and saucers for coffee and tea (Do not use Styrofoam cups or drink directly from water bottles in formal meetings.)
When planning meals, keep in mind that some cultures have a much later dinner hour than Americans. Spaniards, for example, have a siesta in the afternoon and a meal that carries them to 10 p.m., when they have their evening meal. Access to food later in the evening is a welcome option. Be mindful of religious or dietary restrictions when suggesting restaurants. Kosher Jews, Indians and Muslims are just a few of several groups who should be given food options that are in line with their beliefs. Certain cultures prefer fish or vegetarian options, and some do not consume alcohol. However, do not assume someone wants to go to a restaurant featuring their native foods. This could be disastrous if the food preparation is substandard.
I once worked with a manufacturing company, training all employees for their 50th anniversary followed by their annual global sales conference with 276 worldwide distributors. The Vice President of International Sales and I discussed conference menus, gift selection, entertainment, transportation and accommodations. He said they always served beef at the conference banquets. I mentioned that many of their global distributors were coming from cultures where beef is sacred or not part of their diet. He said no one had ever complained. I explained that they would not complain to the person who provided their livelihood and recommended that he offer them an option to preselect their food preferences. To his surprise, only 35 percent wanted beef; the rest requested chicken, fish or vegetarian meals. There is no substitute for detailed pre-planning that accommodates personal preferences.
Quality of products and services does not always sustain business relationships. Personal interaction plays a large part in establishing long-term success. Your attention to and accommodation of cultural needs will create a lasting impression when hosting global partners. Gracious hospitality and regard for one’s culture build lifelong memories and strengthen international business alliances here and abroad.
About the author: Danielle Turcola has been turning leaders and emerging leaders into powerhouses for 28 years. She is president of the consulting firm Professionalism International Inc. as well as founder and CEO of What to Wear to Work Inc. As an expert in executive presence and influence, Turcola is a trusted advisor to corporations, executives and private clients who want to increase their professional influence. Her transformed clients command the room with a presence that is credible, memorable and influential. For global business interactions, she gives executives an immeasurable edge by introducing them to the cultural nuances of their international business partners. For more information on Turcola, call 216-926-3699 or visit www.askdanielle.com.
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