Do you know business people who don’t have a strong sensibility about cultural differences, and the impact they have on business dealings? If you do, they are probably the “I’ll-do-it-my-way ugly Americans” (or whatever their nationality) who are good fodder for stories of global business opportunities lost. Often these folks with cultural blind spots blame others for their failures because they think they did everything right, and that those foreigners needed to wise up to their ways.
Most of us fall in-between those bulls in a china shop and others who grow business effortlessly across cultures. How can you be more like the cross-culturally savvy business people? That is what I’ll be covering in this column.
The first ugly American in business that I can remember was an executive for an oil additives company who was teaching a negotiating class that I attended at the University of Michigan. I vividly remember him describing his style in Asia that started by ignoring “all those cultural details” in his business dealings. He would put his feet on the table during a negotiation and show them who was boss. It did not matter to him that it is an extreme insult to show the bottoms of your shoes to business people in Japan and many places in the world. He did not know and did not care.
This fellow had lots of stories but few were about business success except for the products he represented that were difficult to obtain elsewhere. Years later, I discovered that in the early days he had success in some areas where customers and partners basically had to deal with him, but ultimately it was all lost when executives with comparable products and more business respect came along. It really is all about respect – having respect for yourself and for anyone you are dealing with – in or out of your own culture. It takes extra time, and it is worth it.
Over the years I’ve found that having respect for people is the key to creating a multicultural sensibility, understanding and managing the cross-cultural differences in business. If you fundamentally understand that at some level we are all the same and that our differences tend to be limited to our culture, genes and the way we were raised, you will win. It allows the cultural differences not to get in the way of doing business at a deeper level.
I have not been able to find the research, but I understand, believe, and use (in our marketing work) six areas that successful advertisers touch to move people: achievement, pleasure, family, relationships, wellness, and security. For instance, under achievement, we all wish to achieve in life – at work and at a personal level. Under family, we all have an important need for family connections. At the deepest human level, we’re all the same in these six areas. It’s the other “stuff” that seems to get in the way.
Understanding these six areas and not letting the other things get in the way is the key to cross-cultural business success. If you can embrace these principals, you are 90 percent of the way there! For the other 10 percent, let’s discuss 10 areas that you can work on to improve your cross-cultural sensitivity and overall business success. Avoiding a cultural faux pas helps you to connect with people and businesses at a deeper level.
- Enthusiasm. Key in and use the enthusiasm level that seems right for the culture you are working in, and know what is “normal.” After a long night of entertainment, a customer of mine in Japan fell over in his chair at the third drinking place, and the next day I brought up the fall at work. That is a faux pas in Japan – what is done after hours is meant to stay after hours. Ignoring what happened the night before is the best policy there.
- Gestures. There are dozens and perhaps hundreds of hand and finger gestures that are verboten. If you talk with your hands – beware! Once a senior executive from Europe came to visit me in Asia and proceeded to “flip off” a customer during a dinner with an inadvertent use of his hands. Definitely know what hand gestures mean in the countries you are visiting or for the international travelers you are receiving.
- Humor. Telling jokes can be tough even within one’s own culture. Universally funny jokes do exist but unfortunately if you search the internet for “jokes” or even “politically correct jokes,” what comes back are politically incorrect. I recommend not telling jokes unless you know with absolute sureness that they will be well received. Better yet, ask your cross-cultural host or prospect what makes them laugh, and you will get a better sense of what could work in the future, at least with them.
- Conversation. Small talk is great, but be careful not to inquire too deeply, especially in the early days. Being too inquisitive in any culture can be problematic because you can get some uncomfortable answers. It is typically best not to ask about where the person lives unless they volunteer it. Do not get into politics or religion. Asking about where they are from, their education, and the foods they like are all pretty safe.
- Lost in Translation. Even in the best of conversations, things can be lost in translation. What you may be hearing may not be what they are meaning to say. So ask clarifying questions when the meaning seems confusing. And vice-versa. They may be thinking that you are saying something completely different than what you’re intending. You can minimize this by saying important things at least two different ways.
- Lumping and Splitting. Lumping people together like “you people” or attempting to contrast one group with another is highly dangerous. I am pretty good at telling the difference between Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans before they start speaking, but I don’t make any assumptions until things are crystal clear. And, then of course you wouldn’t want to lump them together because they all have very different cultures and views of each other. Similarly, do not bring up differences because that is a rat hole from which you cannot escape. The German-French, Greek-Turk and other relationships are complicated – do not go there!
- Gift Giving. Oh, this is potential trouble, considering that we can even mess up birthday and anniversary gifts for our loved ones, let alone perfect strangers from a different culture. The worst gifts I have ever witnessed are objects from the person’s own country made in another country. It is like taking a Japanese businessperson to a Japanese restaurant in Phoenix. You can nearly guarantee that they will not be satisfied! There are online guides to help with gifts, and some are shown at the end of this article.
- Clothes. Dressing to the right occasion is important. I used to keep a funeral tie in my Tokyo office for when the relative of a business acquaintance died and we needed to attend. From those days, I tend to wear white shirts and conservative ties, but that looks awfully funny in Malaysia or North Africa. Again, research the locations that you will be visiting and see what works and does not work beforehand.
- Other “Little” Things. Do not let a cultural faux pas turn into an international incident. Slow things down, do not talk too much, and ask questions. Food is often the center of must cultural discussions and undoubtedly the people you may be dealing with either eat something you do not, or vice-versa. I am someone who eats everything – I have always given everything a try and that has helped bridge some cultural gaps. Can you imagine eating raw chicken or horse, or the tail of a lobster that was alive? All were delicious – and I enjoyed spectacular culinary (and cross-cultural) results.
- Show Respect. First and foremost, have respect for your own culture, and feel that other cultures deserve the same respect. Believing that your culture is better than anyone else’s is bound to come through and result in a poor relationship. Do not judge. Embrace the differences. The results will be wonderful discoveries about other cultures and a greater appreciation for your own. Enjoy!
The following are resources to explore this topic more deeply:
About Doug Bruhnke
Doug Bruhnke is founder/CEO of Global Chamber®, focused on helping members grow across metros & borders in 195 countries, 525 metros… everywhere! Doug is also President/CEO of Growth Nation www.growthnation.com, a comprehensive marketing firm that helps technology, manufacturing, healthcare, and professional service firms reach their growth potential.