Doing business internationally is increasingly common. But how is it possible to know exactly what to do when working with a variety of cultures?
First of all, question the assumptions you have about what certain behaviors mean. Eye contact, for example. In the United States, avoidance of eye contact is usually interpreted to mean lack of confidence — or even dishonesty. But in some cultures, not looking a person directly in the eye is instead a sign of respect.
Next, be more formal than you might be normally, at least at first. The United States is possibly the most informal culture in the world. We often address our just-met clients (or vendors) by their first names and might say something like, “Hi, I'm Terry. Just sit anywhere you like, and please help yourself to some coffee.”
Instead of making others feel at ease, such statements can have the opposite effect. Start by calling your new business acquaintances by their last names, and add your last name to your own introduction: “Hello, “I'm Terry Smith. Would you like some coffee before we start the meeting? I'll take you to your seat at the table.”
Dress and Humor: Beware
For women, dress modestly; low heels and a suit are the safest bet for first impressions. For men as well, choose to start with a suit, even if you are used to dressing more casually.
Observe the behavior and demeanor of those around you. That certainly doesn't mean to mimic, but it could mean an adjustment of energy level, sitting straighter, or lowering voice volume. Perhaps tone down superlatives.
Don't use humor until you know the other person or group fairly well. All cultures have a sense of humor, but what is funny is always based on shared context, and that takes some time.
So with all those cautions, is business across cultures pretty grim? Not at all. In fact the best way to win points is to have a genuine interest in the other culture. Show appreciation for the food and for the special sites you've seen or would like to see. Some small talk about what you have enjoyed since you arrived will always make doing business easier.
Americans want to get down to business, but when you are with your counterpart, you are doing business. Deals can be made or broken by “being,” and not just “doing.”
Forget the Lists
Every culture has its own logic. It may not be your logic, however. Culture shock may occur. We all see the world through our own filters, so in working beyond borders, major qualities for success are patience and perseverance.
I haven't given you lists of behaviors for cultures or countries, because what you will encounter with any given person will be influenced by factors such as age, international experience, industry sector, their understanding of your culture, and your understanding of theirs. You don't need a list, but an awareness that you can be a tad more formal, a little less in a hurry, and more focused on building relationships.
By learning how to communicate across cultures, you can increase productivity, decrease stress levels, and have more fun.
Sally J. Walton is an author and professional Sally@AGlobalPerspective.com , or (707) 789-9799., presenting programs on “The Art of Crossing Cultures.” Her company, A Global Perspective, is based in Petaluma, Calif. For more information, contact her at