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, question the assumptions you have about what behaviors mean. Eye contact, for example. In the United States, avoidance of eye contact is usually interpreted as lack of confidence, even dishonesty. But in some cultures, not looking a person in the eye is a sign of respect.
Next, be more formal than you might be normally, at least at first. The United States has possibly the most informal culture in the world. We often address just-met clients (or vendors) by first names, and might say something like, “Hi, I'm Terry. Sit anywhere you like, and 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 introduction: “Hello, I'm Terry Smith. Would you like some coffee before we start the meeting? I'll show you to your seat.”
Dress and Humor: Beware
For women, dress modestly; low heels and a suit are the safest bet for first impressions. For men, start with a suit. Observe the behavior and demeanor of those around you. That doesn't mean you should mimic, but it could mean adjusting your 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.
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 the sites that 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're with a counterpart, you are doing business. Deals can be made or broken by “being,” not just by “doing.”
Forget the Lists
Every culture has its own logic. It may not be your logic, however. Culture shock can and does occur. We all see the world through our own filters, so in working beyond borders, major qualities for success are patience and perseverance.
Lists of behaviors for cultures or countries are not helpful because what you encounter will be influenced by factors such as age, international experience, industry sector, people's understanding of your culture, and your understanding of theirs. Rather than a list, you need 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.