I lived and worked in Europe for four years in the early 2000’s. I recall my first trip to Waitrose supermarket while living in the UK. It looked mostly familiar. Fruits and vegetables at one end; bread, dairy, and meat at the other; and gray processed foods in between. I soon learned it was different. Within minutes of each other I made the missteps of both asking a stocking clerk where I could find the English muffins (they’re called white muffins) and requesting sliced American cheese (there was no such thing) from the deli counter.
I also have spent a good part of the past 10 years working primarily with Asian companies, making perhaps 50 trips across that vast continent, with about half my time in China. There too, I flubbed many a meeting, learning the hard way that protocol isn’t comprised of mere particulars to be followed, or not, at your option.
I’m not sure any foreigner is equipped to provide an exhaustive guide to doing business overseas, and I’m no exception. There is also risk in categorizing behaviors or cultures across a single country or region. What I can do, however, is share with you a quick list of things I learned from my mistakes; things that I wish I had known or learned from others who had gone through similar experiences before me:
1. Accept you will make mistakes. Don’t assume you can master local culture or customs, no matter how much time you spend abroad. You will make mistakes. Locals will expect it of you and you need to accept it. The key point is to learn from those mistakes. Be a student. Let natural curiosity take over. Read, ask questions, and make the effort to speak a few words in the local language.
2. One size doesn’t fit all. While Americans tend to welcome public recognition for a job well done, that isn’t necessarily the case for other nationalities where attention given in such a setting could be uncomfortable or even embarrassing. Ask your employees and test the waters before you give them a victory lap. I learned this from a British colleague, who somewhat reluctantly confided about his preference for a more low-key method for my recognizing his good work.
3. Learn which cultures are more relationship-oriented than others. This is not a good vs. bad observation, but to note that e-mail connections and phone calls with a colleague in Finland may be sufficient for establishing a good working relationship, whereas a flight to Lisbon and a conversation over lunch may be required to build a connection with a Portuguese colleague.
4. Reciprocate compliments. On a few occasions, I glossed over comments from co-workers in China that they had received feedback from my peer on the other side of a deal that he or she respected me. As I came to learn, this wasn’t just a polite or passing comment to be overlooked. It signified they trusted me and felt comfortable working with me. I also learned that it was equally important for me to return the compliment. Expressions of gratitude and respect can mean more than you realize in the right context and with the right audience. Acknowledge and pay back the compliment.
5. Understand that communication styles vary greatly across, and even within, continents. Some people are indirect, often to maintain politeness, burying their meaning or message deep in an e-mail or after a long introduction in a face-to-face discussion. Others, like the Dutch, just go for it. A Dutch colleague joked with me once that every Dutch baby receives truth serum at birth, which is why they are so forthcoming and linear in their speech. As an East Coaster, I felt right at home.
6. Pay special attention to the concept of saving face in Asia. It’s real and it matters. In Asia, boxing someone in, leaving them little room to maneuver or recover, can be counterproductive. For Americans saving face is more about protecting ego; in Asia it takes on deeper meaning, implicating virtues like dignity and honor. Winning the argument at that stage must take a back seat in favor of inviting your audience’s input on a third way of solving the issue.
7. Be careful using colloquialisms abroad. I was at a legal proceeding in Brussels several years ago. One of the litigants had just completed an eloquent summary of their case. Opposing counsel—who had spent many years living and working in the US—stood, chuckled a bit, and started out by saying, “My mother always told me you can put lipstick on a pig. But it’s still a pig.” The stunned—even horrified—look on the faces in the courtroom was nearly unanimous.
8. Respect formalities. Don’t downplay or underestimate the importance of preserving and respecting formalities of a given culture. I was a participant in numerous press events in China and learned quickly that they tend to come with various elegant trimmings, things usually dispensed with in the US. Formal introductions, complete with powerful and sophisticated music in the background (think Chariots of Fire), with hand-selected floral arrangements adorning the stage and corsages pinned on the lapels of the principals. These are special events and should be appreciated as such. Similarly, know that the exchange of cards or the sequence of opening remarks in Japan (the host always kicks off the meeting), or the invitation to use first names by leaders at customary German companies, come from a place of deep tradition, the intent of which is to create a climate of mutual trust and respect. Embrace such formalities.
9. Be patient. I was discussing a business proposal with another company in China a few years ago. It involved a new fiscal year program we were implementing, and it soon became clear we were more interested in pursuing it than they were. My counterpart told me that they would not chase this opportunity, as they needed more time to think it through, adding, “In the US, you think about things in terms of quarters or fiscal years. In China, we think about things in terms of decades or centuries.” Always be careful of pushing an initiative faster than your audience can cope with it. Sometimes, you just need to slow down.
10. Stay connected. I receive and send more Christmas, holiday and New Year’s cards from and to companies abroad than those in the US. The corporate culture on card giving in the US is more typical from a service provider or salesperson sending to her customer or client than it is between 2 peers from different companies. Reciprocate this with your international connections. Better yet, be the first to deliver your heartfelt regards and line up those cards!
If you enjoyed reading about my 10 tips, please share it with others. I’d love to hear from you about your own list.
[Nick Psyhogeos is CEO of Global Negotiations, LLC. and is the author of Confessions of a Global Negotiator: A Quick Guide to the 5 Rules Business Development Professionals Need to Close Great Deals – to be published by Authority Publishing March 2017]