Establishing relationships is essential to doing business in other countries, which is why a little local knowledge often can go a long way toward overcoming any cultural conflicts that might arise.
Americans won’t buy something they don’t need, but Europeans will, said Matjaz Bren, affiliate professor at Regis University’s College for professional studies, and principal at ICARA Limited LLC. Within the context of a relationship, Europeans want to help and be helped.
Part of getting to know businesspeople overseas is to look for subtle clues, body language and pauses in speech – they are rife with meaning.
For instance, in Japan, other Asian countries and some Latin American countries, people are “subtle and shy – they won’t come right out and say your product ‘sucks,’” Bren said.
And asking for directions can be problematic. Americans will either tell you exactly where something is or will tell you outright that they don’t know where it is.
But in Morocco, they don’t want to say they “don’t have a clue.” So, when asked where a certain building is, Moroccans will pause for two or three seconds, then slowly point in any direction, said Bren, who learned this the hard way after getting lost several times when he first moved there.
He said that dating relationships are similar to business relationships in many other countries. “Very few countries are as brutal as we are,” he said.
In a bar in the United States, the scene looks like this: “Can I buy you a drink? No. Can I have your number? No – get outta my face. … He’s crushed.”
Not so in other countries, where friends will “ask around” for one another to determine the level of interest.
“It’s all about saving face – saving honor,” Bren said.
Even sports in America reflect the nation’s obsession with directness.
“Football is brutal. One on one. Smack ‘em, whack ‘em – a short attention span,” Bren said. “Soccer in Europe is intellectual, requires concentration. Games are long and there are no commercial breaks.”
For small businesses, it’s all about relationships, he said, recommending that people read travel books, take a class, surf the Internet or read one of the “Lonely Planet” guide books before venturing overseas for business.
Arabic nations, for example, place great emphasis on power. In order to do business, they expect to speak with a CEO or at least a vice president, Bren said. They don’t want to talk to a local representative.
And watch out for name and title faux pas.
In the United States, “We are very informal. ‘Here’s my card. Call me Bob,’” he said.
But in Germany, it’s “Herr doctor.” Titles and formality are de rigueur.
“And they hate it when Americans try to dazzle or entertain them,” he said. “Don’t give me any B.S. Just the basics. That’s the bottom line – you have to know your customer, do market research. Every market likes to feel as if you’re paying special attention to them – otherwise, you’re just a commodity and you can always be undercut.”
In some cultures, it’s rude to open a gift in front of the person who gave it to you. And protocol during meetings or meals is different, too.
“We just walk in and sit anywhere,” he said. But many cultures have specific guidelines about who may sit where, who arrives when, and who sits at the head of the table. “One mistake might not break a deal, but if you were to do four or five things all in a row, they’ll think you’re uncouth.”
Many foreign businesspeople will be “very polite and cordial, and tell you things you want to hear,” Bren said. “But it doesn’t mean they’ll do business with you.”
So, as an American would say, do your homework first so you don’t drop the ball. Speaking of which, such sports terminology can be confusing to non-Americans.
British Consul General Kevin Lynch, based in Denver, has insights into the oddities and disparities between American and British culture.
Even though both countries technically speak the same language, there can be confusion betwixt the cultures.
For example, Lynch said, Brits don’t understand baseball metaphors, such as “out in left field,” “step up to the plate,” and “cover all the bases.”
Americans using such phrases might find that a British business person is likely to respond with cricket metaphors, such as being “on a sticky wicket” (a difficult situation), or referring to someone who has been “bowled a googly,” the British equivalent of being “caught off guard.” Americans using such terms as “involuntary career event” for being laid off or fired, will receive a puzzled look and a “what is that?” from their British counterparts.
Alack and alas, Americans and euphemisms seem to go hand-in-hand, but business nonetheless continues at breakneck speed between the countries.
And don’t be alarmed, Lynch said, if a British businessperson says your idea or product is “not bad.”
That means it’s “good” or “very good.”
During meetings in America, “everybody is expected to contribute. You’re at that meeting for a reason,” Lynch said. “But in Britain, we’ve got lots of tea and cookies because only two or three people will be making decisions.”
So, sit back and relax.
But Lynch’s finest example of cultural differences is a British tendency to, shall we say, understate just a wee bit.
“If I were to say, ‘We have a problem,’ it could mean that the photocopier is not working,” Lynch said. “Or, it could mean that the chief financial officer just ran off with all the money.”