Even in this time of advance technology, where businesses can connect with their consumers from thousands of miles away, face-to-face connection is still valuable. When it comes to export partners and business partners, this personal interaction is even more important. But before hopping on the next flight to another country to meet with potential or current partners, make sure you are aware of any nuances in their business culture. For more information on how to be prepared for your business travel abroad, watch this Exporting Basics video all about international business meetings.
Last Published: 5/3/2017



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Considering Cultural Factors
Businesspeople who hope to profit from their travel should learn about the history, culture, and customs of the countries they wish to visit. Flexibility and cultural adaptation should be the guiding principles for traveling abroad on business. Business manners and methods, religious customs, dietary practices, humor, and acceptable dress vary from country to country. You can prepare for your overseas visits by reading travel guides, which are located in the travel sections of most libraries and bookstores.

Some of the cultural differences U.S. companies most often face involve business styles, attitudes toward business relationships and punctuality, negotiating styles, gift-giving customs, greetings, significance of gestures, meanings of colors and numbers, and conventions regarding the use of titles.

The cultural anthropology literature has given us many insights into how other countries do business and how to avoid cultural blunders. To Thais, for example, being touched on the head is extremely offensive. Useful to know? Maybe. But it’s hard to imagine in the United States or anywhere else businesspeople meeting for the first time or even after several times and engaging in head touching or hair messing. So by all means read the literature and talk with people who know the culture. But don’t be intimidated and don’t be reluctant to meet people. And do keep these general rules in mind.

Both understanding and heeding cultural differences are critical to success in international business. Lack of familiarity with the business practices, social customs, and etiquette of a country can weaken your company’s position in the market,

 
Understanding local culture can be the difference between making and losing a sale. And, who knows—you may end up loving the local food, movies, and sports teams!

Always answer queries politely and promptly. Don’t delay when responding to e-mail, fax, and telephone requests for price lists, quotes, and other information. Build your own marketing list from the contacts. Ask for each customer’s communication preferences. The query you ignore today might have been your next best source of future business.

Start with what you know. Try beginning with a business culture and system similar to your own. Canada and the United Kingdom are often good markets for beginners.

Learn from your domestic customers. Apply cultural knowledge you gain from selling to customers from different social and ethnic backgrounds than yourself. Preferences, product usage, and business protocol may not translate perfectly to international customers, but helpful information can be harvested here in the United States and applied to market entry efforts abroad. Be patient. Different cultures have different concepts of time. Few markets have a faster business pace than the United States; many are slower.

Take time to develop personal relationships—especially with distributors or large-volume buyers. Remembering birthdays and other important events is a good intercultural business practice. It’s generally not difficult for Americans to be warm, welcoming, respectful, and thoughtful. Be yourself—or even a little more. If you can’t, or if the self you know doesn’t fit this profile, consider making a trusted employee the primary business contact. Learn the language. A few words of the native language of your buyers or business associates will go a long way. They will appreciate the effort. Words of welcome on your website, and maybe a currency converter, will further demonstrate your interest in doing business in ways that are mutually respectful.
 

Something as simple and commonplace as a “thumbs up” may be meaningless—or even offensive—in some cultures.
Get an intern or hire a new employee. As business develops with overseas customers, consider recruiting a student intern or recent college graduate who speaks the language and understands the business culture. Investing in company staffing resources is especially valuable when doing business with customers in Japan, China, and countries in which Arabic is spoken. Attend a U.S. trade show. Find one in your industry that’s attended by foreign buyers. You can make good contacts—even sales—and test the waters before heading overseas.

Attend an international trade show in your industry. U.S. embassies abroad often staff a national pavilion where U.S. sellers and foreign buyers, often from many countries in a region, meet. A great way to understand a different business culture is to do business, not read about how others do it.

Get help. Before you head overseas on a business development trip, contact the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Commercial Service. They’ll line up qualified buyers for you to meet, and they’ll counsel you on business protocol, market intelligence, regulatory issues, and much more. prevent you from accomplishing your objectives, and ultimately lead to the failure of your exporting effort.

Americans must pay close attention to different styles of doing business and the degree of importance placed on developing business relationships. In some countries, business people have a very direct style, while in others they are more subtle and value personal relationships more than is customary in most U.S. business relationships. For example, in the Middle East, indulging in small talk before engaging in the business at hand is standard practice.

Gift giving is an important part of doing business in Japan, where gifts are usually exchanged at the first meeting. In sharp contrast, gifts are rarely exchanged in Germany and are usually not appropriate. Gift giving is not customary in Belgium or the United Kingdom either, although in both countries it’s suitable to bring flowers when you are invited to someone’s home. Customs concerning the exchange of business cards also vary.

Although this point may seem of minor importance, card giving is a key part of business protocol. In Japan, for example, the Western practice of accepting a business card and pocketing it immediately is considered rude. The proper approach is to carefully look at the card after accepting it, observe the title and organization, acknowledge with a nod that the information has been digested, and perhaps make a relevant comment or ask a polite question.

Negotiating is a complex process even between parties from the same nation. It is even more complicated in international transactions because of the potential for misunderstandings that stem from cultural differences. It is essential to understand the importance of rank in the other country and to know who the decision makers are. It is important to be familiar with the business style of the foreign company, to understand the nature of agreements there, and to know the significance of gestures and negotiating etiquette.

Through research or training, you can acquire a working knowledge of the business culture, management attitudes, business methods, and consumer habits before you travel abroad. That knowledge is very likely to have a positive effect on your overseas travel. Your local U.S. Commercial Service office can provide what you need to make a strong first impression.

Attitudes toward punctuality vary greatly from one culture to another, and misunderstanding those attitudes may cause confusion. Romanians, Japanese, and Germans are very punctual, whereas people in many of the Latin countries have a more relaxed attitude toward time. The Japanese consider it rude to be late for a business meeting but acceptable—even fashionable—to be late for a social occasion. In Guatemala, though, people will arrive from 10 minutes early to 45 minutes late for a luncheon appointment.
 
Attention to detail can go a long way in making you stand out among the competition.
When cultural lines are being crossed, something as simple as a greeting can be misunderstood. Traditional greetings include shaking hands, hugging, kissing, and placing the hands in praying position. The “wrong” greeting can lead to an awkward encounter.

People around the world use body movements and gestures to convey specific messages. Misunderstandings over gestures are common
occurrences in intercultural communication and can lead to business complications and social embarrassment.

Proper use of names and titles is often a source of confusion in international business relations. In many countries (including Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom), it is appropriate to use titles until use of first names is suggested. First names are seldom used by those doing business in Germany. Visiting business people should use the surname preceded by the title. Titles such as “Herr Direktor” are sometimes used to indicate prestige, status, and rank. Thais, however, address one another by first names and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications. In Belgium, it is important to address French-speaking business contacts as “Monsieur” or “Madame,” whereas Flemish-speaking contacts should be addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” To misuse these titles is a great faux pas.

Understanding gift-giving customs is also important. In some cultures, gifts are expected, and failure to present them is considered an insult. In other countries, though, the presentation of a gift is viewed as an offense. Business executives also need to know when to present a gift (e.g., on the initial visit or afterward); where to present the gift (in public or privately); what type of gift to present; what color the gift should be; and how many gifts are appropriate.

Gift giving is an important part of doing business in Japan, where gifts are usually exchanged at the first meeting. In sharp contrast, gifts are rarely exchanged in Germany and are usually not appropriate. Gift giving is not customary in Belgium or the United Kingdom either, although in both countries it’s suitable to bring flowers when you are invited to someone’s home.

Customs concerning the exchange of business cards also vary. Although this point may seem of minor importance, card giving is a key part of business protocol. In Japan, for example, the Western practice of accepting a business card and pocketing it immediately is considered rude. The proper approach is to carefully look at the card after accepting it, observe the title and organization, acknowledge with a nod that the information has been digested, and perhaps make a relevant comment or ask a polite question.

Negotiating is a complex process even between parties from the same nation. It is even more complicated in international transactions because of the potential for misunderstandings that stem from cultural differences. It is essential to understand the importance of rank in the other country and to know who the decision makers are. It is important to be familiar with the business style of the foreign company, to understand the nature of agreements there, and to know the significance of gestures and negotiating etiquette.

Through research or training, you can acquire a working knowledge of the business culture, management attitudes, business methods, and consumer habits before you travel abroad. That knowledge is very likely to have a positive effect on your overseas travel. Your local U.S. Commercial Service office can provide what you need to make a strong first impression.
 
Attention to detail can go a long way in making you stand out among the competition.




Business Management