Doing Business in Diverse Cultures

Handshakes-dianneacurran; flickr.com creative commons-free pictures

Handshakes-dianneacurran; flickr.com creative commons-free pictures

There was a time when all a business owner had to do to run a business was manage the numbers related to assets, liabilities, and equity.  That time is long gone.  Control over the figures is essential, but maintaining smooth relations with the people you interact with is just as vital.

Cross Cultural Relations and Work Culture

Whichever the size and nature of your business, you regularly meet up with people and connect with others online.  A portion of those interactions is cross-cultural.  Some of your customers, distributors, suppliers, or partners are based in a different hemisphere.  The most productive members of your team, sitting in the office next to yours, are expatriates.  Given these frequent interactions, an understanding of how culture influences a person’s area of concern warrants close attention.

In the World Values Survey Association’s wave of global surveys on major human concerns – religion, politics, economics, and social life – political scientists and authors Ronald Inglehart and Christian Weizel report two dominant dimensions that account for over 70 percent of variances across cultures.  These are traditional versus secular-rational and survival versus self-expression.  The concerns of a religion-centered, developing nation contrast starkly with those of a secular, economically advanced country focused on furthering scientific expression and environmental conservation.  Your business relations are superimposed over many such contrasting cultures.

What is Appropriate?

Appropriate, defined as “suitable or proper in the circumstances’” and “meeting the requirements of a purpose or situation,” is where cross-cultural relationships become tricky.  What is appropriate in one culture is totally unacceptable in another.  A basic example is how you address business colleagues and partners.  In the U.S., Canada, and Australia, it is normal to be on first-name basis soon after getting introduced.  In many Asian countries this is considered a sign of discourtesy.  In Germany it is downright rude to do so without first being granted explicit permission.

A Crash Course on Diplomacy

Make it a common concern throughout your organization to know about business etiquette in various cultures.

Setting Appointments is an Important First Step:

  • China:  Appointments are a must, made preferably at least a week in advance.  Provide details of titles and positions of the attendees.  If you are meeting with high-ranking officials, expect several back-and-forth communications before the meeting is finalized.
  • United Arab Emirates and Muslim countries:  Don’t schedule meetings during daily prayer times.  Remember too that on major Islamic Holidays, business is at a standstill as they celebrate a holy event

Punctuality is a universal rule … with minor exceptions:

  • Korea:  Arriving too early could disrupt the usual full schedule they keep.
  • Brazil:  Allow for some degree of tardiness when scheduling meetings.  The delay comes from dealing with many people, long queues, some bureaucracy, and from their natural inclination to socialize all the time.
  • Russia:  Do not be surprised if Russian colleagues do not apologize for tardiness.  They consider this a test of your patience.

A Handshake is the Generally Accepted Introduction gesture… and then some:

  • Brazil:  On first meeting, business associates will shake your hand.  On subsequent meetings, a woman may get a kiss on the cheek from both male and female colleagues.  A man gets the same from female colleagues.
  • Japan:   A bow is the customary greeting, but some Japanese may offer a handshake.  Hierarchy and title is important.  Send a manager of the same rank to meet with a Japanese colleague.
  •  Saudi Arabia/Bahrain:  Always wait to be introduced.  Introducing yourself is considered inappropriate.  Arabs in general are most comfortable with third-party introductions.

The Business Card is Essential:

  • India:  Present your card with your right hand.  It is considered rude to put away a card you receive without the courtesy of reading it as an acknowledgement of the giver.
  • Korea:  Politely hand the card with two hands and receive one in the same manner.  Take some moments to review names and titles.  Koreans smartly position cards on the table, in the order of the seating arrangement thus, allowing them to associate names and faces.

The First Meeting is Just a getting-to-know-you Meeting:

  • Brazil:  Getting straight to business discussions is offensive and upsetting to Brazilians who consider doing business a type of social interaction.  Similarly when making phone calls, always chat and ask about how they are doing first before talking business.
  •  China:  Small talk is welcome at the start, in the middle, and at the end of a meeting.  Bring an interpreter with you even if you speak Chinese to show respect for the meeting and your status in the company.
  •  Russia:  After a long period of socializing when a business discussion is finally at hand, be ready with the expected detailed presentations on the subject, including a history and a review of existing models/examples.

Don’t Misread the Signs:

  • Japan:  In the course of a conversation, a nod or a yes does not indicate agreement.  It simply means that the person is listening.  Saying no outright is uncomfortable for the Japanese who consider this impolite.  They instead use statements such as:  “We will need more time to study this proposal.  It might be difficult to do what you are suggesting.  We will try our best.”
  •  Brazil:  A kiss on the cheek, a pat on a back, and even a hug are all acceptable forms of greeting.  These gestures do not mean they regard you as anything more than a business partner or colleague.
  •  United Arab Emirates:  Do not assume that the person who asks the most questions in a meeting is the most influential.  The key decision maker observes silently and only speaks at the end of the discussions.

Gift Giving and Socializing:

  • Customize your gifts but keep within the protocols to avoid being excessive or coldly impersonal.
  • You are (strongly) expected to accept invitations after business hours for cocktails, dinner, or karaoke.  Be a good sport but make sure you can handle your alcohol well.
  • If you are hosting the dinner, be aware of your guests’ menu limitations and sensibilities dictated by health or Religion.  Consider preferred or represented brands.  If your guest heads a beverage company check that no competitor brands are in the dinner drink list or in his hotel mini bar.

The ability to relate well cross-culturally helps  you establish strong business relationships.  You could even make lasting friendships.  What is certain is a definite improvement in those financial figures you are managing.

(written for hauld.com)

2 comments on “Doing Business in Diverse Cultures

  1. love this one. thanks! Raju Mandhyan

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