Technology has made the world a smaller place, especially in today’s global economy. Now more than ever businesses have to interact with customers and vendors from all over the world and across different cultures, religions and languages.
Naturally if you want to do business internationally, you would think that all you would have to do is learn another language (or two). I first started learning Spanish in high school, and today I am able to converse professionally en español. Also, having worked in international development for over the last decade, I have also picked up some French and Arabic.
Learning another language is a great and valuable skill to have today, even if you are not fluent in that language. In my experience, most people I have interacted with who don’t speak English appreciate it if you even make the effort to learn some keywords in their native language, like “Hello”, “Excuse Me” or “Thank You.”
However, I must say that while language skills are vital for international business, it is just as important, if not more important, to understand social intercultural communications.
What I mean by this is do you understand how to maneuver yourself in the culture where you are trying to do business. For example, did you know that a business card isn’t just a business card in Japan?
Years ago, I started doing business with a new Japanese client. Right after our first in-person meeting, we exchanged business cards, or meishi in Japanese. While I put his business card immediately into my bag, the client held up my business card and looked at it like it was a piece of art. He kept telling me how much he liked the minimalist design of the card and how I was able to put so much contact information on it. At that point, I immediately took out his business card and tried to look at it with the same admiration.
It was then he said to me, “You don’t need to do that. I know you are American.”
Then I first felt puzzled and then embarrassed. He then explained to me that business card exchange in Japan is actually a very formal one. In fact, the card presenter judges how they will be treated by the card recipient based on how they receive the card. (You can read more about meishi exchange here.) After he schooled me on this tradition, we both laughed it off. Luckily, he wasn’t offended by how I received his business card, and, yes, he is still a client today!.
But I refuse to let another cultural faux pas happen to me ever again. Now when I have to do business internationally, I try to read up on customary business etiquette in that culture. In many countries, there is a lot of value in the handshake or eye contact. Sometimes you are expected to bring a gift for the client.
Email etiquette is a big deal. I’ve learned to make sure that email messages don’t have poorly conceived jokes or double entendres, as they can be misunderstood or taken the wrong way by an international recipient.
I have also learned that in some countries like South Africa or Germany, it is not customary to discuss business during a business dinner, but rather discuss family or sports. I make an effort to keep up with what is happening in the soccer world, such as popular athletes or specific games, as that generally becomes the topic of discussion at many business dinners.
Also, being aware of who you are in a different cultural context is very important and knowing how to overcome it. Being an American businessperson, sometimes international clients might have a preconceived opinion of you based on what they already know about American culture, both the good and bad.
For instance, Americans are viewed as rude and arrogant among some French citizens. Race plays a role in international business politics as well. Being African-American in global business can be a double-edged sword. I have met people outside of the United States who say to me that they admire black Americans for our culture and endurance for civil rights, and hold up Dr. Martin Luther King and President Obama as role models. However, I have also experienced discrimination, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa of all places, because of this horrible stereotype that all African-Americans are violent criminals.
Gender politics are also viewed in variety of ways around the world. For example, in Muslim countries, men don’t generally shake hands with women. However, in some countries like Ghana, it is generally expected to wait for the woman to extend her hand first. Sometimes I have potential international male clients who contact me about doing business with my company. However, many times they think I am the secretary and not actually the business owner. I had one guy actually ask me to transfer our phone call to the male owner of the business because they didn’t think I was the person in charge. Needless to say, that guy did not become a GWA client.
The bottom line: doing good intercultural communication is doing good business.