More and more companies today are venturing into the waters of international business. While the potential rewards of global trade are great, so are the potential risks.
One of the biggest risks lies in not understanding the distinct cultural subtleties and nuances that exist from one country to the next. An innocent faux pas that violates social mores in a particular culture can undo years of groundwork that has been laid in building relationships with customers and vendors overseas.
Do’s and Taboos
In his book Do’s and Taboos Around the World, Roger E. Axtell, a retired worldwide marketing executive, offers a comprehensive guide to appropriate business and social behavior in countries all over the world. Following are a few interesting tidbits as they relate to some of the most popular countries and regions where U.S. companies are now doing business.
China – Building strong relationships with business partners in China is essential, but it takes a long-term commitment. To many Americans, this may make the decision-making process appear to move very slowly. But here’s the contrast: While businesspeople in the U.S. tend to make fast decisions based on competitive issues like price or delivery schedule, in China, businesspeople will make the price and schedule work if you have taken the time to build a strong relationship.
A few other helpful notes about doing business in China:
- Never take your seat in a meeting until your client sits down first
- When proposing a toast, make sure your glass is lower than your client’s glass
- Tipping is generally considered an insult and should be avoided
India – Men should generally try to avoid touching women, even to shake hands – a slight bow, with palms placed together, may be more appropriate. Also, there is a belief that the left hand is dirty, so food should be handled and passed with your right hand. And remember that Hindus do not eat any beef and Muslims do not eat any pork (strict Muslims don’t drink alcohol, either).
In general, businesspeople in India aim to please their guests, so yes/no questions should be avoided because the answer will almost always be ‘yes.’
Japan – Never address a Japanese person by his or her first name; instead, say the last name, followed by the word san (which is roughly equivalent to Mr.). Long, lavish dinner parties lasting for hours are common.
Central & South America – This region features a tremendous amount of diversity from one country to the next. In general, though, Latin Americans are warm and friendly and enjoy entertaining. The main meal of the day is at noon. Wearing proper attire is important – this includes a jacket and tie, if appropriate, even in extreme heat. Punctuality is generally not stressed, as a 30-minute delay is customary.
The Middle East – Specific customs and protocols in the Middle East will vary from one country to the next, but proper dress and decorum between the sexes is critical throughout the region. In Islamic nations, everything stops five times each day for prayers. As a visitor, you are not expected to participate in these prayers, but you shouldn’t interrupt or act impatient while your host prays.
You must also respect the holy month of Ramadan, when no work is done after noon. And remember that pork meat and pigs are banned, and that it’s generally not a good idea to ask for alcoholic beverages.
Closer to Home
Canada – Canada is not only the United States’ largest trading partner, but it’s the second largest country in the world. The country is made up of many different ethnic groups, with most speaking French or English. Canadians and are proud of their country, taking exception to exaggerated comparisons with the U.S.
Mexico – To our south in Mexico, keep in mind that most Mexicans appreciate visitors’ efforts to speak Spanish, even if it’s very broken. When visiting, remember to be careful about drinking water from the tap, or else you may contract a bad case of “Montezuma’s revenge.”
There’s no question that it pays to be sensitive to these and many other cultural “do’s and taboos” when doing business overseas. This will help you gain the trust and respect of your overseas business partners and, in the process, boost your company’s international business efforts.