Doing Business across a Cultural Divide

  

So often, sealing that lucrative business deal comes down to individual personalities, i.e. whether individuals get along or not. In an international setting, there’s a minefield of potential problems notwithstanding confusion that can occur between languages. Improving a company’s cultural awareness can help people build international relationships and ensure that everyone is sensitive to cultural differences.

Follow your host

Differences in culture can heighten the tension of a business transaction between two parties. For example, acceptable standards of polite behaviour in the USA (such as looking a person directly in the eyes) can have the opposite effect in China. Depending on where and in what circumstances the two parties meet, it’s usually appropriate to adopt the host’s manners.

Prepare for differences

Another interesting example is in countries like Oman, where punctuality has a different meaning to businesses than it does elsewhere. Meetings may start late or be cancelled without warning and they can run on long after their allotted time slots. Whereas this may be interpreted as rude in some countries, in the middle east hospitality, dignity and respect are highly regarded and during your meetings you’ll probably find you’re treated like royalty. Another time difference in Oman is that their work week runs from Sunday to Thursday as their weekend covers the Muslim Sabbath.

Do some research

The concept of personal and public space is also something that can quickly lead to problems across cultures. In South America it’s customary for business associates to kiss both cheeks in greeting whereas in Britain physical contact during business meetings is less common. In Russia, female colleagues may walk arm-in-arm whereas in Japan they may politely bow. Everyone sees the world through a different cultural lens and only through cultural awareness training can misunderstandings be circumvented.

Go beyond manners

But beyond rapport, familiarity with your business partner’s culture is an indication that you also understand their marketplace and by extension the factors that influence their audience’s behaviour. Neighbouring countries are continually (and supposedly) setting aside differences and deepening ties in order to co-operate together in trade. Avoiding ignorance and stereotyping can help separate parties understand one another’s unique traditions and beliefs and help them work successfully as a team.

Never generalise

This article is packed full of general knowledge about different cultural business practises, and generalisations are a good fall back if you find yourself in a situation that you weren’t unprepared for. It doesn’t mean that you should take any culture for granted, however. Two essential things to remember are to dress appropriately for the occasion and to prepare well in advance of your meeting (I’d recommend you make an effort to at least learn how to pronounce the names of the individuals who will be in attendance).This can be a great opportunity to find out about what it’s like to live and work in another country, but be careful never to rely too heavily on stereotypes or ‘TV impressions’ of a culture.

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