We’ve all seen it—insensitivity to cultural differences that derails business efforts, especially around exporting. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion, powerless to stop it.
A few years ago I had taken the role of chief operating officer for a start-up software company. For months a colleague and I had been cultivating a business relationship with a potential partner in Israel. Our contact was excited enough about the software and our company to fly from Tel Aviv all the way to Denver, Colorado, to meet our team.
I had briefed our company CEO on Israeli business culture and typically used negotiation techniques. I told him that Israelis were known to be shrewd and savvy business people; the CEO needed to come prepared. He sounded ready for this all-day meeting.
But when the day of the meeting came, my CEO was very late to the meeting. He wore old jeans and a sweatshirt. He sat down, looked our contact in the eye, and asked her what she wanted from the company. Within an hour, the CEO got up and left. The Israeli, my colleague, and I were dumbstruck by the entire interaction.By all international business standards, my boss was rude and unprofessional beyond pale. He had ignored literally all of my advice.
In our debriefing, I discovered that my boss wanted to show an attitude of indifference to the Israeli in order to establish a position of power in the relationship. The reality was that negotiations ended before they began, and my CEO looked like an idiot. Also, my colleague and I resigned from the company soon after. After all, why work for such a clueless leader?
While rarely do you see someone fail so dramatically as this CEO, cultural miscommunication happens all the time to varying degrees. Here’s what you can do to minimize damage these blunders can cause.
Before the Cultural Interaction
- Understand your own cultural assumptions and values. A cultural coach can help with this if time is short. When you have more time, there are also numerous articles & books written about cultural differences. My favorite authors in this area are Geert Hofstede, Lothar Katz and Fons Trompenaars.
- Learn the basics about the other person’s business culture. It’s worth the time and energy to be briefed so long as you heed the advice. My mistake was that my CEO misunderstood the cultural framework and then chose out-of-context tactics. Please learn from me by always asking comprehension-related questions to ensure that no one is going rogue. Rogue plays poorly in almost any international business dealing.
During the Meeting or Event
- Come into every multicultural situation with an open mind and open ears. Listen to what people say and, just as importantly, what they don’t say.
- When someone’s action or reaction is not what you expect, make note of it. If it seems appropriate, you can ask about someone’s meaning during the meeting. Otherwise, ask your cultural resource expert afterwards. For example, silence in Latin American business is generally a bad sign. If you were met with silence, you may need to follow up to ensure that nothing is wrong.
- When someone culturally offends you, I like to respond in the classiest way possible. One of the quickest ways to deeply offend an American team is to make unwanted sexual advances toward a female team member. This is not necessarily offensive in other cultures. A businesswoman can politely sidestep the issue without publicly rejecting the pursuer. Everyone saves face, women are left uncompromised, and business moves forward.
- Above all else, be respectful, courteous and positive. These characteristics will help carry goodwill and smooth out some of the smaller missteps.
- Here are two posts that will give you more guidance on how to communicate effectively in cross-cultural situations. (Part 1 | Part 2)
Even the most experienced international businesspeople can accidently offend. When you realize your transgression, generally you should be quick to apologize. Again, showing good intentions will take you at least part of the way.
Cultural blunders undermine trust, which is a critical foundation for any international business partnership or multicultural team. Take time to rebuild this trust with in-person visits (when possible) or other goodwill gestures. I’ve been known to spend a few hours on audio tapes learning a bit of someone’s native language to regain trust and favor. (That generally works, by the way.)
Savvy international businesspeople are always learning and evolving in their cultural competency. Always try to learn the differences so that you can apply that wisdom to other situations.
I hope you found this article helpful. For more information about cross-cultural management, please visit my site: The International Entrepreneur. If you need a Cultural Advisor for a specific situation, I would be happy to learn more about your situation and refer a respected resource.