I was asked recently to share suggestions from my experiences in my international work. Here are eight recommendations for conducting business in foreign lands.
1. Listen more than you talk. When you do talk, begin your suggestions, expertise, and advice with, “In some countries, we find that this works….”
2. Be happy to be there. Be more than cordial; be excited that they are showing you their country and their culture. They are proud to show you this.
- Once when I was a young wanderer, I was on a bus in Bangkok, going to the Saturday marketplace. A very old man rose from his seat on the bus near the front, and approached me where I sat at the back. He bent over my hand and said, “We are so happy you have come from so far away to see our beautiful country.” Then he smiled and returned to his seat.
- Remembering this story will show you how to respond to the welcome you receive, no matter that you are there on business, or what currency or politics are being exchanged.
3. Prepare yourself to be in constant company and entertained when you are not working. It is unacceptable to need to rest, or to do other work except a few phone calls to further your immediate business with them, or to be on your own, when your business associates want to take you out (no matter how much you want it otherwise). You should share in the recreations offered you by your hosts, but draw the limit at being drunk, immoral or out of control, no matter how your hosts behave. Not only is it unseemly, it may be a test to see how you behave.
4. Do not presume, on a first visit, that you know in what sub-culture you will find yourself – academic, entrepreneurial, corporate or political. When I was asked by the U.S. State Department to train entrepreneurs in the Middle East, I found myself in the midst of high politics at the level of the Emir’s Ministers of Trade. The entrepreneurial training was not the point of the invitation. The State Department didn’t know this and didn’t alert me. So, be prepared to arrive with as few assumptions of your true role as possible. Then listen and watch with an open mind to where you have arrived.
5. Do not assume you are being told the truth, or that a written contract has any defensible value. In many countries, no matter how cordial the welcome, or how important your expertise or deal or resources may be to your in-country partners, you may still be the “outsider” (there are various words for this in each language) who is useful only until the country partners can do without you, at which point you will be discarded. As difficult as it may be, do not be offended by this behavior. You cannot change thousands of years of cultural history. You can only slow down, pay attention, and protect your interests (like making sure you are paid before you have handed over what is important that you are contributing, and that the bank transfer has left the country in U.S. dollars or another strong currency, and is proven to have landed in your bank account).
6. Dress more formally than business people do in the United States. Business is respected in a different way in other countries, and dressing in appropriate business attire is a sign of that respect. If you are a woman, dress more conservatively than usual, in terms of covering up your body. Don’t protest. Just do it. In Middle Eastern countries, do not reveal much skin (arms, legs or chest). Wear or carry a scarf in case you need to cover your head in sacred places (even if Westerners are not expected to). Also, in Europe it is common and expected to shake hands hello and goodbye (men and women both), but in Middle Eastern cultures, women would do better to not extend a hand for shaking, in case touching a woman who is not your wife is forbidden by religious law. A smile and slight bow is sufficient.
7. Never be late. It is a sign of severe disrespect to not arrive on time for a meeting. The “10-minute” slide we often allow in the United States is not acceptable in other countries. Be early or precisely on time.
8. Let your hosts set the pace. If you are an American, slow down. No culture moves, talks or assumes conclusions as fast as the business culture in America. Everywhere else, more time is taken to get to know your associates, to be allowed to address them informally (in language and in name), to outline a deal. Let your hosts set the pace both culturally and in business dealings; you should match that pace. It may seem inefficient to you, but you must meet the cultural pace of business in the country you are working, or you will prevent the very success you are hurrying towards.
This is such an interesting subject in our global economy. Please share your own experiences here with our community.