Ready to Handle Business Abroad?
Get rid of your cultural stereotypes.
International Business – words that provoke simultaneous mental eruptions of mystery, myth, and fear. And for good reason. In a previous age, going “abroad” to embark on a business venture abroad meant taking incredible risk to investment. Sometimes, it also meant risking life and limb. But these days – depending on where you go – doing business abroad means pure commerce and opportunity.
But first, you’re going to have to overcome the stereotypes about what’s beyond our borders. During my years at the World Trade Center, shuttling between North America and various clients in Asia and Europe, I experienced stereotyping of all types and from people whom I thought were well beyond that kind of silly impediment. Okay, so nobody – no society is without idiotic stereotypes. And yes, and no one is immune to at least a few prejudices.
There are good reason why we tend to lean on at least a few prejudices. Social groups – e.g., your home – acquire cohesion by distinguishing what’s inside (safe) and what is outside (unsafe). According to anthropologists, we carry that habit from our ancient tribal experience – all the way from prehistory. But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. No matter how much education someone has, the prejudices linger. Why is that?
I lived in Japan. I grew up there. And yet, when I travel to that country, I’m looked upon by the average Japanese as gaijin – an outsider. I’m accustomed to that feeling. The word never comes up in polite company, but the feeling is there. I don’t really belong. And yet, people can (and often do) overcome such barriers and erect lasting relationships that lead to sustainable partnerships, of which many are rewarding and immensely profitable.
Look no further than your own neighborhood.
Have we not learned that local prosperity depends upon global business? How much of American commerce stands on its own? Were it not for the Chinese, we would have no springs (and that’s no joke). Were it not for the Japanese, American automakers would (probably) still be making shitty cars. Therefore, global trade is not so out of reach, is it? Market demand overcomes nearly all political impediment; market need is the fertile land of opportunity. Add currency fluctuations coupled with cycling economies means that any time is an excellent time to reach out with new ventures abroad. I believe that armed with a bit of ingenuity, anyone can discover new avenues of business abroad.
One acquaintance of mine had a seasonal business based in New York. She went to South America and Australia and – boom – now her business is year-round. A friend and client of mine has been involved in securing intellectual property. After establishing himself here in the U.S., it was a natural move for him to go international. I overcame many barriers to write for companies in India, China, Japan, and Europe.
For the well-prepared entrepreneur, business abroad can be exciting and extremely profitable. Among well-established economies, growth is found where you might expect in domestic environs. Developing economies may be harder to deal with, but with risk comes rewards, right. One this is clear – in light of current global economic and monetary trends, there will be continued and sustained demand for American products – especially for commodities, but also for durables, perishables, and services. For the truly adventurous (and brave), you can always look into importing – bringing products and services into the U.S.
On your way out the door, you might want to pick up a current copy of Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway. I met Terri during my stint with World Trade Centers, and I read her book. There are dozens of other books out there on the topic of good manners for the fledgling business tourist, but this is the one I know and use, and it is spot on. The book is chock full of suggestions for meetings, reading body language, eating, clothing, gift-giving, and communication. Here are a few tips that you’ll find:
- In Australia, when it comes time to pay for a round of drinks, don’t get up and try to pick up the tab out of turn!
- In Brazil, it’s okay to be a few minutes late to a meeting, but don’t you ever – ever – ever pick up food with your hands. Not even a sandwich or a slice of pizza. Use a napkin or utensil.
- In China, during all meals, NEVER leave your chopsticks stabbed upright in a bowl of rice; also, do not eat all of your meal – leave a little behind. This is generally true for Japan and Korea.
- Did you know that it’s appreciated by the French (when in France) if you apologize for your lack of fluency in French?
- Germans do not appreciate humor during business meetings.
- In India, when visiting a residence, remove your shoes outside.
- Japanese who have command of English will often say “Yes” even when they disagree with you completely.
- New Zealanders keep conversation to a minimum during business meals.
- Our friends across the “pond” in the UK do not wear shirts with pockets. If they do, they leave the pockets empty!
- And… only in the U.S.A. is it proper to ask permission to light up (a cigar or cigarette); note that few public buildings even allow it.
Taking command of cultural differences is essential. If you want to do business abroad, my recommendation is to focus your study of the customs first, then think of the language. If you don’t have your phrases down, at least you can be polite!
However, as always, if you wish to do business in a place where you are unfamiliar – whenever you feel that sense of “gaijiness” – it’s imperative that you learn as much as you can about the history, the culture, the etiquette, and the protocols of negotiations present in your host nation (this is vital).
Through knowledge, stereotypes dissolve. Armed with awareness, barriers melt. Thus enlightened, your strategy will be to acknowledge and overcome simplistic generalizations that keep people apart. And then, the exciting work begins.