Understanding cultural attitudes is just as important when you're conducting business internationally as it is when you travel internationally. After all, being sensitive to cultural differences like the level of formality that's expected in a business meeting, the type of language you should use when greeting someone, and nonverbal cues can mean the difference between a lasting business relationship and a failed transaction.
When trading internationally, you will undoubtedly encounter business practices that seem unusual or even strange. At first, it may seem difficult to deal with these differences, and you might feel as if the other parties should change their ways to accommodate you.
However, being patient and educating yourself about the cultural differences you can expect to encounter in each country will lead to better communication, greater understanding and a smoother, more efficient purchasing process.
Business practices throughout Asia often seem exceedingly formal to those from the U.K. or U.S. because of the importance Asians place on status, hierarchy and showing respect. Businesspeople in Asian countries take a long-term approach to business relationships, and taking time to develop a close and trusting relationship is important. Being introduced to potential partners through a trusted connection or intermediary is helpful.
In China, business meetings start punctually and being late is regarded as an insult, so always arrive slightly early. Discussions always follow a set agenda; you should submit your agenda items ahead of time in writing, so your counterparts have a chance to review the topics before the meeting.
Japanese businesspeople are extremely formal and polite, but also usually aware that their business etiquette can be difficult for other cultures to understand. As long as you show respect and demonstrate that you are trying to observe their customs, they are typically very forgiving and patient.
When doing business in India, you will notice that there is very little confrontation, and everyone avoids overtly disagreeing with each other. Indian businesspeople consider it essential to maintain a calm and friendly attitude in order to earn the respect of those you're working with.
In Indonesia, there are specific procedures for dealing with business cards, which are generally exchanged immediately after the greeting. The cards should always be given and received with both hands, looked at carefully and treated with respect—just putting the card in your pocket is considered a sign of disrespect.
Preventing Problems Is Key
Obviously, it's impossible to generalize about every country you may do business with without resorting to stereotypes. Take the time to do some research and learn more about the cultural attitudes, business practices and protocols you can expect to encounter in the specific countries where you're considering doing business. Some areas that are especially important include:
Communication. Is communication in the country typically open and direct, or more subtle? Is disagreement expressed freely or does politeness matter more?
Trust. In less developed nations, trust is more critical and personal relationships often matter more than in first world countries, where laws and contracts protect business exchanges.
Time. What sense of urgency exists in the culture about responding to emails, returning phone calls or arriving on time for a meeting? In the U.S., for example, business typically moves at a rapid pace that can be off-putting to businesspeople from more leisurely cultures.
Obligation. Be sure to discuss every detail of your agreement with the other company, and ensure that the final decisions are on paper so that both parties have a clear understanding of their obligations to one another. This will also be a useful document to refer to if difficulties arise in the future.
Language. While businesspeople in most countries speak at least some English, the level of fluency varies widely. It may be useful to find an intermediary or translator to help you conduct business. In most cases, this person's ability to smooth interactions, prevent conflict and resolve problems will be well worth the extra expense.