New York, Rio, Tokyo… Sometimes business travelers visit several different countries within a couple of days. You cannot become an intercultural expert for every destination, but if you keep in mind the following tips, you can avoid a few pitfalls.
If you do business all over the world, you already know that the way things work is a little different everywhere. It’s not just a question of whether you hold your business card in China in one hand or two, but even these little things can make for a good start to business relations. Learn here how best to build and maintain international relationships with your business partners.
1. Get to know the basics
Even though we just said you can’t become an expert in every foreign culture, you should at least familiarize yourself with the basics of the country you are visiting: How do business partners usually greet each other? What clothing is appropriate? What about punctuality? How important is small talk to get ahead in business? A little online research will help you. You don’t have to be perfect, but you can rest assured that your foreign business partner will appreciate your efforts.
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2. Your hands speak a language
Even without words you are constantly communicating with your business partner: But nodding, shaking your head, thumbs up – but all these gestures, which we often perform unconsciously, are not universally applicable. When a Japanese person sits opposite you and waves his hand in front of his face, he is not trying to express that he thinks you are crazy. Instead, he is simply saying “no”. And if you think your business partner in the Middle East has an excellent idea, you should never react with your thumb up in the air. That gesture is a blatant insult there. Not only on business trips, but also in web conferences, a wrong gesture can quickly lead to misunderstandings.
3. Time is money, but not everywhere
The motto “time is money” is especially true in the business context in many western cities. However, if you travel in cultures with a fluid time understanding, as in many countries in Latin America and Asia, you should be aware that other things are more important than punctuality. Once you have internalized this principle, it becomes easier to react calmly when deadlines are not met – or to point out to your business partner in advance how important a deadline is for the further course of business.
4. Formal or informal?
In very formal cultures, considerable importance is attached to hierarchies and a certain code of conduct. Even if some of these formal rules may seem rather bizarre to you, be aware how important they are to your counterpart and respect his or her culture. Similarly, in more informal cultures, you should take the time to get to know your business partners through small talk. Otherwise your negotiations may get tough.
5. Watch and listen
Do you shake hands with your business partner, hug or give kisses on the cheek, and if so, how many? Customs vary from country to country. It often depends on whether you are meeting for the first time or already have a long-term business relationship. The golden rule in foreign cultures is: Pay attention to how your local contacts behave. Don’t plough your own furrow; instead, look at the customs at your destination. Be open to other points of view and try to take an objective look at your own behavior. If you are aware of cultural differences and reflect the behavior of your peers, you have a good chance of successful relationships, conversations and negotiations.
“All in all, traveling to foreign countries and cultures requires a lot of tact and sensitivity,” explains Ralf Rehder, owner of ACTION Worldwide Limousines. “Anyone who travels the world with curiosity and open-mindedness and who does not see his or her own cultural background as the ultimate standard will not experience too much of a culture shock, especially since business cultures in the globalized world are also coming a little closer together.”
Oh yes: And you should accept business cards in China with both hands if they are handed to you with both hands. Then read them carefully. In doing so, you will show your counterpart the respect he or she deserves.