Achieving cross-cultural competence in international business

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It’s common for organisations to expand across borders in our hyper-connected, globalised business world, but there are a variety of challenges that need to be strategically addressed if you’re taking your business overseas.

Whether it’s impressing your potential business partners at a meeting, managing staff in overseas offices or taking your product to a new market, organisational development consultant Shane Warren and marketing specialist Berenice Etournaud share their tips to help you prevent a culture clash in offshore markets.

Know yourself

The first step is to undergo some self-scrutiny, explains Warren, who is also an internationally recognised coach and leadership expert. “I think it is extremely important that individuals understand what their personal culture is,” he says, referring to the value system by which we view the world.

Recognise physical and social boundaries

Whoever you mix with professionally abroad, be mindful of ‘friendship formality’. As with families, friendships and relationship connections differ distinctly, Warren says.

Different ethnic groups vary dramatically in the time they require to build trust, often taking a long while to create deep relationships. Warren cites the example of Japan, which has a formal cultural environment.

At a conference in Japan, you can expect to be met with polite smiles and some bowing. The tone will likely be courteous and sensitive, if a little distant. Smile, avoid being tactile and instead take lots of notes.

In contrast, in more intimate Italy, the convention is strong eye contact and hand gestures. Avoid keeping your distance, which may be seen as unfriendly. Be ready to forge trust bonds fast. During discussions, avoid communicating a sense of urgency because this can appear abrupt or needy.

Understand the concept of time management

Time management is another issue to look out for. “For many of us, being on time is really important, but many cultures around the world have a very lax view of time,” he says. Consider how you will feel when you set up a meeting for ‘after lunch’ and the team wanders back at 3pm.

The secret of dealing with a relaxed time-keeping approach, Warren says, is to anticipate tardiness tactically. Suggest meeting earlier than you would have wanted, so that you don’t have to wait as you watch people arriving leisurely.

Learn about work ethics

Warren highlights that the local attitude to work also needs to be considered. Observe whether people live to work or work to live, as the difference is critical. Some cultures focus on the life that their job pays for them to have.

“For instance, in Australia, people enthusiastically dash out of the office on Friday afternoon for the weekend ahead,” he says.

Other cultures take pride in the position they hold within the economy. In Warren’s view, this attitude prevails in Asia, where professions such as doctors and accountants are held in high regard, he says.

Wherever you go, knowing the difference will greatly improve your grasp of how to motivate your teams. “In my work, this tends to be a strong push button to create stress and tension,” he says.

Dodge the language barrier

Tension can also be caused when the right message is not communicated due to inept product labelling, according to Etournaud, who started her own business as a cross-cultural marketing services provider.

“Nothing is worse than when your product label has not been translated properly,” she says. Check whether it is spelt incorrectly, if it contains a grammatical error or if even fails to make sense in the other language.

You should also pay attention to whether the product’s name gets lost in translation. Linguistically, there might be nothing wrong with it, but it might fail to recognise cultural context, or be confusing, unappealing or even offensive.

Etournaud cites a bathroom freshener whose prim English name ‘post-poo drops’ sounds crude when literally translated into French.

This may seem like common sense, but the number of companies that get such basics wrong is astonishing.

Take the right business cards

Still on the topic of language, making sure that your business cards are translated is always a great idea, adds Etournard. This will reflect the refined and organised sales manager you are.

If you’re visiting a market such as China, it would be good practice to have one side of your card printed in English and another in Chinese. Also ensure the Chinese side is facing up when you’re exchanging cards – even if your counterpart is fluent in English – because your effort will be appreciated.

Making these adjustments will make a world of difference when operating in a different market and, consequently, to your company’s internationalisation efforts.