Different nationalities have different values and ways of behaving. You need to understand ritual and culture in order to make people of other nationalities more comfortable when negotiating with you. You may not even have to deal abroad to need to understand the ritual and culture of another society - many companies in the UK have settled here from overseas and strive to maintain their native beliefs and traditions.
Build a model
In order to understand a different culture, you need information. Simply mimicking a few rituals that you have observed is unlikely to be enough of a basis on which to found a lasting business relationship. A good way to approach a new culture is to follow a three stage, cyclical process; observe, analyse, and act accordingly.
Step one in observation might be to conduct some research into the country of origin of the people with whom you will be dealing. Check out the basics, such as size, population, religion, economic situation and so on. The fact that you can converse intelligently regarding the homeland of your counterparts shows that you have done your homework and wish to make the business relationship a success. You can also pick up ‘cross-culture’ books that will warn you off making some of the more obvious errors, such as not putting money directly into the hand of a Korean, for example (it’s considered to be rude).
It is also a good idea to learn a few words of the language. You may not be expected to be fluent, but if you can greet people and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in their language, then your efforts will be noted and appreciated. The British are notoriously bad at learning other languages in order to do business within other countries; with the advent and widespread use of the Internet, this may be an issue that is largely resolved for us as other cultures learn English in order that they may make the most of the unique advantages offered. However, you would be wise to remember that the Germans have a saying: ‘We will sell to you in any language, but we will only buy from you in German’.
The next stage of observation takes place when you meet and begin to develop a relationship. Observe how people behave. Are they very formal, or very relaxed? Do they touch or avoid touching? These are all valuable insights into how to fit in with the culture.
Remember that we like people who are like ourselves. Everyone has experience, either personally or through observation, of the fact that opposites attract. Despite this, the norm is for similarities to attract. People in long-term relationships often look quite alike, too - they take the desire to see a mirror image a step further than would be the case in a friendship or business relationship. Consequently your efforts to understand and emulate another culture are likely to pay off handsomely in a business relationship.
It is a good idea not only to know how people behave, but also why they behave in certain ways. Understanding the underlying reason for something both helps you to get it right and enhances your relationship with others. Think about someone observing our culture; things they might notice include:
- we suffer poor service in silence;
- on meeting someone, we smile, shake hands and make eye contact;
- despite this, we rarely make eye contact on a crowded bus or train;
- touch can make people uncomfortable, with the exception of an expected handshake; and,
- everything stops for football!
Knowing what to expect guides people’s behaviour. Remember also that people are often very flattered to be asked about their country’s culture and traditions. Most people enjoy talking about themselves and will appreciate your showing an interest.
Once you have observed and understood something, amend your own behaviour to suit and assimilate your new habits into your everyday ritual. Don’t become a mimic overnight - little by little should encourage and impress. It is arguably better to show improvement in your understanding over a period of time, so demonstrating that this is a long-term commitment and something that you are prepared to work at. Once you have taken on board everything you have learned, it is time once more to observe.
By following the cycle you become, by degrees, more comfortable with the culture in which you are working. You do not need to lose your essential British ways or subsume your own personality, just act in a way that makes people more comfortable when doing business with you.
- Accept that different cultures have different values and behaviours
- Make an effort to understand alternative cultures
- Pick up a bit of the language
Do not be afraid to try speaking a few words of the language; people will appreciate your efforts and may even find it endearing if your pronunciation is less than perfect. It gives them a chance to correct you, which begins to develop a bond, and at the very least you tried.
- Show an interest in what is happening and why
- Be respectful