Bridging the Cultural Divide in International Business
An American marketing director gives a major business presentation to a company in Korea.
The executive is regarded as an effective speaker back home. He knows his material. He is confident and succinct in his delivery.
He leaves his listeners baffled.
Why? His presentation was geared toward an American audience.
Cultures receive and process information differently. They think differently, make decisions differently, and act upon what they hear differently. "It is entirely possible for two people raised in different cultures to hear the exact same message and draw opposite conclusions, with neither being right or wrong," said Siri Karm Singh Khalsa, president of The Boston Language Institute. "If you want to do business with people from another country, you have to be sensitive to cultural differences."
Through its International Business Consulting Practice, The Boston Language Institute helps companies to understand cultural differences that can impede international business ventures or lead to communication problems within their own organization. The Institute offers companies both group seminars and one-on-one coaching. Topics may include cultural values and their impact on business practices and behavior, business etiquette and protocol, meetings and negotiations, forging relationships, foreign government restrictions on joint ventures or anything else that clients wish to focus on.
Overcoming Cultural Differences
How can companies bridge cultural gaps? Some tips:
Recognize how "they" think. As important as knowing business etiquette is, it will not get executives very far unless they understand how other cultures think and communicate, says Margaret Firman-Turner, a cross-cultural consultant who works with the Institute's clients.
Western-educated North Americans tend to be linear thinkers and their presentation style reflects this. They typically move from point A to point B to point C, with the most pertinent information at the beginning. People of other cultures, especially Asian, tend to be associative thinkers. A typical presentation starts with an overview or history that provides a context for the information that follows. The newest information often comes at the end. People from Mediterranean cultures, on the other hand, tend to present information as a series of loops.
Firman-Turner, who has written speeches for government leaders and chief executives from various countries, advises the Institute's clients to accommodate the learning needs of their listeners. "You can't expect the audience to adjust to you. You have to present your information in a way that they can process."
Understand "their" decision-making process.
"They can't make a decision!" Firman-Turner hears this all the time from American executives who do business internationally. "Of course they can make a decision," she tells them. "They simply do it in a different manner and at a different pace than Americans do."
Imagine that two companies, one American, the other Japanese, have entered into negotiations on a joint venture. The American team presents its terms. Time passes, and the Japanese team has not given its response. The Americans wonder why they are being "secretive" and begin to question their commitment to the deal.
Unknown to them is the fact that in Japan, as in many other cultures, decision-making is ruled by consensus. The Japanese team is going through a standard process of gathering opinions and approvals. Once they have reached consensus, they will present their decision in a meeting with the American team, but not before.
Unlike in America, the purpose of a meeting in Japan is not to debate issues or make decisions, but rather to reaffirm what has already been decided.
Know the reasons behind "their" behavior. The Institute recently conducted a seminar for employees of a large consumer-products company with extensive business dealings in Germany. Many members of the group were frustrated with certain aspects of their German associates' behavior. "Germans will constantly ask for more details, /I said Firman-Turner. "Americans will say, 'Well, we're going to get to that.' But the reason they want the information is that they have to put all the pieces in place before they can make an assessment and figure out their actions." Also, she said, Germans tend to double-check and triple-check information. Why? "They don't want to be held responsible for making a mistake."
Familiarize yourself with "their" customs. Another recent consulting project involved providing protocol and business practice advice to a public official and members of his staff who were about to embark on a trade mission to Japan.
One of the goals of that mission was to secure a business deal with at least one of three competing corporations. The staff planned on sending letters to the presidents of these companies inviting them to a dinner party. The problem?
Corporate leaders in Japan are treated with reverence, and relationships must be cultivated carefully. A company president would be offended if he were asked to dine with his competitors. Moreover, a letter should not be sent directly to the head of a company, but to a member of his staff who would present it to him personally.
The Americans also didn't know that securing a business agreement could take years. "With many cultures, the first thing you must do is build a relationship," said Khalsa. "This takes time. But if you demonstrate respect, patience, and perseverance, you may well be rewarded."