Imagine that your company sends you to Japan for a technical meeting. The Japanese company’s representative comes to your hotel room and inquires if you have had your lunch. You tell him that you are anxious to try some sushi. You feel great when he invites you to the hotel restaurant, where a gracious waiter encourages you to try various kinds of sushi. A while later, you begin to feel very bad, when you realize that your host has just paid $300 to $400 for your lunch. This happened to a manager of a high tech Colorado company about 20 years ago. Today, due to the lessons he has learnt over the years through an ongoing contact with the Japanese vendors, he is unlikely to experience another culture shock.
Use Face to Face Communication to Build Bridges
Forget about email and telephone when trying to establish operations or find vendors abroad, advises Scott Meyer, who has worked for many years in Europe. Instead, go on an extended business trip to the country of interest. Try to spend time in the major metropolitan areas, as well as in less popular peripheral locales. Immerse yourself into that country’s culture, develop insights into the dynamics of country’s business culture. Experience first-hand how people in that county react to products or services, similar to yours. Establish personal relationships and business contacts.
Use Interpreters Wisely
Do not underestimate the role of an interpreter in a cross-cultural setting. A similar cultural background between the non-English-speaking client or vendor and the interpreter will make communication easier. There are two types of interpreters. Simultaneous interpreters facilitate conferences with a large number of attendees. Simultaneous interpretation requires special equipment that allows the presenter to speak without pausing while the interpreter listens through the headphone and interprets the speech. Consecutive interpreters are better suited for small meetings and tradeshows, where the speaker would pause after few sentences so that the interpreter can relay the message. When using a consecutive interpreter it is important to pace your presentation and let the interpreter and the listeners keep up with it. Use humour sparingly. Avoid jokes that rely on the English language puns and wordplay, or on an understanding of the U.S. culture.
When hosting a contact from abroad for the first time, do not make assumptions as to whether that person will or will not need an interpreter. Foreign visitors will view your offer the services of an interpreter as a sign of respect for their language and culture.
Plan Your Cross-Cultural Meetings Carefully
The Japanese have a different concept of time, explains Bob Ariniello, the media products’ vice president of Exabyte Corporation. Time is not as important a criterion for the Japanese, as it is for us, especially when it comes to schedules and timelines. When planning a business trip to Japan, it makes sense to allow at least twice as much time, as you normally would. The Japanese culture is evasive. Realize that when your vendors tell you they will study the issue, that may be their way of saying no. To get to a yes, let them take time to build consensus. Spending extended time in business meetings will give both sides the opportunity to resolve the underlying issues.
Avoid Assumptions About Cultural Similarities
It is common for people to view the world through their own cultural worldview, to attach culturally-based meanings to what we see and hear. In cross-cultural situations, however, it is easy to create a misunderstanding by viewing people from other cultures, as if they are similar to us. Incorrect assumptions about the meaning of similarities may cause us to stereotype or misjudge people and situations. Some Asian cultures, for example, use a smile as a mask when dealing with unpleasant situations. In our culture a smile is associated with pleasant emotions and projects friendliness.
Develop and Practice Cross-Cultural Awareness
In any country the operating parameters are set by rules, established practices and cultural attitudes. Cross-cultural awareness is a skill, based on a set of interpersonal characteristics, that allows effective managers to be open to other cultures, different from their own. This skill can be learned and needs to be practiced. Even in English-speaking countries, such as Australia, “nothing should be taken for granted”, cautions Jerri Paulison, organizational development manager for Cobe Cardiovascular, Inc. She stresses the importance of good listening skills, patience and talking to people, who are intimately familiar with the country you intend to do business with, as well as obtaining additional information through reading.
Any cross-cultural business situation is a journey. There are going to be differences. Expect them. Learn to appreciate them. Learn from them. Learn to adapt.
As a business leader, you are often isolated, needing an impartial, external eye and ear to guide your communication and leadership style, especially to develop a strong message that transcends cultures.