Author: Marcel Langone, Solarplaza
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Miscommunication is the number one cause of all problems. If this is true in our immediate environment, imagine how it can be exponentially magnified when communicating with people from different cultural backgrounds.
Understanding local business culture is paramount to any successful internationalization. Fail to assimilate, these minor mistakes can cost you time, money and the business opportunity. These mistakes are normally caused by misreading the room or by accidentally offending a potential business partner. If you haven’t yet read ‘’The Culture Map’’ by Erin Meyer, I urge you to do so. Her book is a must for everyone conducting business internationally.
Essential elements for a successful business engagement
Before planning your international business trip (hopefully this will be a reality soon enough), there are three main aspects you must invest time on to prepare for a successful internationalization. The first two aspects are also valid for digital meetings.
1. Immerse yourself in the local culture
Be curious! Read about the culture, its customs and learn a few words of the language. It might come in handy and impress your counterpart when conducting business abroad. Investigate the decision making process, the hierarchical structure of organizations, negotiation styles, attitudes towards punctuality, gift-giving customs, and the proper use of names and titles.
2. Understand business etiquette
Be aware that greetings, gestures and body language can wildly vary across the globe and potential misunderstandings are easy to arise and cause embarrassment. There are also certain norms that you will be expected to know and follow during business meetings and dinners.
3. Prepare your itinerary in advance
This is especially important for your first trip, although valid for any occasion. Think about your goals, relative priorities and schedule appointments spaced comfortably throughout the day, taking into account distance between locations and traffic. This will be more productive and enjoyable than a crowded agenda, which allows you to keep flexibility for unexpected problems or unplanned opportunities.
My own experience in Japan
My first trip with Solarplaza was back in early 2017. On this occasion I traveled to Tokyo, Japan. I remember being very excited and soon realized how little I knew about the country, its people and their customs, let alone business etiquette.
Before getting on the plane, I had spent several days receiving tips from my supervisor, my Japanese colleague and my first local contacts whilst researching and reading on my own. However, there was something that particularly made me anxious: eating with chopsticks. I had used chopsticks many times before although I was remarkably clumsy at handling them. For almost a month, I practiced eating with chopsticks for every dinner no matter the food on the plate, in a quest to avoid embarrassment.
Once in Japan, I was at first tense trying to remember at all times the etiquette for each of the moments: holding a business card with my two hands, leaving the business card on the table until the end of the meeting, bowing to the right angle, not serving myself a drink at dinner, among many others. It is impressive though how fast we can adapt and assimilate such behaviors. Even after many trips to Japan, every time I found myself back in the Netherlands, for the first couple of days I still bowed after saying ‘thank you’.
I cannot put into words how beneficial and rewarding it is being aware and respectful of a local culture when abroad or when interacting with people from other backgrounds or nationalities. It helps you to build trust, to relate to others and above all forge great relationships.