International business is on the rise. Companies in the United States are pursuing foreign markets because of compelling opportunity, low cost of labor, low competition and other driving factors.
But doing business in foreign markets can be rife with hurdles, many of them cultural. It’s vital that you and your team members understand the nuances and cultures native to the countries where you’re planning to do business.
And don’t confuse language with culture. For example, English is the primary language of business in South Africa, India and the United Kingdom. But each of these countries features its own unique culture and its own unique way of doing things. Gaining a deep understanding of a country’s unique culture before a meeting can be the difference between success and failure in closing a deal.
Here’s a look at some of the nuances you’ll encounter in foreign countries where American companies often do business.
Always plan meetings well in advance, and be sure to confirm the meeting 48 hours before the scheduled time. Important business is always conducted in-person in Brazil, so give in-person meetings the respect they deserve.
Also, formal titles are used in tandem with first names rather than last names in Brazil. During greetings, Brazilian women will shake hands with men, but they exchange kisses on the cheek with female colleagues.
Business etiquette in Brazil also includes long midday lunches during which business is discussed less formally.
While foreign business people are expected to be on time, don’t be surprised if your Mexican counterparts are 15 or even 30 minutes late. Also, be prepared for business people in Mexico to stand closer than you’re used to and also to hold handshakes longer than is typical in the United States.
Negotiations and meetings progress slowly in Mexico. Business etiquette in Mexico calls for a few minutes of small talk before getting down to detail, and coffee and other drinks are often offered — always accept.
Formality is foremost in France. Follow French business etiquette by making sure that you wear quality business attire — a suit is a must no matter what day of the week you’re doing business.
Always use your first and last name when making introductions, and call others either monsieur or madame. You can engender goodwill by using French gestures and simple French words, and also by printing one side of your business card in French.
While Americans have a tendency to talk in order to fill gaps of silence, the Japanese are OK with the quiet. In fact, silence is a sign of credibility in Japanese business cultures. Suppress your outgoingness when doing business in Japan, especially early on in a relationship.
In Japanese business culture, group unity is valued above all else. Never single out individuals as if they are different from the rest of their group in any way, including for photos, praise, questions, etc.
Take plenty of business cards when doing business in Japan. Business cards are seen as important to identity. Always accept them with both hands, read them when they are given to you, and carefully place them in a business card holder or similarly safe place.
China is similar to Japan in many respects. As in Japan, accept business cards in China with two hands, read them briefly, and then place in a business card holder.
Never speak over someone or take control of a conversation while someone else is speaking. Chinese business culture calls for lengthy speeches on specific topics, and you may find that you are also expected to give speeches from time to time.
After meetings, send a brief email that recaps the encouraging aspects of the meeting as well as specific things that were agreed upon.
Be prepared to participate in business dinners where speaking about business is taboo. Spend that time getting acquainted with your counterparts instead.
You’ll find that women in Singapore do not shake hands. They will let you know this by crossing their hands in front of their chests during greetings. What should you do in response? A slight nod of your head is appropriate.
The business culture in Singapore includes meetings that start on time, as well as lengthy negotiations. Be patient when hammering out an agreement, as any effort to rush things or force a close goes against business etiquette in Singapore and can backfire on you.
The British often rely on unspoken messages to maintain politeness, and the same holds true in British business culture. For example, it’s considered rude to directly end a meeting. It’s better to allude to the end of a meeting with something along the lines of “perhaps I’ve taken up too much of your time” or “I’m sure you’ve got a busy afternoon, so …”
You can engage in small talk during British business meetings, but keep things more formal — sit up straight, avoid slang, and act deferentially to the Brits with whom you’re doing business.
Keep in mind that Canada includes several distinct cultures, and you must know each of them to adhere to Canadian business etiquette. For example, while a handshake suffices in traditionally English-speaking areas, acquaintances in French-speaking Quebec will often greet and depart with a European-style kiss on both cheeks.
Expectations are also important in Canada. Set meetings and keep those dates. Show up on time or early. Always honor commitments.
The Netherlands takes a formal approach to doing business. Never call someone by his or her first name unless you’ve been asked specifically do to so.
Dutch business etiquette calls for getting right to the point. Don’t expect much small talk, anticipate negotiations and decision to proceed quickly, and rely on rational arguments and facts when making a point — never emotion. Everything is more direct in the Netherlands, so use clear yeses and nos.
India is an emerging market, which means plentiful opportunities for doing business. Make sure that you’re on time, and be prepared for any type of negotiation to take a long time to reach completion.
You’ll also encounter two artifacts from India’s time as a British commonwealth. First, be prepared to take afternoon tea — and don’t refuse it. And also be prepared for your Indian counterparts to be indirect, just as the British are. Rather than giving you a direct “no,” they will often skirt the response by promising to think about it or to try.
Finally, know that India is home to many different religions, which means the calendar is full of holidays that must be avoided when planning meetings. To plan something on a major religious holiday would go against Indian business etiquette.
Make Sure Your Team Members Are Prepared
Failing to prepare your team members for doing business in foreign cultures is stifling their ability to succeed. Consider creating briefing packs that offer culture-specific guidance for certain countries. Long international flights will give your team ample time to read and internalize these briefing packets.
It’s always a good idea to use mobile devices for sharing information, too. If you have a web-based business travel platform that lets you share information, include cultural guidance for the countries to which your team members are traveling.
At JTB Business Travel, we work with companies across the United States that do business both at home and abroad. As a full-service corporate travel agency, we can help you develop and implement the systems and processes that will help your travelers be at their best when doing business in different cultures.
Contact us today about how we can enhance your international business travel.