I am visiting four international destinations in the upcoming weeks; I have been to most parts of the world, though few locations frequently. I have a breadth of knowledge, if not depth. This list is designed to help you see around a corner or two and avoid rookie mistakes.
The first thing to consider is, how far from the equator do these people live? If it is a hot climate, people do not do deadlines and specific scheduling. They are not into Gannt charts. Theirs is a business climate where relationship and trust matter more than data. As you move north in Europe you’ll find a more Americanized, plans-and-actions mentality. Your distance from the Equator acts as a goalpost to the basic mentality and mental approach taken to business dealings.
If you are in the Middle East or Central America, also toasty weather, appointment times are little more than suggestions. They don’t mean much. The way southern climes look at it, you get there when you get there.
If you try to press a guy from Saudi Arabia to set up an appointment in advance, the answer is “inshallah” which is whatever Allah wills. But what they really mean is whatever. It is their way of saying “only God knows” in a blithe manner. They don’t like to commit. They tell you to call them that day. Not when you arrive in the country. No, that is too much planning. Call them the morning of the day you want to see them.
Yet for those in the States, we want to set up appointments weeks in advance. Often I was required to have pre-trip planning submitted a week before I left. I couldn’t tell my boss I’d wait and call folks when I got there!
Germany, England Japan, Russia; all these places are easy to do just that. The Germans sure want appointments, the Swedes are easy to plan with. You can schedule your business trip to Japan months in advance. But try doing that in Spain. Not easy.
You are almost certainly more direct in getting to the purpose of the meeting than someone from outside the United States. With few exceptions our business culture is more averse to the perception of wasting time or being indirect. You can go to a long client meeting in Japan that never gets around to nuts and bolts. Then you go out to the longest dinner of your life, stay out late, and STILL no business talk. Yet you’ll find over the next several months that you are getting business from them.
In Japan I got the impression that the less I talked about my product, the better (shaddup!). They had no desire to hear either a classic objective/benefit/characteristic sales spiel or my more graceful determination of possible alliances. Way better to talk about how lovely the Japanese countryside is or ask about their sports or cuisine-any interest in them works.
Spain or Southern Italy aren’t going to have the nighttime commitment as in Japan and to a lesser degree China. But the daytime meeting is going to be similar. You will talk about business, yet only after chatting them up quite a bit.
The presentation of the business card is a big deal in the Far East. It is done with both hands as if passing along a treasure, and when receiving you are to studiously peer at the card for a pregnant moment. All this requires a bit of planning because WE are always passing out brochures and paraphernalia like a card dealer. And you need your hands free for this dang card exchange.
Another tip in the Far East is that you can use the absolute tackiest gifts. It is very standard in much of the world to bring a small gift. In most of the world I think it is wise to ensure your gift aligns with your company but in the Far East, as long as the packaging is nice it does not matter what the gift is.
Expect to be offered a beverage far more often overseas than in the States. In most cases you should be saying yes. Certainly in the Far and Middle East. If you are in Germany or England it is ok to say no, though still I’d be looking for clues. But when a guy in Abu Dhabi offers you a Turkish coffee, the answer is always yes.
Understand hierarchy. It is very likely that wherever you travel, the distinction between boss and staff is more vertical than for you. Opinions are couched because not all voices are as equal as we maybe are accustomed to. Again the Far and Middle East share a dynamic, this time being that the main guy is way above everyone else. Intimidation is what it feels like to me but due to cultural mores it comes across more naturally then you might expect.
Our organization charts are much flatter if measured by value of each level’s input. An example I have used before is of my Chinese boss and me, his driver. As I am driving him one day we approach a T in the road. I know I will have to turn right or left. I know that if I turn left, I turn onto a parade route. But not just any parade. A parade route lined with revelers and the parade is for my boss. Left brings me to the route of a parade being held for my boss.
I know that if I turn right I will drive into an active scene of street violence reminiscent of Baltimore during their riots. Left is parade route; right is a riot. Looting and upending of vehicles and small fires.
So my Chinese boss calls up to me in the front seat and tells me to turn right. If this a Chinese boss I turn right! I don’t swivel my head and tell my boss about what I know. No, I just turn right.
In much of the world there would be some room for loyal opposition. Room for consensus. But in parts of the world there is a major reluctance to be seen as disagreeable.
Body Language matters. We might, for example, have a tendency to mingle a bit more at the outset. By that I mean other cultures stay on their side of the table, they don’t intersperse seating. If standing in a group, there is a little glass wall that only they see. It’s us and them. You have to build that relationship and I suppose it ties to all of my previous points in that we race through building relationships to get to business. For southern climates, the relationship is the business.
I’ll close with some travel tips not necessarily relationship based but I think good to know.
The first involves arrival. Stay up that first day until your normal time to go to sleep. Do not take a nap. Do not go to your hotel and put your head down for a few moments. You are better off, and I know you think I am wrong as you read this, you are better off if you store your luggage with the bellman rather than go up to your room. Even for a moment is dangerous. First day, stay up.
When you pack, use old dry cleaner plastic bags to wrap any clothes where wrinkles pose a problem. Anything on a hangar gets bagged.
Get a data plan on your phone before you go.
Bring back good ideas. I learned in Japan the benefit of walking people out. In Japan they walk you to the elevator and sometimes to the lobby. You get a fond farewell. I started to do that myself. I cannot prove it helped but I sensed it did.
I’ll close by pointing out what I hope this obvious; these are generalizations I have made. This is an 80/20 game.
I did not mention Russia because I found Russia broke out of many categories. I did not like Russia. As I flew out of Moscow I was thrilled. Never felt that way about any other location. Maybe my experience in Russia was an anomaly.