International trade is the name of the game in today's business world. Understanding cultural differences can mean success or losing the deal at the first meeting. It can create a huge impact on your reputation and the way your business is viewed by the rest of the world.
Twenty years ago a Japanese businessman refused to deal with a female friend of mine who was working for the government on a large contract. He stated he would only deal with a man. We of course were outraged that his demands were met and she was replaced with a less qualified male to do the deal.
Much older and wiser now I recognize that to be successful internationally sometimes requires you put aside your own sensitivities and do what is necessary to close the deal. Was it really worth losing a multi-million dollar contract to insist someone conform to our views of equality of gender? Probably not.
There are cultural differences however that are worth losing a deal for. In some countries in the world it is culturally acceptable to use child labor. In other countries bribing government officials is seen as part of the normal course of a tendering process. While refusing to deal with these people will lose you the deal, your stance on human rights and corruption will enhance your reputation with other countries and benefit you more in the long run.
These two extremes aside there are many other important cultural differences which can and will impact on your international business success.
While western culture currently dominates the business world, the growing Asian markets are opening up rapidly. Many norms of body language accepted in the West convey the exact opposite of meaning in the east. Direct eye contact in the West is a sign of honesty whilst in many Eastern countries it is disrespectful. Can you picture the meeting where you are doing your utmost to make eye contact while your counterpart is trying equally hard to avoid it?
I made my first international business trip to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. My only thought in choosing my attire for the flight was the expected heat at my destination. Shorts and a t-shirt seemed like a good idea at the time.
For a woman traveling alone to a dominantly Muslim country I could not have chosen more inappropriately. I landed at 11.30pm and whilst it did not cause me any major problems the disapproval of the people around me was palpable. Dressed in a pants suit for my meeting the next morning everything went exceedingly well.
To make the connection essential for ongoing business relationships you must understand the culture of the people you are dealing with. As with everything first impressions count and you don't want to start by unknowingly showing disrespect to the people of the country you wish to deal with. The smallest details are important.
Even within the English speaking world you need to take care. American, English, Canadian and Australian cultures, whilst similar, all have their differences. A common language helps to break through cultural barriers and sort out misunderstandings but not making mistakes in the first place is a much better option.