How you deal with the cultural differences can make or break your business success. Your mastery of culture will enhance your competence in all areas of your import/export business -- in coping with the simple logistics of living and getting around in another country, in establishing trust, in pacing negotiations, in knowing which gifts and gestures will please, and in knowing whether you've got a deal or not. There is no better way to understand the person who is going to buy or use your product 12,000 miles away than by meeting them, literally or figuratively, on their own ground.
Yet, it's unlikely you'll be able to learn everything there is to know about any given overseas country, so I've constructed a list of quick culture tips. These tips are based on what a typical international traveler usually does wrong when trying to conduct an import/export business. Keep these guidelines in mind, and you will be an import/export chameleon:
- Slow down! The rest of the world does not do business at lightning speed. Practice patience. This can actually be enjoyable because, if, for example, you are an American, you never get to use it!
- Decide by consensus and take your time arriving at one. Refrain from making unilateral decisions. The more opinions and comments you can get from all parties involved, the more satisfactory your final decision will be. It's always better if everyone feels like the whole group arrived at the decision, anyway!
- Show sincerity. Listen to what your customer is saying, and be interested. Don't be superficial -- a plastic cheerleader smile won't cut it.
- Take a passive approach rather than an overly aggressive one. Go with the flow. Don't arrive with an ironclad action plan geared toward achieving results within a week.
- Smile and communicate contagious enthusiasm.
- Act ridiculously polite. Be forever trying to win them over with your humble, courteous manner. Too often people take an adversarial approach to business deals, as if the other party is someone to be gotten the better of.
- Make on-the-spot attempts to learn their culture. Try to master some words and phrases of their language, ask about their history, observe their ways.
- When in doubt, get over your embarrassment and ask questions. You have nothing to lose because it shows them you care.
- Wear a pin or accessory that symbolizes a global perspective, not a national one. Even a symbol that represents world peace can only help.
When you catch yourself being driven by an ingrained ethnocentric attitude, pull it up out of your subconscious mind and take a good hard look at it. Remember that no matter how ill at ease you are, you should welcome every encounter with the unknown and unfamiliar as an opportunity to cultivate your global mindset.
We all believe that what we are accustomed to is the natural order of things! This is why we all need to keep a sense of humor about our own and others' interpersonal missteps, exercise tolerance and make good-faith efforts to bridge differences and find common ground.
Cultural differences make our life rich, diverse, exciting and unnerving -- and in the fast-changing world of international business, they will play an increasingly important part in all our lives. Start getting ready for your cross-cultural encounter today.