“Speaking about cultural differences… it is no good focusing on similarities and common interests and hoping things will work out. We have to recognize the differences and work with them,” said Dr. Allan Hjorth, Copenhagen Business School, trainer in cross-cultural behavior.
As a former student in a FITT-accredited program and a recipient of the FITT Diploma in International Trade, I know how important socio-cultural factors are in doing business internationally. There is much emphasis in the FITT courses on the cultural dimensions of international trade.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I would agree entirely that being prepared for cross-cultural differences will help with growing your international business more smoothly.
Taking the first step in building cross-cultural bridges
Growing up in China—a relatively homogenous society—I had little understanding of other cultures when I was young. Not having interacted with people from other cultures, my mental universe was largely influenced by China’s mainstream media. In my mind, I clearly divided people in the world into two groups: Chinese and “foreigners”.
As for “foreigners”, they were all the same to me no matter whether they were from Europe, North America or elsewhere in the world. I used to hold stereotypes about “foreigners” being individualistic, capitalistic and somewhat arrogant.
It was not until I graduated from college and got the opportunity to work with some non-Chinese colleagues from Canada, Australia and Japan that I realised “foreigners” were not all the same. I could tell that my Canadian colleagues were different from my colleagues from Australia in many aspects, despite the fact that they spoke the same language.
It was also around this time that I started to break away from my former stereotyped thinking and began to open up my mind.
Being open minded is the first step in breaking the ice of cross-cultural differences.
Every time I get an opportunity to interact with people from other cultures, I listen and observe carefully.
Adjusting my cultural mindset to a new environment
In 2008, I moved to the United States. It was my first time in North America, and I was amazed by the diversity of American society—no wonder America is called a multi-cultural “melting pot.”
However, soon after I settled in the USA, I realized that within this “melting pot” there was one dominant culture with many sub-cultures, of which people in the dominant culture seemed to have little understanding. Just like myself when I was young, I met many people who tended to have stereotypes toward so-called “outsiders.”
When I lived in the USA, I had a short contract job helping a local American company prepare for a meeting with a group of Chinese prospects. This was a big deal because these were the very first customers from China for the American company, and the main purpose of the Chinese people’s visit was to do a quality inspection. As this was the first time for the American company to do business with China, the American managers were grappling with the cultural differences between America and China.
Cultural concepts and misconceptions can affect business
During the inspection, the American company served tea and donuts as refreshments for the Chinese visitors. Things went well in the morning, and it was time for lunch so they ordered pizza for a quick solution. Right after lunch, the Chinese inspectors returned to their inspection work.
Things became complicated in the afternoon as the Chinese inspectors questioned the specifications and seemed fussy. The American engineer answered their questions thoroughly, but not to the satisfaction of the Chinese inspectors. One of the inspectors said to me that they didn’t feel they were respected, as the company didn’t provide the original engineering drawing.
I soon realized that it was not because of the engineering drawing that made them feel neglected; rather it was the fact that the owner of the American company hadn’t spent much time entertaining them.
From the American company’s perspective, they didn’t want to interrupt the inspection with a lengthy meal, as the managers wanted to finish the inspection as quickly as possible. However, in Chinese culture, business is not just about business, it’s more about people and relationship building.
Especially as a customer visiting a supplier, the Chinese visitors wanted to feel valued and respected.
I explained this aspect of Chinese culture to the American factory owner, and he took my advice with understanding. At the end of the day, he invited the Chinese party for dinner. During the meal, he shook hands with every inspector and made a toast to thank them for their hard work. He even gave them a book written about the history of the factory to better acquaint them with the American company.
I could see that the Chinese visitors were happy that night, and that was the start of a good international business relationship!
Make an effort when it comes to culture, and build positive business relationships
Making efforts to build a good relationship will help establish trust. Business in America is often “just business”.
However, when doing business with high-context cultures such as China, companies should be more aware of the different cultural aspects. It is especially crucial when doing business for the first time.
As a co-founder of a small business importing consumer goods from overseas, I have dealt with many overseas suppliers over the years. Some of our partnerships with suppliers did not last long, while others have persisted from the very beginning until now.
At the end of the day, you can only continue doing business with people you trust.
Here are some rules of thumb we can bear in mind when it comes to doing business across cultures:
- Do not make assumptions or follow stereotypes
- Be open-minded and willing to learn about other cultures
- Do your homework on the target culture
- Respect not only cultural differences but also individuality
- Find appropriate ways to build trust
A trustworthy relationship is built on mutual understanding and, like any relationship, takes time and commitment to get right.
Don’t you think this is the right way to do business anyway? How has cultural understanding helped with growing your international business?