International business - immerse yourself in the culture of others

We live in a 24/7 global economy. Possibilities and chances are everywhere. At least, they are if you know how to create the right impression. Sadly, that can go wrong if you’re not fully up to speed with how the locals do things in other countries.

Before you head off to do business abroad, it’s important to prepare fully. Knowledge of the country, the culture, the language and the economic and political climate. We’ll look here at a few key points essential to doing business effectively in four of the most important countries for internationally operating companies – the US, China, Russia and India.

China: the relationship is leading

Doing business successfully in China demands that you invest time and energy in building up and maintaining a strong, social business relationship with your contacts. Chinese favor an informal atmosphere during negotiations. They’ll enjoy inviting you to lunch or dinner – or if you’re really lucky, an evening of karaoke! Be prepared for an extended meal, or a long evening of social drinking and singing. It’s also important that you avoid discussing your business questions and issues during these outings.

Chinese business partners are fond of the openness of Western cultures, although the directness of some European cultures can at best be surprising and at worst horrifying. They tend to feel that loss of face (very important for Chinese) isn’t considered important in the West – if it was people would never be so direct. As such, it’s important to keep in mind in choosing how you position your opinions.

In addition, there is often confusion around first and second names in China. There people often use their second/family name as their first name and vice-versa. Is there also a title on the business card? If so, it’s polite and recommended to address that person using that title – at least until told to do otherwise.

Americans: jovial, but definitely business-like

Americans often have a jovial way of approaching business. As such, it’s normal to start using a contact’s first name early in a relationship. However, as jovial as everything comes across, discussions will often need to be short and sharp. For Americans, time is money is a literal concept. As such, it’s important to get to the heart of the matter in as few words as possible. Use plain language. Indirect or vague answers will quickly lead to question marks regarding trustworthiness and sincerity.

Americans enjoy humor, but it would be a serious mistake to make jokes about sensitive topics like religion, politics or race. That means it’s not a great idea to start on the elections and Donald Trump, whatever your opinion on the matter might be.

Furthermore, while Americans might come across as relaxed and informal, that are primarily focused and business-like. There is a significant win-mentality, continually driving them to get the best deal possible. As such, they’re not necessarily conflict-avoidant. Indeed, it’s in those kinds of situations that they often feel most at home. ‘Take it or leave it’!

As a last point, it’s also important to ensure that all agreements are properly recorded and registered. We all know the stories about America’s ’claims culture’. If contracts needs to be signed, it’s entirely normal to have a lawyer look over the fine print with you to ensure everyone is on the same page.

India: significant differences between regions

India has a large number of individual regions, each with its own set of customs and behaviors when it comes to doing business. As such, it’s important to begin exploring the specifics region by region. Learn how the locals approach business in each destination and adjust your strategy and tactics accordingly.

Once you’ve met your business partner in India, it’s very important to try and develop a personal connection with them. Much in the same way as is appreciated in China. You can do this in India by showing genuine interest in your new partners business. You can also make the effort to visit his or her family – an effort that will be very much appreciated.

Indian society is strongly hierarchical. In Indian businesses, such a structure is also the most common way of organizing the operation. Most processes run along set lines. It’s important to bear that in mind, being prepared to be flexible regarding this when necessary.

It’s also the case that Indians will typically try to remain friendly and cheerful, reluctant to make negative or potentially insulting remarks. This can feel very positive, although it can sometimes be difficult to discern what the true position of the personal you’re dealing with is. In Western Europe, people tend to be more open. Sometimes too open and direct, which can be perceived as crude or disrespectful. Just as in China, be prepared to carefully consider how you want to make criticism or express concern.

It’s also important to bear in mind the bureaucracy involved in many processes there, and the delays in planning that can appear as a result. Agreements are only binding if they are on paper. It’s also a good idea to have a professional bureau review any of your potential new partner businesses before you enter a contractual phase with any of them.

Russia: warm and accommodating

While some may have a less than positive view of Russia, the people are by and large generous and warm, ánd are willing to show strong involvement. Furthermore, they tend to be very hospitable and welcoming. If you choose to do business in Russia, it’s again very important to develop a strong relationship with your business partners. Exchanging gifts is one approach that’s highly valued. Spirits and chocolate are considered sure-fire winners.

That said, it’s not simple to do business with Russia – patience is the key virtue. Perhaps the greatest challenges are the customs legislation and logistics procedures – regular changes in how the rules and regulations are put together are not uncommon. That said, the entrepreneur with the drive and endurance to persevere will find enough opportunities to make the efforts worthwhile.

One more important tip: it’s considered bad luck to shake someone’s hand over the threshold of a building. Wait until you’ve been invited to come in, or that your business partner has come into your building.

In everything - take your time

These examples should already give you an indication of the variations in culture you can expect on your international journey. Wherever you go, thorough preparation is certainly recommended. Try to familiarize yourself with the language of your destination and learn a few standard sentences if you can. Make sure you also have access to a good translator – that way nothing can get lost in translation. Add a lawyer with the correct local skill set to your network for when everything gets more concrete. And perhaps more important than anything, commit to fully immersing yourself in the local culture, taking the time to help it really sink in. It’s the key to being properly understood and respected, but takes effort and patience to reap the full benefit.