Why Understanding Culture Is Important to Doing Business Around the World
The importance of understanding business etiquette country to country
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
As your business expands around the world, you're going to have to travel--possibly a lot, and to a lot of places.
We have Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator programs in more than fifteen countries, and on an average month, I'd say I travel about 50 percent of the time. Each different country has its own expectations about how business is done, and a little research can go a long way toward making your meetings go smoothly. I like to make a few other preparations so that I'm not an "Ugly American" when I'm on the road.
It's OK if you don't know the culture of every country you are traveling to for business. But you'll make a better impression if you're aware of and make your best effort to follow traditions.
Understand the business customs.
I often consult the book, "When Cultures Collide" by Richard D. Lewis, when I am going to a country with a strong tradition and culture around how business works. For example, in Japan, the most important person in the room will be flanked by the next most important people, who are with them but will not necessarily do any speaking. In many countries, it is customary to bring a token yet thoughtful gift for the most senior executive. Some cultures have a very specific way to share business cards.
Learn the language.
I've found that using my relatively serviceable French in France makes for a much better engagement with a French team, not because we are going to transact in French but because I made the effort. Not offending your hosts or future business parties is the first goal, but learning and growing from the experience is a great side effect.
Dress the part.
What are the expectations of the culture around clothes? If it's a culture that is formal, I bring clothes that I know won't offend. Some countries are offended by open toe shoes or expect men to wear suits and women to be wearing dresses or skirts.Eating for your company
Expand your palate.
What are the traditions around food and business meals? In France, I know that I may be at a multi-course dinner with lots of wine and conversation and could be out for hours. In Portugal, I know that dinner may start late and be communal and laid back. In China, I could expect an elaborate meal with many specialties and small dishes that are ordered by the host of the dinner. Wherever you're going, do your research, and be aware of the expectations around who will pay, order, and set the location.
See the world.
A perk of traveling a lot is seeing the world. Familiarize yourself with where you are going and check out the highlights. If you travel as much as I do, you don't necessarily want to add an additional day to the trip to explore (though this can be fun if time permits). Instead, sometimes you can tour a city on foot at night or on a quick break during a meeting. I've been surprised by how many cities are accessible and indeed wonderful at night--Budapest, Hungary, was one of the most interesting, because all of the highlights were lit up at night, and it's an easy walking city.
In the words of Roy Rogers: "Happy trails to you, Until we meet again."