Business in A Small World

As the world becomes a smaller place, our work involves increasing amounts of travel, dealing with partners and colleagues on other continents. We step outside our cultural comfort zone just to get our jobs done. Regardless of the business you are in, trade has truly become global, and to be successful, we need to learn how our new partners think.

In a 6 month period, I have been fortunate enough to have my consulting practice take me twice to Hong Kong and Mainland China and three times to Europe. Added up, these clients account for more than 10 languages. I have made some mistakes, and taken a few missteps, but I have also learned a lot about doing business in other countries.

In all those trips, one thing surprised me most: simply stated, business issues are all the same regardless of where I travel. Of course culture, language, values, food and just about everything else are different, but all my clients are struggling with the same fundamental planning and execution issues: how do we add value, where do we want to be in the future, and how do we get there?

I haven't travelled nearly as much as some of the road warriors I have encountered, but I have developed a few important principles along the way. I hope they can help you avoid some pitfalls on your next trip:

Don't assume that other cultures are homogenous.
China, for example, is a big place and the culture, language, and practices from one Province to another are incredibly different. From a North American perspective, it is natural to want to treat China, or all of Europe, as one big culture that is different from our own. This assumption is not only culturally insensitive but will lead to faulty business decisions.

Don't ever equate English fluency with intelligence.
This sounds obvious on the surface but is easy to forget in a meeting being conducted in English where it is everyone's second language. Remember that no matter how weak someone's English skills, they probably speak more languages than you!

Don't gravitate to the best English speaker in the room.
In any country, but especially China, this will likely be a sign of disrespect. I found myself in many situations where the most junior people at a meeting or a dinner had the best English skills...and the President spoke the least English. As a foreign business guest you need to be especially careful how much time you spend with each person. I tell myself to forget about language and think about what I would do in a client function in North America.

Don't be upset if people don't always speak English around you.
I have to admit, it used to really bother me when a room (or car) full of people were all speaking like I wasn't even there! Now I try to think about it from their perspective: if we had a visitor at a meeting here, would we all try to speak German? Just remember: you are visiting them, and the world doesn't always work in English.

Keep your ethics intact no matter what.
The old adage "when in Rome, do as the Romans" only works to a point. I believe that as a traveller I should try to experience as much of the local business practices and culture as possible, but only to the point where it starts to bump up against my own line of right and wrong.

Seasoned business travellers all have stories of dos, don'ts and watch outs. We all know someone who has been entertained a little too much by a client the night before a big sales presentation. I myself endured a "moving pizza" that had I not attempted to ingest, would have shown disregard for my host.