International Business and Workplace Issues

Gaffes to avoid while doing global business

March 15, 2014

The corporate jet has rolled to a stop in a foreign land.

You disembark, chest puffed enough to pop the buttons on your Armani Collezione. The world is yours and you’re not leaving without a signed contract with your prospective foreign business partner. Heck, you’ve been to Europe and vacation in Barbados: How tough could it be to ply your worldly charm on these foreigners?

Oh, boy, are you in for a surprise.

Talk to anyone who’s traveled frequently on business overseas and they’ll admit to a boneheaded blunder or two that reinforced the image of the ugly American.

While one might not care how the rest of the world views “Merica,” a tin ear to cross-cultural communication can stunt or even kill a business deal. Do you really want to go down in infamy as the person who sparked a war between Indiana and Macedonia?

Indiana’s multinational companies like Cummins Inc. and Eli Lilly and Co. have become savvy at the art of cross-cultural communication overseas. But of the 8,000 or so Indiana firms that exported $34 billion in goods last year, “over 85 percent of the companies were small to medium-size enterprises with less than 500 employees,” JPMorgan’s head of international business, Morgan McGrath, said in Indianapolis recently.

That means an increasing percentage of Indiana companies likely don’t have the experience or sophistication of a Lilly when it comes to navigating cultural pitfalls.

For example, in contrast to the “wild West, guns blazing” attitude of many a U.S. businessperson, lengthy relationship-building is deemed a prerequisite to signing on the dotted line in some cultures, said Martin Baier, vice president of programs and services at The International Center in Indianapolis.

Often, “the American approach is just to get that contract signed” and worry about the rest later, said the native of Germany.

Yeah, yeah, heard that relationship stuff before, you say. Same with making sure to present with two hands your business card to a Japanese businessman—piece of cake.

But chances are you have no idea of the miles upon miles of cultural land mines that can blow up a deal with a single, careless step. They range from whom you should address among a group of foreign visitors and how you should address them to even the temperature of the wine you serve.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Peter Kirkwood, protocol officer at The International Center, who conducts global competency training for a number of organizations.

“It seems surprising that, even in 2014, with so much globalization going on, that there’s so much misunderstanding,” said Roberto Garcia, clinical professor of international business at Indiana University.

“People get tricked into thinking because so much of the world speaks English that we actually feel the same way and have the same outlook. But we don’t.”

Indeed we don’t. The following are just a few of the potential pitfalls based on conversations with global travelers.

Baring your sole

Emmis Communications Corp. Chief Financial Officer Patrick Walsh still remembers a trip to Indonesia several years ago when he worked for General Motors Acceptance Corp.

“My boss was a pretty casual fellow,” he recalled of his boss sitting back in a chair and throwing one of his legs over his knee “as Americans are apt to do.”

“Our business guests were absolutely horrified,” Walsh recalled. “It set the meeting off on a very bad footing. I came to learn you want to keep both feet firmly planted.”

Why? The bottom of the boss’s shoe was pointed in the direction of his Indonesian hosts. The sole of the shoe is regarded as unclean, particularly in Middle Eastern-influenced cultures.

That’s why an Iraqi local tossed his shoe, rather than something closer to hand, at President George W. Bush in Baghdad several years ago, Garcia said. The shoe “was showing an extreme sign of disrespect.”

Your time is up!

Tom Xiao, a senior research scientist at Eli Lilly and Co., has heard the stories of a well-intentioned American businessman presenting a gift of a timepiece to a business partner in China.

Trouble is, a watch or a clock given in this regard can symbolize “the end of a relationship,” said Xiao, president of Lilly’s Chinese Cultural Network. “The Chinese are sometimes very superstitious.”

Lilly has a policy that forbids gifts generally.

Appall for the Gaul

Former Thomson Consumer Electronics executive Dave Arland cringes about the time he insulted a visitor from Paris who’d come to Indianapolis. His faux pax? He chilled a bottle of red wine before serving it.

“That’s a big no-no, I found out later. Red wine at the temperature of the cellar is one thing, but one should never chill red wine. Now I know.”

Arland, now CEO of Arland Communications, is lucky he didn’t have his head chewed off. The French often are known as being among the most direct of cultures.

“They’re probably going to say, ‘This is barbaric!’” chuckled IU’s Garcia.

In contrast, those in Asian cultures might honor you with a polite smile, but later tell associates of your ignorance and question whether you can be trusted.

Fly the (proper) flag

If you’re going to honor a business guest visiting from another country by displaying his or her native flag, make sure you display the current flag. Baier noted that flags can change over the years, sometimes to remove symbols associated with a former dictator or otherwise villainous regime. Put up the wrong one and you can evoke painful memories.

On the other hand, displaying the most up-to-date flag can win you good will. Baier recalled the reaction of a person from Hong Kong who beheld his country’s flag at an IUPUI international day event. Baier’s crew made sure to display Hong Kong’s new flag sporting the five petals of an orchid tree—not the colonial flag that reflected Britain’s control before 1997.

The Hong Kong native beheld the new flag with happy tears, Baier recalled.

It’s why the International Center keeps a complete collection of the latest national flags.

Show us your hands

Walsh never really gave a second thought to where he placed his hands while sitting at a dining table during business meetings—until he went to Asia.

“Make sure folks can see your hands throughout the meal,” he advises. Otherwise, you can be perceived as “disrespectful and maybe a little sneaky.”

Table manners

There’s much more to appreciate and learn about the dinner table setting.

In China, it’s common to host a banquet at a restaurant rather than taking a foreign visitor to one’s home for dinner. But don’t just pull up any chair at a restaurant.

“Wait to be seated,” advises Xiao, noting there’s a pecking order, often depending on one’s importance. The Chinese want to respect the most senior person of your group, so go with it.

Likewise, don’t worry about ordering a dish, as the host generally will take care of that. In fact, it’s likely your host will relish presenting you with a variety of foods to try.

“Try to take a taste of each dish,” Xiao said. By the way, it’s OK to tell the host if you have a food allergy, first.

And Xiao has observed it’s important to take seriously a toast the host may offer at dinner—and prepare for multiple toasts. This is a good thing, symbolizing the start of a relationship. To some relationship-based cultures, it’s sort of akin to marrying into the family.

Incidentally, if you’re served a ball of rice, don’t plunk your chopsticks into the ball as if to resemble television rabbit ear antennae. Instead, place the chopsticks on a flat surface. It turns out the rabbit-ear look resembles the configuration of an incense holder used in Chinese funerals.

Movers and hand-shakers

When the International Center’s Kirkwood started working with Baier, he thought it odd that his German-born colleague shook his hand throughout the day.

Sure, you might do a handshake in the morning, but at the beginning and end of every meeting? As it turns out, that’s not an uncommon practice in German business.

If you’re doing business in Germany, there’s even more to know about the handshake. One should always allow the highest-ranking individual the opportunity to initiate the handshake, states the International Center’s briefing book on Germany.

But, “if entering a group, it is proper to offer your hand first. Again, the highest-ranking individual, followed by the oldest, should be offered the hand first.”

Be straight with the jacket

Speaking of our German friends, be sure not to remove your suit jacket until your German counterpart does, said the International Center’s booklet. “Germans tend to leave their jackets on, even in extreme heat.”

You think that’s uncomfortable? Try visiting the International Center’s offices when you’re the only male not wearing a suit coat. Even the male interns at the office had suit coats on and buttoned late one recent afternoon.

Yes is yes, or no

A German businessman asks an Asian counterpart whether his firm can meet a particular deadline. The Asian businessman responds, “Yes.”

But, in fact, the deadline is not met. What happened?

Garcia explains that one needs to carefully consider differing cultural dimensions when asking such questions.

In some nations in the Far East, a person may have said yes, but didn’t necessarily mean it. Rather, he might have perceived you as the more powerful one of the party and responded with a “Yes” to please you. That’s in contrast to Germany or the United States, where, “We say what we mean and we mean what we say,” Garcia said.

So how does one do business with this kind of disconnect? Garcia suggests doing a little research about the cultural aspects. Be sensitive to a culture that defers to power and offers pleasing behaviors. Seek a local expert who may also be familiar with U.S. style, Garcia suggests.

If not, things can crater. If the business counterpart in another country misses a deadline and you respond with, “Why did you lie to me?” that person is likely to be highly offended. In that person’s mind, he wasn’t lying to you about the deadline.

“If people are not aware of this [cultural difference], it starts a chain reaction. Then the business situation can spiral very quickly into distrust,” Garcia said.

Counting pizzas

Arland was in Berlin for a big electronics show several years ago. His team of mostly Frenchmen celebrated the end of the event by going to an Italian restaurant. As one of the senior members of the team, Arland ordered five pizzas, thinking they all could share.

“Only later did I learn that people were aghast and thinking that I was going to eat all of them, since the custom in Europe is, each pizza is to be enjoyed by one individual,” Arland said.

“The idea of sharing your pizza must be uniquely American.”•

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