How Societal Values and Customs Can Make or Break Your International Deal

If your company is based in the United States, you are likely familiar with business etiquette here in North America. It would be normal, expected even, for you to arrive on time (or better… early!) and shake someone’s hand when you greet them during a business meeting, for example, or even to invite fellow associates out for dinner to both discuss a potential deal and socialize with your colleagues.

If you’ve ever given thought to expanding your business to an international market, it is essential to consider how business etiquette may differ in other countries and how adapting to these differences could vastly impact your ability to perform well in a global market.

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Translating and/or localizing your product and services are great steps toward entering the global market. However, these aren't the only things to consider in moving your business forward in a foreign culture. It’s probable that you will need to work directly with other business associates in that country for a successful launch, so learning a little about proper business etiquette there can really go a long way. Your meetings could be face-to-face, via email, video chat, or over the phone. If you are trying to launch your brand in multiple countries, it is essential to familiarize yourself with etiquette for each form of communication. Of course, it is not necessary to learn each and every custom for every location, but if you have a basic understanding of how business etiquette works in each one, the likelihood of success is greater.

Believe it or not, business etiquette stems from one area that people often overlook when preparing for a business trip abroad or a meeting with foreign counterparts. Societal values and customs. You may be thinking, "What do people's values and customs have to do with business etiquette?" Well, you'd be surprised. Take, for example, a U.S. company that wants to do business in China. A group of American and Chinese executives gather in a meeting room in order to talk about a potential partnership or collaboration. During the discussion, one of the U.S. executives asks what it would take to go ahead and "make a deal." As this is only their first meeting, the Chinese executives are offended by his seemingly direct and abrupt manner.  That's because, in China, it can be inappropriate to begin your meeting by discussing the deal you want to close in such a direct manner. It can be considered rude, and you may return home without any deal. Instead, it is more appropriate to develop a relationship with your business partner and avoid interrupting him or her at all costs!

When handing your business card to someone in China, or receiving one from a potential business partner, do so with both hands. This is considered a sign of respect. If you are holding a business meeting in Mexico, for instance, it would not be uncommon for the meeting to begin a little late and for your colleagues to engage in an embrace as a greeting, instead of a handshake, once a perceived friendship is established. Conversely, if you are conducting business in Germany, arriving late is considered rude and business meetings are very formal (always shake hands and greet someone as Herr [Mister] last name even when you know them well).

We recently had a client request the translation of his business card into Japanese. This is also a sign of respect for the Japanese speaker who receives the card. The fact that our client took the time to translate the card for his foreign counterparts shows that he took the time to make their interaction more personable and smooth. We did remind the client that he should add the country code to the beginning of his direct telephone line and to avoid using the extra toll-free 800 number, as it would not be functional outside of the United States. Remember, try to make it easy for your potential clients to reach you!

Since there is no global standard of business etiquette, we recommend always researching the societal values and norms of those with whom you wish to do business. This step ensures that you you will abide by that country’s customs and not come across poorly in the interaction. It also shows respect for your business associates abroad and makes a good first impression on them. Being prepared with more than just your service  or product offerings shows that you are dedicated to doing business in that area and will greatly improve your chance of success when launching your localized product or service.

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