To Be Successful In International Business You First Must Appreciate Other Cultures

January 4, 2016

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In international business it pays to appreciate other cultures or as I say- dont soak in a hot tub without bathing first! .......I was in the sauna the other day.  Koreans like Japanese (and me) like to go to the sauna on regular basis to bathe, soak, bake and perspire.  Though Koreans may not have a water culture that is identical to the Japanese, they do have a sauna culture with jimjilbangs and mogyoktangs on almost every block.  When Korea was digging out of the rubble of the Korean war, it was hard for them to get hot water, etc.  So they started going to saunas on a regular basis.

So, while I was in a local sauna, soaking away in one of the many hot tubs (they have cold tubs too) I noticed what looked like an American or European walking in.  I thought he was an American as the area I was in caters to foreigners especially those from the US, etc.  What surprised me was the person I noticed coming in (in Korea all saunas are separate sex saunas as Korea is a rather conservative society) just plopped into the nearest hot tub without bathing!  In Korea like Japan, the bathing etiquette requires one bathe and wash oneself prior to jumping in a hot tub.  The hot tub is there to soak in- not bathe in.  I think he must have noticed the dirty looks he got from people including me, but it didn’t matter. He obviously didn’t look at the signs posted at the entrance of the sauna reminding everyone to wash prior to using the hot tubs.  No-he just continued to soak – upsetting those around him.  He forgot the main rule of international travel and business- to honor the customs and culture of the society you do business in.  Being culturally aware when you travel to other countries is very important.

Obviously, when doing business in a different country than your own you need to be aware of local laws that may impact your deal. You also need to be aware of local customs, culture, language and etiquette.  Is it proper to give your host (or his wife) a gift?  Is it proper to go out to tea or coffee with your host prior to having that initial business meeting?  Is it proper to disregard local religions and customs?  Should you use an interpreter? The list is endless.  It means you need to place emphasis on cross cultural issues.  Likewise, your host, or the local law firm that is advising you on local legal issues must also be sensitive to your culture, as both parties must make an attempt to understand each other prior to trying to do a deal.

Remember, culture will determine how companies or organizations and their negotiators look at or perceive negotiations or business deals.  Some cultures or countries will look at things differently than other groups or countries.  Some cultures will look at the future differently, or will value compromise differently. Some societies promote problem solving while others promote individualistic goals with little concern for the other side.  Negotiating with other countries or cultures can lead to a clash of values, disagreements over the meaning of words, confusion over inaction or action, and of course failed negotiations.  That is why not only communications across culture is difficult but why language itself is key in international communications.  Having a good grasp of your counterpart's language and culture may determine success or failure.    Knowledge of one’s counterpart or customer’s culture language in an international setting is very important for many reasons. For example, it helps avoid the potential for miscommunication, confusion and misunderstanding of issues.

  1. The problem is that some societies—like the US think that language is not important in business.  Everyone speaks English—why learn another language?  Due to geography- people in the US unlike Europe or Asia do not have to learn another language.
  2. Another issue is that in international negotiations language has a direct impact on intercultural business communications.  As language is a major variable in communications it is intertwined with culture.
  3. Language and culture are so intertwined that language without understanding the cultural implications may cause confusion.   Remember, language reflects the environment where people live. It reflects social issues as well as societal values.  It is an extension of culture.
  4. In an international setting, understanding the culture of your counterpart becomes important.  If you understand the culture of someone you negotiate with you have a better chance of succeeding.  Understanding a different culture means you will communicate more effectively than if you had no idea as to the culture of the person sitting across the table form you.

So before you rush off to a foreign land remember to become cross-culturally aware.  Study the culture and language if possible.  Understand your surroundings.  And above all else- dont soak in a hot tub without bathing first!

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