International expansion has opened numerous doors for small businesses looking to uncover new streams of revenue. But in order to succeed globally, business owners must successfully navigate the new territory of cultural divides.
Whether it’s crossed legs at a meeting or an informal email response, the simplest of gestures can mean the difference between landing an overseas deal or going home with nothing to show for your trouble.
"While everyone tries to do their best to adapt accordingly, there are certain things that are culturally ingrained that can cause problems just because they are so deeply rooted," said Gayle Cotton, an international communications expert and author of “Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere! 5 Keys to Successful Cross-Cultural Communication" (Wiley, 2013). "Sometimes we offend people unintentionally and not even know it." [Read related article: Best Podcasts for Learning a Language]
Karl Halpert, president and CEO of Private Label Select — a manufacturer of lip balms and other personal care products — has been selling his products overseas for the last several years. Offending a customer's, client's or vendor's cultural preferences is a sign that you don't care about the potential relationship, he said.
"The relationship part of it is as important as what you're selling, to the degree that you might not even do any business until you build that relationship," Halpert told BusinessNewsDaily.
Cotton said people definitely notice and appreciate cultural sensitivity.
"If you are aware of certain distinctions between cultures and you show respect for those distinctions, people notice it," Cotton said. "It makes them feel that they are respected and that this is important to you."
Cotton added that there isn't a need to learn and abide by every single cultural difference, but rather to find a common middle ground that allows both sides to feel comfortable working together.
With U.S. businesses now working with clients, customers, vendors and others from such a wide variety of cultures, it's better to find a compromise than to spend hour upon hour trying to learn every last detail about a foreign culture, said Brooks Peterson, founder and president of the international consulting firm Across Cultures Inc.
"I don't like the rather robotic approach of trying to memorize a long list of behaviors," Peterson said. "As a general etiquette tip, I encourage people to be a respectful listener, and to be a curious and genuine researcher when encountering people from other cultures."
That doesn't mean interrogating them about their background, but rather showing interest and asking questions that show you respect their culture and that you are willing to learn more about it.
Halpert advises those working with overseas employees or business owners to be a little more reserved than they might normally be.
"Err on the side of being formal with every encounter," Halpert said. "Just be a little more formal than you might be in the U.S."
Cotton agrees that until the relationship is better established, those working with people from other cultures should act conservatively with body language, word choice and tone.
"Just start in the middle and tone everything down until you get an idea of the communication style of the people you're working with," Cotton said.
Cotton also suggests avoiding the following: overly animated or demonstrative gestures, which can be interpreted as overly aggressive; using acronyms and analogies that people from other cultures might not understand; and telling too many jokes.
"Be careful with humor," Cotton said. "If [English] is their second language, they don't understand the nuances of the English vocabulary in the way we do, and some things just may not translate to them at all."
In addition to being familiar with cultural preferences — like whether it's OK to shake hands when greeting someone — it's important to know a little about the region they are from, Cotton said. For example, do some research on the major political leaders, the neighboring countries and what stories have been in the news.
"Ignorance can be so embarrassing," Cotton said.
Amit Kleinberger, CEO of Menchie's Frozen Yogurt, which has locations in 10 countries and plans to open stores in seven more, agrees it is critical to spend time learning about the marketplace you are looking to join. He attributes much of his international success to the effort he puts into learning about the region he will be working in and the people who live there — from the geopolitical climate and how commodities are driven in each market to what motivates consumers and how best to market to them.
"I do not do business in any country before I sit down and study," Kleinberger said. "When they sit across from me and they see I know their market, immediately my equity goes up in that transaction."
Cultural awareness is important to more than just face-to-face meetings. Cotton said when dealing virtually with people from other cultures, it is critical to closely observe how they are communicating, because that is the style they prefer for communication overall.
For example, if someone from another culture sends a long, formal email, it could be construed as disrespectful to reply back casually without the same formality.
"They are going to feel like, for some reason, they did something for you not to respect them," Cotton said. "If you want to do business effectively with this person and you want them to receive the message the way you intended for it to be received, you need to reply in a style they feel comfortable with and understand."
Kleinberger said business leaders who refuse to accept cultural differences and integrate them into the way they do business will lose out on a significant opportunity to increase revenue.
"You are leaving a lot of money on the table," he said.