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Before she embarked on a 10-day business trip to Tunisia, Dana Marlowe thought she was prepared to navigate the country's North African culture. As she prepared for her keynote address at an international conference, Marlowe - the principal partner at an accessibility IT consulting firm - researched the country's cultural differences and customs. She even read two guidebooks and learned a handful of common Arabic phrases.
However, once on the trip, Marlowe unknowingly committed a cultural faux pas. During a meeting with Tunisian businessmen, coffee was served to all attendees, but Marlowe didn't feel like taking a sip because it was extremely hot and she's not much of a coffee drinker. Fifteen minutes later, she noticed that none of the businessmen had taken a swig of their coffee either.
"I didn't realize that the eight businessmen were all waiting for me to take a sip of my coffee first," Marlowe says.
— Joel Gross, founder and CEO of Coalition Technologies
For Marlowe and other business owners, communicating with international business partners can be fraught with potential cultural faux pas. Here are some tips to avoid them.
Business owners should consider how cultural differences impact communication style. When communicating with foreign business partners, it's important to keep in mind that not all humor translates across the cultural divide, cautions Manoj George, CEO of Nair & Co., a global business expansion consultancy. "Don't try to be sarcastic or ironic," he says. "Things that may fly in certain countries very well because there is a subtlety of humor, won't translate in others." In England, for example, humor is much more subtle and understated than in the U.S., where hyperbole is sometimes favored.
Another key to a successful communication style is to document everything, says Joel Gross, founder and CEO of Coalition Technologies, a Los Angeles-based Web design firm that serves an international clientele.
"The best way to do business is to get everything in writing, and to use simple, uncomplicated language when conveying reasoning or concepts," Gross says. His company drafts a contract that both parties sign to establish expectations on both ends.
This method may be especially useful when discussing international payment plans, or clarifying arrangements with set terms and conditions - such as plans to use a trusted online foreign exchange service that can increase transparency and control over international bank transfers.
Even when there isn't a formal document involved, it may be wise to transcribe business meetings and provide both parties access to the record in their own languages.
Given the complexity of international customs and business practices, it can be tough to learn every cultural nuance.
"The general advice that we follow is to be respectful," says George, whose company supports client operations in about 60 countries. "When in doubt, take it slow. Always address people by their first name, if you don't know if [you're dealing] with a male or a female."
Another good rule of thumb is to remember that foreign business partners "share much in common with you," says Tadd Rosenfeld, CEO of TeamLauncher, a talent leasing service with operations in the U.S., India and the Philippines.
"Oftentimes businesspeople make a big mistake in focusing on what the word 'polite' means internationally," he says. "If you can speak to the real needs of people, they will not care as much about whether you are using the words 'please' and 'thank you' in the right order."
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