How to avoid cultural mistakes while doing business abroad

Doing business internationally requires a different mindset.
Doing business internationally requires a different mindset.
Image: REUTERS/Rick Wilking
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Though there is an obvious upside to doing international business, for the men and women hopping on long-haul flights, it sometimes feel like more of a burden than a benefit. From missing a cultural cue and insulting a host to fighting jet lag for days, the reality is that you’ll rarely find yourself on business cruise control.

Those who succeed in the international business world have thicker skin than most.  They’ve also embraced a few simple mindset shifts that make a difference. When done well, you’ll ensure the effort made abroad is worth the challenge, yielding returns that impact both the  bottom line and your company’s cultural adaptability.

Mindset shift #1: Over-communicate to communicate

Though you may log plenty of hours with your business contacts, the assumptions that you make about a trip or a deal may not be the ones your business contacts make.

I learned this the hard way once when I was in France. I needed to get on a train to Paris in order to make an afternoon flight to Boston, and I assumed nothing important would be scheduled the morning of this final day, To keep everyone fully informed, weeks prior I had emailed my flight schedule. Either no one read it, they believed work came first, or they assumed I could find another train. Quel dommage! What a pity, indeed, when it came to my travel expenses.

These kinds of mistakes are the reason that it’s so essential to make sure you’ve covered every last detail. Some cultural norms lead people to eschew conflict while others simply hold the idea that the things that haven’t been discussed will be dealt with in due time.

Leave nothing to chance when it comes to general relationship management, travel, or the status of a specific deal.

Mindset shift #2: Accept that everyone will make cultural mistakes–despite best efforts

As an American, you might consider yourself clear, confident, and fluent in the universal language of business. Your non-American host might have a different view: you’re loud, arrogant, and insistent on doing everything in English.

And both perspectives are true! Whether we intend to or not, we bring our own cultural assumptions with us in ways that often inconvenience those with whom we do business.

For example, with just a few hours’ notice, I learned that the spouse and children of an important Chinese client would be in Boston and wanted to get together. I knew this was code for “two days of sightseeing and many formal lunches and dinners”—despite the fact that my calendar was already full of personal and family-related weekend activities. The reality, I knew, was that while Americans often make their plans weeks or months in advance, some cultures make extensive plans with just a few days’—or even hours’ notice.

Our cultural DNA runs deep. Don’t expect that you will ever fully change this reality—and accept that you will occasionally have to adapt to it. Continue to learn, continue to be open, and continue to improve. Assume that those with whom you do business will approach the issue in the same way.

Mindset shift #3: Lower the bar for how you define success

High achievers in business are used to getting everything they want, but when you’re working internationally, the number of variables that you and your team will juggle rise exponentially.

Recently, for example, I was in Tokyo making a final presentation. I’d carefully vetted every detail in advance over several patient months of work. The client took umbrage at two sections of the deal—even though they had proposed these details in the first place. The meeting ended up running three hours late, and everyone walked away tired and upset.

Nonetheless, we still sealed the deal.

Even when both sides come from the same country, I teach my business students that the best deals tend to be when both sides walk away slightly dissatisfied. I would never recommend compromising on key aspects of a transaction, but the reality is that in an international deal, hitting 85 percent of your goals can be quite impressive.

The frustrations that anyone doing business internationally will experience are significant. But the rewards are even greater. In addition to adding to your bottom line, you’ll make a difference by building incredible human relationships across cultures and nations.

Greg Stoller is an entrepreneur and a senior lecturer on entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.