7 tips to successfully negotiate across cultures

Expanding your business to another country can help you open up new markets and even develop new country-oriented products. When you do business with other countries, it’s vital to take cultural aspects of each country in which you do business into consideration, and you will also need to ensure you adhere to both local and international laws.

Here are some tips from my experiences as a Business English Trainer:

1. Make a conscious decision to find more understanding

Expect things to be different than they are in your home country. If someone acts or speaks in an unexpected way, ask them to help you understand their reaction. You may find they aren’t even aware of what they’re doing, and that interaction will help build your relationship.

2. Don’t make assumptions

Assuming that clear communication alone will overcome cultural differences, you’re going to make it more difficult for everyone involved. Instead, choose to better understand their culture first – that will help you understand each other. This can be easy to overlook when people from other cultures visit you in your home country. How can you help them gain a better understanding of differences?

While it’s important to explain how you do things in your country, stay away from using jargon which could be very confusing to a foreigner. In English we use idioms a lot and this can be misunderstood by non-native speakers.

3. Approach with curiosity, not judgment

Judgment builds walls. The person who believes their customs are the best and that others need to conform will miss delightful opportunities to appreciate other cultures around the world. Different isn’t better or worse; it’s just different. Curiosity allows you to understand and respond in a way that builds relationships.

In Europe it is regarded as being polite when a man opens a door for a woman. However, in Japanese culture, a business man opening a door for women would mean he was a lower-level associate, and it’s now well seen. Surprising as it may seem, this is their culture – not better or worse, just different.

4. Pay attention

Be mindful of the little actions of others. When you see something that doesn’t make sense, ask about it. It may be nothing, but it may provide insight, or an opportunity to show respect and improve relationships.

When I came to live in Spain, it surprised me how clients- both male and female would give me kisses on both cheeks as a form of greeting. In England we have a different relationship with clients and we normally shake hands with them at the start, during and after a meeting. At first, I thought the client was overstepping his mark but upon enquiry, I realised that greetings are different from culture to culture even during formal meetings.

5. Be willing to change your approach

If you know a culture has different norms and behaviours, approach issues from their perspective. This is true whether you’re trying to have a business meeting or just trying to get along in social situations.

I was delighted with the progress we had made at a business meeting in Madrid, only to get back a written summary that was the exact opposite of what I thought we’d discussed. I had been waiting for a phone call for days because the lady had said “we will call you soon” but as the week progressed, I did not hear from her.

When I contacted her, she told me that when she didn’t call back it was because they did not accept the offer. I learnt that it was a polite manner of declining and she did not want to give a direct “no”.

6. Tone of voice matters

Tone of voice is how the character of your business comes through in your words, both written and spoken. It’s not about what you say, but rather the way you say it, and the impression it makes on everyone in your audience who reads or hears you.

Think about it. Everyone you meet has their own way of expressing themselves that’s as unique as their face or fingerprint. Some are pleasant and polite. Others are pushy and in your face.

While discussing a grammar aspect in class, a new student said, “why? with a tone of “demanding”. At first, I was taken aback as her tone sounded aggressive. However, I learned that she was asking because she did not understand the concept that was being discussed in class and had doubts. However, as a British person, the manner in which she posed the question and her facial expressions made me feel like she was questioning my knowledge and this made me feel insecure.

When your tone is consistent, your audience hears the same person speaking whenever and however they deal with you. That shows them you’re a consistent, reliable company or person to deal with, and that every part of their personal brand experience with you will be equally good.

7. Commit to mutual respect

My experience has overwhelmingly been that people appreciate it when you make a genuine effort to fit in, even if you don’t get it exactly right. Learn a few words of their language. Ask questions. Be engaged in a journey of understanding. And remember that there is a fine line between seeking cultural understanding and stereotyping people. As I stated at the beginning, all cultures are made up of individuals.

Finally, be sure to help others do the same when they’re visiting you. Pay attention to things they may think are odd and offer to explain, especially if, culturally, they don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification. There’s no one culture which is better than the other. Always give respect, and respectfully ask for it in return.

Brenda Ng’andu. Blogger, MSc Law, CIH, TEFL, Business Trainer


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