Got Cultural Intelligence? Why It Matters for Your Business Success Abroad

by / ⠀Startup Advice / August 5, 2012

Are you getting ready to form a partnership overseas or expand your target market to work with clients abroad?

You know that you need to learn the local language so you have probably purchased a phrase book or taken some language classes. You have even brushed up on some of the different customs, traditions and food that you will encounter when you get there. All set to go, right? Not so fast!

If you believe that this is the extent of the preparation that you need to do, you are about to make a mistake- a mistake that could result in a missed opportunity for your business.

The factor that will determine your success or failure overseas is your ability to navigate cultural differences. These are norms, values and communication styles that run deeply and influence every aspect of business from marketing, to negotiating, to partnering, to public speaking. Gain some basic skills and awareness around these five common stumbling points and you will have a much better chance of success.

Time: How many times have you used the phrase, “My time is worth $___”? For Americans, Scandinavians, Japanese and other mono-chronic cultures, time is a commodity. We “waste time”, “save time” and place a value on our time. We often place a higher priority on completing tasks than building relationships. For us, time is linear. It will eventually run out.

Try using the phrase “Please respect my time” in some cultures and your business partnership might be over before it even begins. If you plan on doing business in Latin America, Mediterranean Europe or India, you will hit a wall if you don’t recognize that your clients use time in a very different way. For these “poly-chronic”  cultures, time is circular, not linear. A block of time can be used to accomplish numerous things instead of completing one task and moving to the next. A deadline is an approximation, not a promise. This is not just about punctuality. Different cultures conceptualize and make use of time in completely different ways. Do your best to observe the differences and stay flexible with your attitude toward time.

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Nonverbal Communication: If a business partner failed to make direct eye contact with you, what conclusions would you make? Would you consider the person dishonest? Lacking in confidence? Scratch your assumptions when you board your flight. In many cultures, including Japan, it is often considered a sign of respect to avoid eye contact. But it doesn’t stop there! As a woman, do you think it’s polite to cross your legs in a meeting? In Tokyo, make the switch to crossing your ankles instead of your legs and you will avoid upsetting your Japanese colleagues. Since you might not be fluent in the target language, your nonverbal communication skills will become even more crucial.  Take some time to study common nonverbal cues in your target country. Doing this could help you establish rapport more quickly with your new partners or clients overseas.

Levels of Directness: Remember what we just said about nonverbal communication? This is where you’ll need those intercultural nonverbal skills as you take them to the next level. In the United States, we tend to communicate our entire message in the words that we say. We like things to be upfront and out there. “Just tell it like it is”, we demand. Do you think you will get the same style of communication from your colleagues overseas? Not if you are working in Southern Europe, Latin America, East Asia, Southeast Asia or India. In these cultures, the message is not in the words that are said. Instead, it is in the tone, the accompanying hand gestures, the posture, a turn of the head or the use of a smile. I am talking about serious nuances! Be perceptive and realize that communication will be happening, even if it’s not in the words that are used.

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Negotiation Style:  When it comes to intercultural negotiations, the biggest liability for the American entrepreneur might be her impatience and constant awareness of the ticking clock. Professionals from other cultures know this about Americans, and they can and will capitalize on it. When you select someone from your team to carry out a negotiation, consider how your partners overseas will view your choice. In our egalitarian culture, we like to believe that a young professional can serve the role of head negotiator as well as any seasoned manager can if he has the knowledge and skills. In places like Indonesia, where age is a key indicator of expertise and status within the company, this strategy won’t lead to any successful deals. Also, pay special attention to your choice of attire for the negotiation. In the U.S., casual business attire brings colleagues together.  Overseas, it could work against you by insulting your partners and it could even make them unwilling to proceed.

Group vs. Individual Orientation: If you grew up in the U.S., as a child, you might have been applauded by adults for finally learning to tie your shoes “all by yourself!” The lessons we learn as kids contribute to the people we become as young entrepreneurs; what’s more, if you are starting your own company, you are probably even more of a “rugged individualist” than the average American. If you plan to form a team with cultures that function with a more group-oriented mentality, expect to be challenged. In group-oriented cultures, professionals have less autonomy to make creative decisions on their own. It might take longer to get a new idea or strategy approved since many people have to agree on it.  Group harmony and “saving face” (avoiding embarrassing someone in front of the group) is crucial in business situations in China and Japan. Do not call anyone out individually or expect people to “speak their mind” if they disagree with their manager or someone higher up in the company.

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You have an exciting adventure ahead and tons of opportunities for personal and professional growth through your overseas venture. But don’t expect things to function as they do in the United States. We have only skimmed the surface of what you need to consider when you pencil overseas deals into your business plan. Prepare yourself! Hone your observation skills, read up on your target culture, stay flexible, maintain a sense of humor and you will be on the right track to successful business communication abroad.

Lindsay McMahon is the founder of English and Culture. She helps professionals reach their goals through better communication across cultures. Her company provides cultural competence training and English language tutoring for international professionals in Boston and New York.

About The Author

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Co-Founder of Under30Experiences, a travel company for young people ages 21-35. He is the original Co-founder of Under30CEO (Acquired 2016). Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 50+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives. He is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers.