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Doing Business in Other Cultures

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by Kimberly A. Edwards, Freelance Writer —

Kimberly Edwards

“We live in a multicultural, multifaceted world,” says Dawn Bruno, senior international trade specialist at the New York City U.S. Export Assistance Center. “People have the ability to find you from everywhere around the globe. For this reason, companies that are successful are able to navigate the intersection between culture and business.”

Given today’s technology and the Internet’s redefinition of community, audience, and customer, publishing now crosses cultural borders in all its phases—acquisition, design, printing, assembly, promotion, sales, and distribution. With that in mind, I decided to do some research about the cultural awareness necessary for paving the way to partnerships in a world with porous borders.

Kwuintessential, a company that prepares corporations to work transculturally, believes that entertaining, dealing with, and corresponding with associates from different cultures can open treasure chests. Familiarity promotes clearer communication, softens barriers, strengthens relationships, and yields results. The company’s Culture Vulture blog suggests that understanding different viewpoints is a valued skill.

“People appreciate effort made,” says Problogger Bill Belew, author, professor, and international search engine optimization consultant. And often, he adds, attempts lead to trust, which leads to a business deal: “Nothing beats making the effort, taking the time to understand one another.”

Clues to culture can be obvious or subtle. They manifest themselves in level of formality, in comfort or discomfort with ambiguity, and in views on authority and government, age and hierarchy, and assertion and competition, to name a few of the areas. They surface as gestures, degree of directness, eye contact, taking turns/pause time, touch, vocal patterns, and body space.

In his book How to Negotiate Anything with Anyone Anywhere Around the World, Frank L. Acuff addresses the importance of knowing a country’s business etiquette, social rules, and crucial do’s and don’ts, and he classifies cultural factors as use of time, individualism vs. collectivism, role orderliness and conformity, and patterns of communication.

When contact is electronic rather than face-to-face, clarity demands greater attention, and even design issues matter. Consider Websites, for example. Some cultures prefer muted hues. Americans eagerly post personal photos, but elsewhere the practice may be discouraged.

Cultural competence—the ability to shift between the perspectives and frames of reference of one culture and those of another—ranges from minimal awareness to assimilation, the experts note. Assimilation requires in-depth experience that may be hard, or impossible, to come by, but one goal is generally achievable: We can recognize that behaviors hold different meanings in different cultures and know how to avoid sending unintended signals.

Tips for Communicating in Another Culture

Learn about the culture’s current events, history, and viewpoints. Expand your knowledge beyond its language, music, and cuisine.

Visit social networking sites and blogs geared toward groups you are trying to reach to get a sense of the range of positions, communications, and popular topics. Use insights you glean as you develop conversation and rapport.

Don’t rush to judgment about the culture and its people, Acuff advises. Don’t go overboard with either positive or negative reactions. Show patience. Seek a balanced range of advice from people with experience.

Identify social and business customs where values are embedded. Are introductions conducted by shaking hands? Bowing and trading business cards facing out? Maria Kjoller, director of subsidiary rights, special sales, and international distribution for the Lerner Publishing Group, presents titles to editors from all over at the Frankfurt International and the Bologna International Children’s Book Fairs. “Even knowing something as basic as when it’s okay to give a hug, a kiss, a handshake, or a bow shows respect and professional courtesy,” she says.

Observe how conversation is conducted. Are “sir” and “ma’am” used? Titles such as “Dr.”? Americans tend to be informal and to cozy up quickly, but people in other cultures may find first names inappropriate. Americans ask questions as a means of showing interest, but those questions can be interpreted as probing.

Be respectful. Avoid metaphors, slang, and phrases with negative overtones such as “You need to understand,…” says Bruno, “As a New Yorker, I talk fast, so I make sure to enunciate. In writing, I try to be clear and concise. Humility and honesty go a long way.”

Find a commonality, such as sports or movies. Emphasize mutual interests. Avoid potentially sensitive topics such as politics, U.S. policies, and religion. Don’t talk loudly, draw attention to yourself, joke about customs, or criticize superiors.

Inform yourself about gift-giving, payment, and tipping practices. Avoid complimenting others on possessions, as local customs may require that those possessions then be offered to you.

Know appropriate dress and arrival times. In general, Americans operate casually. When in doubt, err on the conservative side. Relaxed behavior can be interpreted as lack of regard.

Be real and smile—the universal lubricant. Says Dave Landis, a Website designer who blogs at China Connection, “People from other cultures will sense if you are genuine.”

Display integrity. Don’t press for business. Bruno advises clients about the earned level of confidence. “It may take time and effort to develop. Even the little things that people don’t necessarily think about—like the way Americans jump into a meeting without spending time on pleasantries—have to be viewed through a cultural lens.”

Field-test translations, as an unintended blunder can be disastrous. According to Kwuintessential’s Culture Vulture blog, you should make sure content and visuals are culture neutral. For example, some acceptable American gestures are insulting in another culture. Also, humor is tricky. What’s regarded as funny in one country may not go over well in another.

Lessons from Experience

“When we sell titles to be translated, we allow foreign publishers to insert appropriate changes. They know best what works in their culture,” says Rudy Shur, author of How to Publish Your Nonfiction Book and head of Square One Publishers, which has published more than 1,000 titles, including many bestsellers. Shur travels to international book fairs and finds that foreign publishers and distributors are distinctly different from one another, even in other English-speaking countries. “The Brits like a minimum of information on covers. The Aussies don’t mind our covers, but have problems with some Americanisms in the text,” he says.

In the end, Shur says, business is business in his particular field. “You must deal with perhaps 100 different publishers or more to find the company willing to buy rights to your titles. You have to be sure that the company making an offer is financially stable. Just because the representative is well dressed and speaks English better than you do, that doesn’t mean a good partnership.”

Bruno is struck by the lengths that people will go to converse. “It’s not necessary to be fluent to communicate across cultural barriers. A few simple rules of thumb go a long way,” she says; learn basic polite words, even if you mispronounce them, and learn mannerisms (like shaking hands vs. not).

“You don’t have to be perfect, but if you try in a respectful way, then that will be reciprocated and will open doors. It’s important to be humble. You’ll make mistakes, and that’s OK,” Bruno adds. “Do your homework about the country and culture, try to relate to the people, and, most important, be flexible.”

Belew sums up the route to good cross-cultural associations. “Go with the old American proverb, ‘Actions speak louder than words.’” Share a meal and take time to listen, he advises: “People do not always judge how well you converse, but rather how hard you try.”

Kimberly Edwards (kimberlyedwards00@comcast.net) serves on the board of directors for the California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch. She recently retired from the California Department of Education, where she coordinated the California Teachers of the Year Program.

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