International business entertainment begins with respect
Business executives preparing for a dinner with counterparts from the Melanesian nation of Vanuatu almost certainly would be scouring the Web for cultural tips to avoid misunderstandings.
It’s just as important — but often overlooked — to understand cultural differences with the folks who seem just like us.
“The differences are subtle, but they’re important,” says Yvonne Stedham, a professor of management at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Australians, for instance, take offense at bragging or even the self-inflation that often accompanies an American’s introduction of himself.
Whether business entertainment involves someone who seems just like us, or executives from a seemingly exotic culture, Carina Black, executive director of the Northern Nevada International Center, says the starting point for successful cross-cultural business entertaining begins with a single word: Respect.
That begins, both Black and Stedham say, with respect for the cultural background of business guests.
“Be humble and don’t judge,” advises Stedham.
While guidebooks are plentiful — the UNR professor particularly likes “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway — Stedham says cultural sensitivity is far more important.
That translates into an ability to pay close attention and adapt the behaviors that will help keep communication open.
Some elements of culture are so deep-seated that they are difficult to recognize in ourselves.
Americans, for instance, are members of a culture that is, by far, the most individualistic on earth. Other cultures — even some in northwest Europe — pay far more attention to the collective group as opposed to the individual.
The religious background of business guests presents particular minefields.
Muslims gather for prayer on Friday. Shabbat — the day of rest — begins at sundown on Friday for many Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Most Christians mark Sunday as their Sabbath.
Failure to respect religious beliefs, not surprisingly, can prove disastrous in business relationships.
But even matters as small as the presentation of a business card can be freighted with meaning.
In many Asian cultures, business cards are presented formally — the face of the card out, the presenter holding the card by its upper corners, the presenter making direct eye contact with the recipient.
The Western practice in which business cards often are dealt as informally as cards from a blackjack deck may be viewed as disrespectful in other cultures.
“If it’s a big-enough contract, I would think about bringing in someone who can provide training — even for three or four hours — in etiquette and culture,” Black says.
But beyond specific cultural expectations and religious expectations, she says successful cross-cultural business relationships are based on understanding of the fundamental differences in the world’s cultures.
And that, Black says, starts with an understanding of high- and low-context cultures.
Low cultures such as those that dominate the North America and Europe tend to be direct, down-to-business and time sensitive. Status of the participants in a conversation — a young person speaking with an older one, for instance — generally isn’t a big deal.
In high-context cultures such as those of Latin America, Asia and many African nations, time is less important. Relationships build slowly. Relative status is important.
Is one right? One wrong? No, Black says, just different. But woe unto the Nevada businesswoman who believes the whole world thinks — or should think — like she does.
Stedham says the root of cross-cultural business relationships rests on the building of trust in three aspects:
• Being perceived as knowledgeable.
• Being perceived as having integrity.
• Being perceived as benevolent and non-threatening.
Varied cultures take different paths in building trust. A night on the town may be necessary in some cultures as a first step in building trust. In others, absolute integrity — even in offhand comments such as “We’ll take care of it” — are critically important.
“There always will be a different frame of reference,” Stedham says. “If both parties understand the reference frame of the other, there will be much more effective communication.”
Nevada executives who are entertaining foreign guests, Black says, sometimes face a greater challenge that executives elsewhere in the United States.
Given Nevada’s wide-open reputation, guests from a straitlaced foreign nation might expect that a business trip will begin with a visit to a brothel or a long night on a casino floor.
The answer? Black says a detailed, hour-by-hour agenda for the visit that’s provided to guests before they arrive will keep expectations in line.
No matter whether the business entertainment takes place in northern Nevada or distant city, Stedham says open-minded willingness to learn always remains important.
“It’s OK to ask,” says Stedham. “People like it when you ask. It means you are not arrogant. It means you are respectful.”
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