When working on international business deals, trying to negotiate contracts, and figure out marketing strategies for that particular market, being prepared (or not) for unexpected cultural factors can make or break you. This is why it’s important to invest in cultural research early – before you have any hard-set strategies in place! It may be too late after everything is printed, ready to be signed, and your marketing strategy is set in stone (or at least after you have spent thousands of dollars working on it).
Take a look at four very real cultural factors that affect all international businesses, whether you’re a start-up just feeling your way into the international market or a behemoth with a lot of international experience. The same rules apply to both.
Language is the first on our list, and it can’t be ignored. It might seem obvious that when stepping foot into an international market, you have to “speak the language” or at least have all your business paperwork subjected to some sort of technical translation. Tax laws, employment laws, and just about everything else you can imagine is different abroad, and you don’t want to be surprised.
But translating outside of the rigid business paperwork and bureaucracy is important too. You might have a solid advertising strategy in mind, but keeping on top of idioms, cultural nuances, and the way that normal people talk is not only respectful – it’s also smart. Without a proper translator that oversees your cultural aspects, like social media campaigns and customer service, you can very well become “too foreign” or even worse – tone-deaf to the needs of your customers.
This is a simple mistake, but it can make your brand infamous and the butt of jokes for some time to come. For example, when Ford launched an ad campaign in Belgium, the text of the ad read “every car has a high-quality corpse” – the English meaning, of course, being “body” – and “body” not meaning exactly the same thing in Belgium. If they hired a native speaker, this translation disaster would have been avoided.
Although many Americans’ religion might seem like a far-away thing when it comes to business, religion might be an important thing to take into consideration when it comes to international trade. Why?
Those Sunday night sales that you are so fond of in your own market might not work if most stores are closed on Sundays in another country. This includes religious holidays that affect trade in the whole country – like Ramadan, Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Diwali, Orthodox New Year – the list goes on and on.
Some of the most famous changes made to a product because of religion in a given country are McDonald’s menu in India – a lot of the items were replaced by local vegetarian options, and beef was replaced by either vegetarian or chicken substitutes to be in compliance with religious eating habits.
It’s important to look at what you offer and see if it’s compatible with people’s local religious beliefs or if it will clash with their values. At the same time, it’s important to remember that a clash does not mean disaster for your business plans but a chance for creative change.
This is an important, although often overlooked, cultural factor that can affect international business quite a lot. Because we are raised, educated, and work with completely different nuances and social guidelines, it’s sometimes easy to fall into the pattern of thinking that assumes that what we do is normal for everyone. This is not so.
It starts with a simple greeting. Sometimes, different cultures expect a bow – other times, it’s a hug, a firm handshake, or even a kiss on the cheek. There are whole articles written about how you should shake hands during an interview in some countries. If we can make it so complicated for ourselves, why can’t other cultures?
The fact is, every country will have its own business etiquette. If you don’t know what it is, people are likely to feel insulted, uncomfortable, or just pass you off as a simpleton and ignorant.
If you’re eager to hear some examples, it’s fascinating to know that if you’re in South Korea, you might be expected to join your business partners in a few rounds of Karaoke. If you like indirect business talk and lots of nuances and superfluous small talk, you might want to put that away when you’re in Germany, and when you’re in Italy, be prepared to build personal relationships like you’ve never done before.
Negotiation is one of the most crucial business skills, and it’s a huge part of doing successful business anywhere you are. International business negotiation, like all negotiation, means that all the parties involved walk away happy and satisfied with the outcome.
There are many different studies out there on the best way to approach international negotiation, and they all say that in order to reach your objective, your tactics have to be in line with the culture and language, and have a deeper understanding of what your client’s goals and motivations are. It may be worth taking a deeper look at their culture and doing some research about international negotiation tactics that have been developed over the years.
In the international theater, negotiation can look very different from what you’re used to. Everything may play a part here. Get ready to research things like:
- Non-verbal cues
- Communication customs
- Trust customs
And many more things that may affect your negotiation talks.
Deciding to take your business to the international level takes a lot of guts, but it also requires a lot of research. The best way forward is to find someone who will not only translate all your efforts into the local language but let you have a window into the local customs, traditions, and cultural cues that you may encounter on your journey with clients, partners, and the institutions of any market you’re thinking about entering.