By Judith A. Starkey

"woman looking at globes"We hear a lot these days about the “Global Village” and the “Global Economy.” Have you had any personal encounters yet? If not, you very likely will in the near future. If current trends continue much of the future U.S. marketplace will focus, at least in some part, on international business.

Who’s abroad

Clearly prospects for growth abroad, particularly in developing countries, are high. But is this true for everyone? Just what kinds of companies are flourishing in this new world economy? Apparently, all kinds.

In their book, Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order, Richard J. Barnet and John Cavanagh examine how multinational corporations have changed the world over the last few decades. Some 300 of these global corporations “are becoming the world empires of the 21st Century….The balance of power in world politics has shifted from territorially-bound governments to companies that can roam the world.”

In responding to this global economy CEO’s of U.S. firms are saying that the old paradigms are no longer very helpful or useful. Instead, ideas and innovation seem to be at the center of trade and commercial success. Economist Paul Roamer concurs, stating, “In this idea-based economy, there’s an important connection between the size of a market and the value of innovative ideas.” Even small and midsize companies are getting into the act.

If you would like to wade into these global waters, here are a few pointers on staying afloat and conquering the rapids.

Think “relationships”

Most world societies value long-term relationships over short-term profits. Processes for getting the best job done evolve out of these relationships. This perspective is a reversal of how business is often conducted in the U.S., where task achievement is the most powerful sales argument. In group-oriented cultures, considerations about the people involved, from management through the working class, take priority over the end results. Benefits of the product or service are secondary to showing respect for the local hierarchy. Trust is earned over the long-term; trust is paramount.

The first step in establishing relationships abroad is finding an intermediary between you and your prospective client. This individual must be someone who is trusted by both parties, an interpreter of cultural values, behavior and events–not just a translator. Such a person can help not only with introductions, but also act as a guide throughout your global venture to achieve maximum effectiveness for you and your client.

Avoid introducing yourself directly via the mail or, even worse, the telephone. Officials in many foreign countries find such overtures unworthy of notice. Direct mail is a marketing concept unknown in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries. The internet, another possible resource, may be effective among advanced multinational companies. Of course as technology advances and global connections increase, this will change. The world-wide advent of the cell phone and wireless communications is fomenting continual change, but the personal connection is always your best tool.

Let’s look at some specific characteristics of the major global arenas:

Asia

In many Asian countries, where class hierarchy is strictly observed, guests converse with the most senior person present only through an intermediary; it is disrespectful for the visitor to speak directly to that official. Appropriate small talk precedes any business discussion, such as, “How was your flight?,” and the local host initiates business when ready. Attempts by the guest to rush business decisions are considered bad form and negotiations may be canceled immediately.

In order to save face for all parties concerned, refusals are likely to be indirect. There are 16 different meanings for the word “yes” in the Japanese language. Implied messages can include: “I understand,” “I’ll think about it,” “I don’t want to embarrass myself or my family by admitting that I do not understand,” or “I don’t want to embarrass you with a refusal.” The most negative comment you may hear is, “It would be difficult.” Many Asians are taught to contain their emotions in public. Therefore, it may be hard to read their body language. Smiling, particularly for women, is often reserved for intimate circles of family and friends only. Watch for micro-signals, particularly around the eyes; a flaring of the eyelids may signal displeasure. Touching is usually inappropriate.

Allow for silence. Contrary to American speech patterns, which encourage continuous sounds, Asians use silence to deliberate. The Japanese regard hesitancy at an important question as giving due consideration to important matters.

Think indirect vs. direct, restraint vs. open expression. Coming to the point too abruptly and in a loud boasting manner is viewed as bad manners. Modesty is more appropriate in Asian countries. Compliments should be received by sharing credit with those who contributed to the process. Politeness, humility and grace are appreciated and respected. An overall wish to preserve harmony, or “wa” in Japan, is observed.

Be careful using humor. The only “safe” humor is self-deprecatory. Other types are often misunderstood and may be found offensive.

Latin America

Time is relative. In this highly relationship-oriented culture, family and friends assume priority over business. As a result, people are often late to meetings for personal reasons, which is acceptable. A Mexican attorney colleague told me, “If I’m on the way to a meeting and I run into a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, I’ll be late for that meeting.” Schedule accordingly.

Saving face is also important in Latin American cultures. If someone has bad news, you may not be told in order to save you anguish. Take the story of an American who took his car to a local mechanic in Mexico City. He was told it would be fixed in two days. When he went to pick it up, the mechanic said it would not be ready for another day. When asked why he had not stated that in the first place, the mechanic said, “I did not want to disappoint you. This way you had two days without worry.” To determine the actual situation, ask open-ended questions (rather than those requiring only a “yes” or “no” answer) and probe gently for details.

Business starts early in the morning and continues over long lunches, followed by rest periods; it is then resumed until late at night. Personal remarks to enhance the relationship are likely to precede business discussions but, once business is underway, substance with up-to-date content is expected and appreciated. Respect for seniority in age, position and social class are observed.

Europe

Most Europeans are more reserved than Americans. Formality, observing exact titles, positions and social status, is expected. First names are used only when permission is given. Nicknames are non-existent in most European countries. Use your intermediary to make certain you follow the local social graces. Breaches of etiquette could have unexpected consequences, such as insulting your hostess by sending her a gift with negative symbolism. (Example: the color of white connotes death in some countries.) Business is kept separate from one’s private life so, if invited to dinner, discuss it only if introduced by your host. Business breakfasts are not appreciated.

Correctness and style may seem more important than getting things done right. Hierarchy is based on an assumed natural order of things, whereas in the U.S. hierarchy is based on accomplishment.

Here, again, the indirect approach is more effective than coming straight to the point. Information tends to be guarded, rather than openly disseminated. “Brainstorming” may be considered foolish. People are expected to come prepared.

Global tips

To sum up, remember these concepts when dealing with global clients:

• Respect the local hierarchy.

• Honor relationships before sales.

• Be reserved, at least initially.

• Think long term.

The world is rapidly becoming a global village with ample opportunity for all. As we learn more about each other and the contributions our various cultures can make, new paradigms emerge to help us expand our self-imposed limits. Bon venture!

Author Judith A. Starkey is President of The Starkey Group, Inc., a Chicago consulting and training firm providing multicultural strategies. For more information see www.StarkeyGrp.com.