Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Business (Not) As Usual - Conducting Business Abroad


I realize this is a departure from my usual verbosity, but I am extremely interested in opening a conversation around this topic. The topic: conducting business abroad.

I’ve been to Europe twice in the last 4 weeks, and these experiences have opened up whole host of questions for me. The first trip was for pleasure, during which I was exposed to the expat life. The second was for business with Creative Realities, and I was struck by the multitude of differences between how Americans conduct business versus Europeans (in this particular instance Germans – yes, I realize all parts of Europe are not equal…). The formality – Herr, Frau – the incredible deference, was eye-opening.

I am far from a first-timer abroad but this was the first time I hopped across the pond with business on the agenda. And, in retrospect, I found that I was deferential in some respects but completely obstinate in others. For example, in the use of first names I stuck to my guns. Having been communicating with this team for almost a month over email, and having been on an imposed (by me) first name basis from day one, I did not change my behavior. This was not with selfish or disrespectful intent, but out of respect for consistency of delivery and also the congeniality we hope to convey in all of our interactions with our clients. It still leaves me feeling a little funny knowing that they would do otherwise.

So here’s where I would love some conversation, and more experiential evidence. What have your experiences been? Do you try and push your typical operating model onto the other or do you acquiesce? Where is the happy medium? Is there a happy medium? At the end of the day, does it matter? I ask that final question because ultimately, I think both parties in my most recent experience were accommodating and polite in all respects, and as such, no behavior was negatively construed regardless of whose norms it followed.

What do you think?

For full disclosure I do hope to personally benefit from the output of this discussion as I head back to Deutschland in a week, but I think and hope others will similarly prosper.



- Clay Maxwell (@bizinovationist)



Clay is a Business Innovationist with Creative Realities, an innovation strategy consulting firm. He is a frequent contributor to their Innovationist Blog where all things innovation are discussed. You can find out more about Creative Realities at www.creativerealities.com

2 comments:

Tina Cassler said...

Thank you for writing about cross-cultural / intercultural communication in the business setting. After nearly a decade in international education, a couple of years living overseas (Germany & Japan), and now a few years in marketing communications, I continue to be fascinated by how much people communicate through their words, actions and other “non-verbals” (behaviors, perception, etc.).
I find it helpful to think of intercultural communication as consisting of a spectrum of communication styles ranging from low context cultures (e.g., German) which tend to be very direct to high context cultures (e.g., Japanese) which tend to be very indirect.
For your particular situation, Germans tend to be more direct in their communication styles and may say whether calling them by their first names is too personal or lacking in respect. However, it depends on the nature of the business relationship and the hierarchy within the situation. Is this a business relationship that is two equal partners (companies) working together? Is one of the parties of a significantly higher status (junior associate versus CEO)?
In my work overseas and stateside with international colleagues, I’ve tried to allow the geography (and language) of our initial meetings dictate the formality of naming conventions. Again, it depends on the business situation and the status of everyone involved. When I wasn’t sure, I asked how people liked to be called. Perhaps a sign of weakness to some, asking is empowering to the individual and we all do business with individuals.
Communication is also a two way street and it’s good to remember that there is the implicit cultural baggage of being an American (or German). Some of the things Americans are known overseas are good (open, friendly, helpful, etc.) and bad (loud, ethnocentric, monolingual, etc.). Occasionally, this can be an unfortunate situation if one accidentally parlays into any of the negative behaviors. Some may overlook such behaviors. Others may be embarrassed, discussing about it only among sympathetic compatriots. Worst case scenario, they may assume the person to be a full-fledged “ugly American" and simply go through the motions required rather than build a strong, long-lasting relationship.
If you work overseas often, I would encourage a look at this chart (http://www.genderwork.com/services/culturalassessment.html) and this excellent definition of High Context and Low Context (http://www.culture-at-work.com/highlow.html).

Tina Cassler said...

Thank you for writing about cross-cultural / intercultural communication in the business setting. After nearly a decade in international education, a couple of years living overseas (Germany & Japan), and now a few years in marketing communications, I continue to be fascinated by how much people communicate through their words, actions and other “non-verbals” (behaviors, perception, etc.).
I find it helpful to think of intercultural communication as consisting of a spectrum of communication styles ranging from low context cultures (e.g., German) which tend to be very direct to high context cultures (e.g., Japanese) which tend to be very indirect.
For your particular situation, Germans tend to be more direct in their communication styles and may say whether calling them by their first names is too personal or lacking in respect. However, it depends on the nature of the business relationship and the hierarchy within the situation. Is this a business relationship that is two equal partners (companies) working together? Is one of the parties of a significantly higher status (junior associate versus CEO)?
In my work overseas and stateside with international colleagues, I’ve tried to allow the geography (and language) of our initial meetings dictate the formality of naming conventions. Again, it depends on the business situation and the status of everyone involved. When I wasn’t sure, I asked how people liked to be called. Perhaps a sign of weakness to some, asking is empowering to the individual and we all do business with individuals.
Communication is also a two way street and it’s good to remember that there is the implicit cultural baggage of being an American (or German). Some of the things Americans are known overseas are good (open, friendly, helpful, etc.) and bad (loud, ethnocentric, monolingual, etc.). Occasionally, this can be an unfortunate situation if one accidentally parlays into any of the negative behaviors. Some may overlook such behaviors. Others may be embarrassed, discussing about it only among sympathetic compatriots. Worst case scenario, they may assume the person to be a full-fledged “ugly American" and simply go through the motions required rather than build a strong, long-lasting relationship.
If you work overseas often, I would encourage a look at this chart (http://www.genderwork.com/services/culturalassessment.html) and this excellent definition of High Context and Low Context (http://www.culture-at-work.com/highlow.html). (repost from 6/15/11)

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