Sunday, January 6, 2013

Understanding Cross Cultural Business Etiquette

Conducting business deals and transactions is tricky enough in your own culture and language. The difficulty is multiplied to the nth degree when you’re trying to work across cultural and language barriers. It’s not enough to accommodate them linguistically by hiring an interpreter to overcome the language barrier. It’s also necessary to consider their cultural background and what behaviour is of importance to them and what will cause offence. It is therefore important to ensure that your interpreter is also aware of the appropriate etiquette that accompanies the language that is being spoken. Your use of proper etiquette will help to instill confidence in you and your business; it will make you seem more professional in their eyes and will help to set you apart from your competitors.

Cultures have different ways of holding introductory meetings, in Japan for example the introduction starts off very formally and full of ceremony with a bow and an exchanging of business cards. The bow is extremely important, although, as a Westerner it may not necessarily be expected of you. You may be greeted by a soft handshake, but do not let the weakness of the handshake fool you into thinking that it represents a weak character. The Japanese simply don’t place any importance on shaking hands. If he bows to you, however, you must return a bow equally as low as the one that you received. You are then able to begin the card exchanging ceremony called meishi. You give and receive the cards with both hands. The card should be printed in your home language one side and in Japanese on the other, and when you hand the card over, the Japanese side should face upwards. Handle the cards carefully, never write on the card and keep it in a safe place that does not include your wallet or your pocket, as these are considered to be disrespectful.

In South Africa, if your company has done business with some of the same people as the company concerned, letters of introduction will usually suffice to pave the way. If your company isn’t known in SA then it might help to try a more formal route. The first meeting is about getting to know each other rather than discussing business terms and conditions. South Africans are by and large a friendly lot and more likely to enter into a partnership of some kind with you after they’ve decided whether or not they like you. They do place emphasis on shaking hands and tend to have strong, firm grips. They like good eye contact. They might also slap you on the back and in some cultures they may even hold your hand, all as signs of friendship and affection.

Your interpreter should be aware of all of the little touches and nuances that make the difference between a successful deal and a public relations disaster. Among the Japanese there is a heightened sense of formality. Always retain your professional conduct, as you will be assessed regarding your suitability as a business partner, especially during the first meeting. Three factors play factors play an important role in building a successful long term relationship with Japanese partners: 1) sincerity, which shows that you are able to compromise, are understanding and that you genuinely want to conduct business on a personal level 2) compatibility, which shows that you are concerned about the personal relationship as well as the well being of the company, and are not only focused on financial gain 3) trustworthiness relates to the faith that they place in you to protect them from loss of face.

In South Africa personal relationships in business are important, after the initial meeting and the establishing of rapport and trust, you should send a letter summarising what was decided and listing the next steps. SA is a country of diverse cultures and there can be major differences in communication styles depending on the individual’s heritage. Most African languages use metaphors to convey points; sports analogies are not uncommon either. Most South Africans look to establish long-term business relationships. Respect for the elderly is important among all South African cultures, and failure to demonstrate the proper respect could be detrimental to your business prospects, even if the elder has nothing to do with the business. Disrespect marks you as someone who is undesirable to conduct business with.

When doing business with South Africans, as your interpreter should know, start negotiating with a realistic figure, as South Africans don’t like haggling. Include delivery dates in contracts but bear in mind that deadlines are regarded as fluid and shift constantly. In all situations South Africans strive for consensus and solutions that are beneficial to all parties concerned. They don’t like to be interrupted when they talk. So it is better to let them have their say before you express your opinion.

When doing business with the Japanese remember that they are implicit communicators, which means that they assume that the listener is well informed on the subject and therefore provide the bare minimum of information, as what is implied will suffice. They also send a team of experts to each meeting instead of a representative individual. You should either bring support or be suitably well informed to answer all of the questions that you will receive. And you will receive a lot of questions because the Japanese love detail. They will often ask the same question in a variety of ways to be sure of the answer. Have as much information as possible, have it in writing, and have it on your company, on your services, products and proposal. The Japanese don’t like brash, arrogant people, they don’t like people who disagree with others openly and put others on the spot. Remain humble and non-threatening and always use diplomatic language. Remember that silence is considered a virtue, so don’t panic if everyone suddenly becomes quiet, or even if they close their eyes. They are reflecting, not napping. Under no circumstance do you break the silence. Meetings are usually held to build rapport, exchange information or confirm previously made decisions. Decisions are rarely made at meetings. Remember that.

It all sounds like such a lot to remember and this is barely the tip of the communications and etiquette iceberg. But if you hire an interpreter from a truly professional company then you shouldn’t have to worry about researching all of this information on your own; your interpreter should be able to help you with it all and guide you through the process smoothly and efficiently. Making our lives easier is after all what good customer service is all about.

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