Selling Abroad: Tips on Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Business

Global commerce is constantly expanding and people increasingly do business with individuals and companies from other countries. Expanding your horizons and increasing the scope of your business can be beneficial to find new customers and markets. At the same time, communicating across cultures can be challenging. When people speak different languages and have different customs and values, it’s easy for misunderstandings to occur. Even if your prospects speak your language, they may be coming to the table with beliefs and expectations quite different from your own. Fortunately, cultural differences are not insurmountable if you’re willing to make an effort. Here are some guidelines to help you in overcoming cultural barriers.

Display Patience and Understanding

If you don’t have much experience communicating with people from other countries, you may need to adjust your mindset. Don’t expect to understand other cultures right away. It takes patience and a certain period of acclimation. There are many cross-cultural differences that can make conversations and meetings awkward at first. For example, Americans tend to prefer informality and it’s typical for people to address one another by their first names soon after meeting. In many other countries, however, this same practice might be seen as overly familiar, especially when talking to a high-ranking person in a company. When meeting people from another culture, it’s best to exercise a little caution and respect their boundaries.

Speak Slowly and Clearly

English is the international language of business. Chances are, anyone with whom you’re talking business speaks at least some English. However, this doesn’t mean that they’re completely fluent. When talking to people whose first language isn’t English, remember to slow down and speak clearly. Avoid using slang or colloquialisms that they might not understand. Keep this in mind in written communication such as emails as well. Another thing to avoid is references to events or activities from your own culture. For example, talking about the football or basketball game you watched over the weekend may be confusing or off-putting to people who aren’t keeping up with American sports.

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Mirror Behavior

One of the best ways to ensure that you don’t offend people is to use their own behavior as cues. If they are polite and formal, follow suit. What you might think of as a friendly gesture might seem disrespectful to them. On the other hand, if they greet you with warmth and enthusiasm, an overly reserved approach might come across as unfriendly. In some cultures, it’s customary to make a great deal of small talk before getting to the point of a meeting. If your guests or hosts are doing this, it’s best to take their lead rather than try to rush things. Don’t mimic their every gesture, of course, but use their bearing and attitude as clues to your own behavior.

Learn Their Etiquette

The more you know about the people you’re meeting, the less likely you’ll inadvertently offend them. If you’re dining out, it’s good to know that different cultures have their own dining etiquette. For example, Hindus don’t eat beef, Muslims don’t eat pork. There are also differences in how people approach business. In China and many other Asian countries, it’s considered bad manners to pressure people into making a final decision during an initial meeting. In Japan and certain Arab countries, it’s customary to bring your host a gift. These are just a few examples. You’re not going to become an expert on another culture by looking up a few articles on the internet. However, you can learn some valuable tips that can help you avoid embarrassing (and potentially costly) mistakes.

The more your business grows, the more likely you are to deal with people from all over the world. Taking a little time to learn about their cultures and taking cues from their behavior helps ensure that meetings and negotiations go smoothly. Above all, make sure you maintain an attitude of respect. Don’t assume that everyone shares your habits and ideas. People generally appreciate it when you take the trouble to understand their culture, even if you don’t get every word and gesture perfectly.