Take Note Of Cultural Lessons

November 3, 2006
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China

There are no words for “yes” and “no” in the Chinese language, according to David Hemmings, president of Pacific Rim Alliance.

“They live in a very gray world; it’s never black and white,” he said. “It’s no good asking most Chinese managers if a product will be finished on Friday, because what you’ll get is a head that nods up and down (and) says ‘Yes, it will’ — and there won’t be the slightest chance of it actually being finished on that day.”

By having been asked the question in that way, the respondent is left with an easy out, Hemmings said. That manager will feel no responsibility for it being done on Friday — his perception is that his superior is saying it will be done on that day.

“All it really means is there is some electromotor stimuli going from the brain to the neck,” Hemmings said. “It really doesn’t communicate anything.”

A more accurate translation of the head nodding might be “It could be,” “It is possible,” or “I heard what you said.” Stick to open-ended questions, he advised. Ask instead: “When will the project be done?” and be clear about what “done” means.

Also, Confucianism has a strong influence on Chinese business culture. Avoiding shame and keeping face are principal motivators, with discipline achieved through subtle pressure. A subordinate who is publicly chastised or embarrassed will immediately quit, and the remaining workers will no longer respect or support the manager who delivered the tirade.

Japan

Meetings in Japan can be terribly frustrating for U.S. business people, according to Rena Pomaville, president of Tsunagari Services, a Brighton consulting firm responsible for much of the Van Andel Global Trade Center’s Japan programming.

“There is no hashing it out in a meeting, no brainstorming,” she said. “Everything is done behind the scenes, and at the meeting you announce what was decided. It can be upsetting if you wanted to put your two cents in. You wonder why you were even there.”

Another source of frustration comes from Americans giving decision-makers a high stature, whereas the Japanese make decisions as a group. Pressing an individual for a decision will seldom result in a solid answer and is considered offensive.

Mexico

The most striking thing about doing business in Mexico is that its people are so agreeable — but not always sincere, said Ned Crouch, a retired international business consultant and locally based author of “Mexicans and Americans: Cracking the Cultural Code.”

“You have to interview them,” he said. “If you ask how their uniform is, they’ll tell you it’s wonderful. Then you point out that it looks a little tight, and it’s ‘Actually, my eyes are popping out and I’m choking to death.’”

This manifests itself in the Mexican response to schedules and deadlines.

“If you say you need it by Friday, they’ll always say yes, but they don’t always mean it,” Crouch said.

A better approach is to explain that it’s important to get it done by Friday because that is when the president is visiting, placing a value and urgency on the request.

Through all this, face-to-face contact is important.

“If all you do is phone them, you don’t exist,” Crouch said.

Abroad

In his nearly 25 years with German suspension equipment supplier SUSPA, and more recently as a furniture industry consultant to companies across the globe, Michael Dunlap has learned the delicateness of international business and is able to offer some basic tips.

Be courteous with speech: Don’t use slang. Speak slowly and clearly. Call people by formal titles — Mr. or Dr. — until told otherwise. Learn some of the key phrases.

Bring gifts, even if small or token. Especially in Japan, genuine American goods are always appreciated. Whiskey is a favorite in Europe but never give booze in the Middle East.

Be wary of flowers, Dunlap said. “In some places, if you give your guest’s wife a certain kind of flowers, you might have just proposed to her, and that doesn’t make a good impression.” Some of the flowers and potted plants commonly used to decorate U.S. trade show booths are used in Germany only at funerals.

“Never hesitate to ask what you are eating or how you eat it,” he said. “It could save you a lot of embarrassment, and there are certain foods that are considered delicacies that we will not only turn our noses up on, but our stomach will turn, as well.”

Dunlap vividly recalls turning down raw chicken, a staple of the Japanese diet, during an avian flu outbreak there in 1998. If done politely, no one will be offended, he said. At a banquet in Greece, a colleague was served a whole sheep’s head — he bravely sampled everything but the eyeball.

And in countries such as Poland and Germany, don’t be in a hurry to empty your glass, Dunlap cautioned.

“It will be refilled very quickly,” he said. “A lot of alcohol flows in those places.”    

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