5 Ways To Increase Business Success In High-Context Cultures

Wendy M. Pease, an Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) member in Boston, is president of Rapport International, specializing in multilingual communications, providing language translation and interpretation services that are accurate and culturally appropriate. We asked Wendy about best practices for building relationships internationally. Here’s what she shared:

Business is all about relationships. As a business owner, you learn that early, building relationships with your clients, prospects, banker, vendors, and other business owners. The list of relationships you need to develop when growing a business is extensive. You can foster many of these relationships by attending local events, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and former classmates. You talk to people who know your people.

Eventually, through one of these relationships, you learn that exporters or companies that do global business are more successful. In fact, global businesses:

  • Have 20% higher revenues, on average, than their domestic-only competitors.
  • Are more profitable,
  • And more stable since they can ride the economic waves of multiple countries.
  • Pay higher salaries.
  • Have higher values.

When speaking with others who export, you hear the same advice: “Build relationships.” If you haven’t heard how important it is to build relationships for exporting success, listen to the “Global Marketing Show” podcast where exporters talk about their relationships around the world. They also discuss how to build these relationships.

Developing a strong network in your local community is hard. So, thinking about building a global network can seem daunting. You have long distances, time zone challenges, and right now, limited travel opportunities due to the pandemic.

In addition, you need cultural dexterity to work in languages ​​and cultures you don’t know.

Many people have figured out the secrets to doing global business and managing these challenges easily. And now is a great time to expand your global network since you can do so virtually.

Let’s start with the first three challenges–distance, time zones, and limited travel. Before the world shut down, you had to get on a plane and travel to meet potential business partners. This isn’t just a random suggestion–it’s cultural. The US has a “low context” culture, meaning people are willing to cut a deal by phone without knowing each other well.

Many other countries are “high context” cultures, meaning that interpersonal relationships must be developed before engaging in business. At the start of the pandemic, people from “high context” cultures suggested that meetings could wait until the end of the shutdown so people could meet in person. As time progresses, there is more acceptance of building online relationships through video calls. If you are willing to work non-traditional hours, you can leverage technology to extend your reach. Thus, easily handling these challenges.

This brings us to language and culture. Many Americans are afraid of languages ​​and cultures. Remember the “melting pot”? Immigrants arriving in the US aspired to learn English and fit in. Children learned English at school; parents learned English from their children and tried to adopt American cultural ideals.

Another contributing factor is that many Americans haven’t traveled outside the country or learned another language. Though the US doesn’t have an official language (no–it’s not English), many insist that anyone living here should speak English.

Luckily, times are changing. New Americans prioritize their language and culture–from “Chinese School” on Saturdays to celebrating holidays such as Diwali and Ramadan. There’s an increase in restaurants serving foods from around the world. Unlike prior generations, Millennials, and Gen Zers have traveled for vacation, school, or work. This exposure makes people more accepting and curious about other cultures.

If you still have a fear of other cultures and languages, here are five steps to conquer these fears:

Stay curious.

The responding recommendation from globalists is to be open to new experiences and conversations. International business manners vary. For example, in the US, it’s good manners to keep one hand in your lap as you eat. In Europe, this is considered rude. Both hands should be always on the table. No elbows are allowed in either place!

Ask when you are not sure.

Start questions with, “Out of curiosity . . .” It removes defenses and deepens communication. A former boss visited Japan where his interpreter told him to approach the person he was meeting with on his knees. He asked, “Out of curiosity, why should I do this?” She responded that it was a sign of respect and would help him in negotiations.

Research in advance.

Find out about a culture’s business customs so you can anticipate differences. Gifts are very important in some countries. In China, it’s not considered bad manners to regift a present. Also learn appropriate followup. In high context cultures, keep the strong relationship by staying in touch and using an interpreter to communicate clearly. Other cultures laugh at Americans for always needing a contract yet documenting your agreement can avoid misunderstandings. Many international businesspeople follow up with an email after a meeting to verify that all was understood.

Be ready for conversation.

Understand what topics are “safe” and expected. In some countries, asking about a man’s wife is rude. In other countries, like Mexico, it’s important to ask about family. Safe topics include praising something you like about the country or local people, or asking about the area’s history.

Leverage resources.

Telephone and video call interpreters can facilitate conversations across languages, translation of your presentations, letters, or user materials can increase understanding, and translated websites can make your prospects feel welcome.

And most importantly, build communities.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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