Most Common Global Communication Mistakes

Getting past communication problems is one of the first challenges that comes up in global relationship building. In the best case, our cultural mistakes can be amusing, but more often they can give offense and cost us money. Here are few common mistakes to avoid when making your first foray abroad.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. We coach our clients on five different business cultural preferences that apply around the globe, in different cultures and in different business settings, and each one of these are extremely important. But today, I want to talk about common communication mistakes that people make when going from one culture to another in a business environment.

The first one is assuming that business culture and business practices around the world are more or less the same as they are at home. So for example, westerners tend to be very direct. They get right to the point, they want to dive into business and start negotiating right away. But many Eastern cultures tend to be more conservative. They want to build a relationship first, they want to get to know you, before they decide whether or not they should be doing business with you. So, this is just one example of how an initial meeting, when these two cultures come together, can result in a clash.

Another mistake can be putting too much attention just on the words that have been exchanged. So, what I mean by that is, Westerners might take a discussion and turn it into a contract, and look to that contract as the embodiment of the relationship. What was agreed and signed is how business should be conducted. But this doesn’t really work too well throughout most of the world. The Middle East, Asia, South America — it’s the relationship that’s more important. The contract tends to be a guideline, an initiation of that relationship. But over time the expectation is that the relationship will rule over the contract. Mutual health, mutual well being, is more important. So, what was agreed should change and this can result in a conflict where Westerners tend to be perceived as rigid, whereas other cultures are looking at them wondering, “Well, why aren’t you concerned about how well off we are together, about our future together?”

And the third point I want to mention is: Not looking deeper than just the communication and the words that are being exchanged. Multinational business and cross-cultural leadership are very complicated, because it brings a lot of different business cultural preferences into play. For example, how do different cultures think about time — is the schedule going to rule all? Or it is more important to take your time and make the right decisions and think about the long term?

It’s different from one individual to another. So, when I’m talking about East versus West, these are generalizations and it’s important to realize that generalizations don’t apply to individuals. You’ll meet Easterners that are extremely westernized and you’ll meet Westerners that are extremely easternized. But the important thing to understand is that every company has it’s own culture and just trying to push two companies together usually results in problems.

Overcoming Communication Barriers

There are many reasons for communication failure. What is said may not be received exactly the way the sender intended. Different business cultures view directness, harmony, saving face, and confrontation in different ways. How do these differences affect communication, and how do you overcome the obstacles?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about overcoming communication barriers. It’s important to understand that throughout the business world English is usually a second, third or fourth language for people — even though it is a commonly used business dialect.

Fluency takes years and includes slang and idioms and local references. For example, in the U.S. you might hear, “If this doesn’t work we’re sunk” or “that’s a home run,” which is a baseball reference of course. In India someone might say, “you are gone,” to mean that their position isn’t very positive. And, I’ve had people stand up and storm out of a room saying “that’s it, I quit,” but it’s sarcasm and I know they just mean they need a break.

In an international setting it’s best to avoid sarcasm and slang, and even jokes. Instead slow the conversation down. Give your partner time to digest what has been said, so that they can understand it and ask questions if they need to.

Also, be very aware of body language. It’s very easy to misinterpret body language. The Indian head waggle, for instance, many Westerners will assume that it means “yes” because, more or less, it looks like a “yes,” but it isn’t. It definitely doesn’t mean “yes.” Instead, ask questions when you see something you don’t understand and look for multiple confirmations, so that you know that the message is properly understood.

Our number one tip for the Westerners — don’t assume that agreement means agreement. Many cultures are very much oriented on preserving harmony and preserving face, so they won’t be confrontational. They won’t directly say “no” and they won’t be terribly critical. And for Easterners, our tip is: When your Western partner seems to be overly confrontational and critical, don’t immediately assume they mean offense. They may not. Perhaps they’re being open, honest and direct.

What Is Monochronic?

Different cultures view time along a spectrum with monochronic or polychronic at either end. When planning to do business overseas it’s a good idea to understand which end of the spectrum your native culture falls closest to, and where your overseas partner’s time orientation lies. Zacharias Beckman guides you through what it’s like to be “monochronic” in this week’s video blog.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International and I want to talk about monochronic time orientation. Do you feel that being late is unprofessional? Or that, your entire day could be thrown out of wrack if you are delayed just a little bit?

Monochronic cultures tends to be focused on the schedule — on doing one thing after another, usually in sequence. Sometimes this is called sequential orientation. Western cultures are very monochronic. Particularly countries like the United States, or perhaps Switzerland or Germany. In the west its common to schedule a day full of meetings, back to back, maybe eight meetings in one day. Agendas end promptly and move into the next meeting, one right after the other.

This approach doesn’t work too well in the east and middle east where culture is polychronic. Polychronic cultures have other priorities and this western schedule driven approach can send the wrong message and often offend the people that you are meeting with.

This sequential approach, this focus on time, is very often a problem when working with eastern or middle eastern cultures, which tend to be polychronic. Polychronic cultures have very different priorities and they think about time differently. By focusing on the schedule, the wrong message can be sent, and misunderstandings can result.

Who Is My Outsourced Team’s Decision Maker?

When it comes to decision making, it’s important to know who is the decision maker at your overseas partner or vendor (and it might not be who you expect)! Business culture around the world varies a lot. It’s very likely you will experience misunderstandings when Western and Eastern firms work together. Here are some tips on how to avoid the misunderstandings.

I’m Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about who it is at your partner firm, overseas, that actually makes decisions. You might be quite surprised to find out who can and who cannot make decisions. For example, let’s say you’re Asian, Chinese or Indian, and you’re working with a European firm. You might be completely shocked when a subordinate seems to go out on his own, make a decision, and act on it. That’s because many cultures expect decisions to be made at the top and then directed down to the subordinates.

Subordinates are expected to inform their superiors. Their superiors will take this information and weigh it, and then make a decision and convey that decision to the subordinate. So this can cause problems when Western and Eastern firms work together.

Westerners thinks that anyone is empowered to make a decision. They’ll have a conversation with an Eastern partner, and they’ll hear agreement to a particular recommendation or decision; it comes across that the decision has been made. But it hasn’t. All that’s happened is, the Eastern partner whom they are talking to has expressed agreement to the decision. They have expressed the idea that this would be an agreeable decision. But that doesn’t mean its within their power to make it happen. It’s up to the Western boss to communicate to the Eastern, boss at the same level, to make sure that decisions happen. This will not happen by itself.

Here is an example: We had a client who had engaged a firm in India. And they wanted to go visit this firm in India. Get to know them better, which is a great idea. The CEO hopped on a plane, but when he got to India, nobody was there to meet him. The President of the firm that he wanted to visit wasn’t even in the office! The entire trip had not been coordinated, it had not been communicated up the chain properly because the CEO who was coordinating this trip should have been talking to the CEO on the other side.

We have to make sure that the decisions are made at the right level and those decisions need to be communicated multiple times, back and forth. And you have to look for more than just agreement. You have to look for confirmation that the decision is being acted upon.

10 Tips For International Business Success

I’m very pleased to announce our 10 Tips For International Business Success booklet is now available for free download. This first book in the series is a concise companion for International executives and managers. It provides 10 absolutely critical lessons when working abroad or with overseas partners and teams.

Tip #1: Time After Time

10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)
10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans associate being late with being unreliable. But in many cultures, timeliness is not expected and can be construed as being rigid and uncompromising.

Unlike some Western cultures, many Asian and Latin cultures have higher cultural priorities than timeliness. For example, in some cultures it would be unthinkable to end a meeting because the allotted time had run out. This would be taken as a direct insult, essentially sending the message that your host is less important than your own time. It’s understood that if someone is late, it’s because they are invest- ing time with another person. In time, your turn will come as well. This difference leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to, strategies for working successfully with these cultures, and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Get 10 More Tips, Free!

We wanted to make sure you get a fantastic value here, so there are actually 10 more tips in the book, along with quotes from business leaders and luminaries throughout the Global business industry:

Relationships are built between individuals, not between companies. Thus it’s important to keep the same people coming to India so the process doesn’t have to be repeated for each neophyte. When Western companies reassign resources too quickly and put someone new in charge of an India initiative, they program themselves for failure. — Gunjan Bagla, Doing Business in 21st-Century India

Look For More Tips…

Look for our other International guides, as soon as they go to press! Our other guides will be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

We’re delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.

What Is Collectivism?

Americans are motivated by personal choice and gain. But, many Asian cultures are not. Instead, these “collectivist” cultures are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit a person’s family and raise their personal “face” and their standing in the eyes of society. Understanding this fundamental difference is critical.

Hi, I am Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about collectivism. When working with people from around the world, you’ll be quite surprised at how different their habits are and their expectations are. For example, if you’re working with Japanese partners, you may notice how surprised they are at how much free time Americans seem to have. Americans use this time for fitness, for taking time with their kids and family, going to movies. But they do it during the week. In Japan, the week is for the business. Business comes first. Personal time ends up on the weekends.

Indians have a similar cultural orientation. They may go to work kind of late in the morning, work a long afternoon, take a dinner break and then end up going back to work and working late into the evening until 10 or 11; even midnight. And that’s a practical matter because many Indian firms work with so many companies around the world that they need to adjust their schedule. But that again is putting the business first, ahead of family. This is what collectivism is.

Collectivism Is Thinking “We,” Before “I”

Collectivism is thinking about what’s good for the group, what’s good for the business, before thinking about what’s good for the individual. Americans are extremely individualist. This means that they make decisions based on what’s good for them personally. They move out of the house early because they want to be on their own. They make career decisions because it’s what they want to do. It’s really important to understand this difference, because it fundamentally changes how different teams, how people around the world, are motivated.

Americans are motivated by personal advancement and by personal gain. But, many Asian cultures, collectivist culture, are not motivated by those same things. Instead, they are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit their family the most, what’s going to raise their personal face and their standing in the eyes of society. For example, an American might be motivated by career advancement or a career change. But that exact same choice to somebody in Asia could mean loss of face, it could mean a lack of ability to hire friends into a new company, where they are relatively new themselves.

It’s the difference between knowing how to motivate individuals who are primarily concerned with their own career and their own advancement in society, versus knowing how to motivate somebody who is concerned about their social group. They are concerned about the well being of everybody around them and their standing in the eyes of that society.

Working With International Partners

Vendor Selection Pitfalls: Make sure you have the right strategy, and understand your partner’s business culture, before engaging a new partner overseas.

Building successful international business relationships can be very challenging. That’s what our client in Portland learned. To build their second generation product, they outsourced the whole job to a firm in India. A year later, the Indian firm hadn’t met project goals. They had over promised and hired too many staff who were out of the depth. It was clear the project was failing.

But before we talk about a solution, what happened? How could things go so wrong?

Understand The Culture

Selecting a vendor is difficult. Even when its just down the street. Hiring a team on the other side of the world throws a lot more uncertainty into it. They completely trusted their vendor to do a great job. What our client didn’t understand about Indian business culture is where they got into trouble. Indian businesses are not at all shy about taking on business they aren’t prepared for. Its businesses usual to sign a contract and only then go out and start looking for resources. Indian culture prioritizes time and schedules differently then Western culture. And that leads to problems right off the bat. And if the firm can’t find good resources for the job, most overseas client aren’t aware of it until it’s too late.

Another problem is finding the right skills and keeping them. Because India is so incredibly competitive, job turn over is very high. Some firms have over 30% turn over every year. But all these problems can be navigated easily if you know the business culture and have the right strategy. For our client we turned the project around by firing the outsourced vendor and hiring a new team. The new vendor had a long track record with us. So we knew what they could do and more importantly we had a great relationship with them. In India a solid relationship will go a lot further than a solid business deal.

Keys To Success

An important aspect of building a relationship is understanding the concept of face. The idea of having good face in Asia is a bankable notion. In Asian culture someone who has a good face has a good reputation with peers, businesses, community and even family. It’s all inclusive. As your relationships are cemented so is your reputation and that’s why it’s so important to have real, long term business relationships.

Another key to success is being very hands on. That means treating your partner like an extension of your own business. Think about those relationships again. Asian partnerships are much more enmeshed than western partnerships. So you have got to spend time with your partners on regular basis to keep those relationships alive.

Understanding and navigating international business culture takes different skills in different countries. Business culture varies dramatically from one region to another, which is why understanding business cultural preferences is so important. It’s why we created the business synergy compass, to guide businesses to success in the new global economy.

Building International Business Relationships

The Importance of Relationship Building: How business is developed in the East is very different from the West. Building personal relationships is critical.

Allen is sharp, straight forward, and he’s got a great reputation as a “no nonsense” lawyer. He’s got a dream client in Japan. But, there is a problem. He can’t seem to make the right connections within the company, with the right people, to grow his business.

When I spoke with Allen about his client, he explained he had been doing basic U.S. contract work for the company — when he could be doing so much more strategic international work. Although he knew he could bring a lot more value to his client, those decisions were made at a high level. Every time Allen tried to approach the President of the company, his efforts led nowhere. Everyone he spoke to was always very polite, telling him they would pass along his request. But after two years, his work with his client was stagnating. And he felt like he must be doing something wrong. He was right, but he had no idea how to move forward.

It turns out he is being treating his Japanese client the same way he treats his Western clients. That was the root of the problem. Building business in the East is done very differently. Allen needed to learn the business culture of Asia.

For example, relationships are very important through out the East. Real business doesn’t happen unless a strong relationship at a personal level has been built before hand. This is completely foreign to many Westerners, where having a good product and a good price is good enough. Even more important though, was how Allen had been approaching the President. Power distance, the distance a boss and an employee are separated by culture, is tremendously important in Japan. Despite his best efforts Allen was thought of as a vendor, not a strategic partner. He had to completely change the way he was approaching the President. His new strategy had to be appropriate within Japanese business culture and it had to focus first on taking the time to build that relationship.

We worked with Allen on different strategies he could use and today his business is flourishing. He built the right foundation and now is a strategic partner with his client. And the last time his client’s CEO visited Los Angeles, they even went to a ball game together.

This is just a one small aspect of global business development. But it really shows how business cultural preferences will influence the future. It’s why we created the business synergy compass, to guide businesses to success in the new global economy.

What Is Low Context Communication?

Many Western cultures are very low context, focusing chiefly on words to deliver a message. So, if so much attention is given to what is spoken (or written), why are there so many misunderstandings between Western and Eastern teams? As it turns out, to someone from a high context culture, there’s a lot more to a message than just words.

Low context communication uses chiefly words to get a message across. There was this great study done in which Canadian students and Chinese students were asked to go into a room, and negotiate a business topic, and their negotiation was observed by researchers. They found that there were huge misunderstandings between [the students].

Low / High Context Misunderstandings

For example, [the researchers] might talk to the Canadian, and the Canadian would say, “Oh, everything went great, I’m sure we’re going to be in business together.” Then, they’d go talk to the Chinese student, and they would find out that this person would never do business with the other person.

It turns out that these low context / high context communications were completely missing the mark. The Canadian would see the Chinese student, perhaps, lean back a little bit in their chair, take a very relaxed pose, or cross their arms a little bit, or establish some long eye contact. Well, the Canadian thought of that as being relaxed, and interested — and paying attention. Unfortunately, in Chinese high context cultures those are all indicators of hostility and rejection.

Low Context Communication: Chiefly Words

Westerners, especially Americans, are very low context. But there are also a number of European countries that tend to be low context, the Germans and Swiss, for example. These cultures focus on direct, clear statements. They focus on words, and because of that, they tend to miss a lot of high context cues. They interpret everything that is not a clear “no” as an invitation to just continue the negotiation or talk, which tends to send the message that they’re willing to push their own topic through, no matter what the cost.

This direct communication is usually a source of rejection or insult to a high context culture — whereas, the high context communicator is wondering, “Why isn’t he getting all of these messages I’m sending?” When low context and high context culture comes together, there tend to be a lot of problems that crop up.

What Is High Context Communication?

High context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” In fact, those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that actually mean “no.” But, it’s about saving face, and learning how to communicate across cultures will mean avoiding nasty misunderstandings.

High context communication is about using many cues to send a message, not just words. So timing, when was a message sent, was there a delay, that can be very important. Stories are a way of sending a message without directly criticizing.

The Wrong High Context Message

Here’s a true story: There’s a Texan who went to Thailand to set up a new business venture, and he met his Thai business partner when he arrived. Towards the end of his trip, the Texan was really missing out on important communication cues. It all came to a head in the final day, when he thinks everything is going great and he’s expecting to sign a contract. He slaps the table and he pulls out a couple of cigars, offers one to his Thai host, and he puts his feet up on the table. Well, his Thai host stands up, marches right out of the room, and our Texan never hears from him again.

A number of different things happened there. One, the thing that really put it over the edge, is that putting your feet up on a desk, and showing the soles of your feet to somebody in Thailand is terribly, terribly offensive.

High Context Means “Rich,” “Subtle”

So, high context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” Those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that mean “no.”

But, it’s about saving face. Specifically, it’s about saving your face. Your partner isn’t going to tell you that your idea is bad. Instead their going to circuitously say: This isn’t working for us right now; why don’t you take the time to come back, later, with a better answer? When you have an Asian business partner, and they’re telling you a story, it’s probably a good idea to look for the hidden meanings in that story.

This kind of subtle communication is often completely lost on Westernized cultures, meaning the United States, Canada, many European cultures, because those cultures focus on low context communication, which is all about just using words.