Travel And International Business Relationships

Time And International Business Relationships

Time clearly plays a big role in planning an International business trip, and the subsequent relationship can be a trying experience for anyone. It’s definitely the case that different cultures will clash more than others. Americans, for instance, have a very uniform and rigid expectation that much of the world conducts business more-or-less the same way. That is to say, holidays are fairly limited and known well in advance, and with few exceptions work will take precedence over personal time, and also that the work week is Monday through Friday (probably from about 8 or 9 in the morning, to about 5 in the evening). Throw into this an American sequential orientation (meaning, a schedule-driven mentality), and you have a recipe for disaster throughout much of the world.

Throughout India, for example, there are regional holidays that vary from one state to another. In fact, some specific regions will literally have holidays every week across several months — and while not everyone takes time off work for every holiday, this hardly makes it easier to manage: Knowing who will be at work on a given day can become a minor project of cultural awareness in and of itself. Just taking a quick look at my calendar, I can see significant holidays for New Years Day (January 1), January 24, January 26 (Republic Day), March 10, March 27-29 (both Holi and Good Friday), May 1 (Labor Day, an international observance), July 10, August 15, 20, and 28, September 9 and 16, October 2 (Mahatma Gandhi Jayanti), October 14 and 15, November 3 (Diwalli, which is generally followed by up to two weeks of celebration), November 14, December 25 (Christmas, also celebrated by many Indians). On top of these widely known and observed holidays will be quite a few local holidays that won’t show up on an International calendar.

Is the holiday on a Thursday, so most of the office just doesn’t show up on Friday? Or, like Venezuela, is it commonly accepted knowledge that you shouldn’t book appointments two or three days ahead of a holiday? If you’re visiting China near the New Year, plan some extra time to allow business to return to normal (you can’t count on anyone being back the week after the holiday, and for the next two weeks it’s almost impossible to schedule appointments because everyone is busy).

India is by no means unique. Turkey has more official and not-so-official vacations than any country in Europe. North and South Africa have very different holiday schedules, and many regions have quite a few local holidays that won’t show up on a typical International date book. Almost every country is going to have unique public holidays and different perceptions about local holidays and personal time off from work. Be sure you know if the person you want to visit is going to be working the week you arrive!

Personal allowances also vary greatly by country and business culture. Indian weddings often run for two weeks straight and it’s understood that anyone invited will be out of work for the entire time, if not longer as they visit friends and relatives in far away cities. From mid-July to early September much of Europe’s business activities come to a standstill as the regionally understood “vacation season” arrives. Unlike Americans, Europeans won’t be checking email while away from the office, either. Life, as a general rule, comes first before work — and a vacation means completely disconnecting from work. (But, keep in mind the reversal of seasons in the southern hemisphere, where Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina tend to shut down in January and February).

The Work Week

When planning your schedule around an International business relationship, be sure to take into account the hours and days of the work week, not just local vacation cycles. Throughout must of the West, the work week is Monday through Friday, but this preconception gets thrown out the window in many countries. Throughout the Middle East, the work week could be from Saturday through Wednesday, or Sunday through Thursday, or possibly Monday through Friday.

Likewise, there is no uniform way to know what a typical work day looks like. The work day could begin as early as 7:30 or as late as 10:00. In America lunch is probably an hour long or might just be taken at your desk, while in Latin America it may well be two hours long and followed by a siesta at home, before returning to the office around 3:00 in the afternoon (or, 1500, as some cultures will refer to “3:00 o’clock” using the 24-hour parlance). Work after lunch might resume promptly at 1:00 or, more likely throughout much of the world, sometime vaguely after lunch, and continue until 7:00 or 8:00 at night.

Working With An International Team

Once you return home, the logistics of staying in touch with your business partners may just be getting started. This is particularly true of tightly woven partnerships or outsourcing relationships.

Consider the implications of outsourcing technology to India, a culture that typically expects a high level of direction for its team members. This implies a great deal of communication. If you happen to be located in California, you’ll be adjusting to a time difference of either 11 and a half, or 12 and a half hours throughout the year. Even in the best of circumstances, you’ll be coordinating several conference calls every week at 9:00 p.m. or 6:00 a.m. between team members.

Throw into this the synchronous (or polychronic) Indian preconception about timeliness, and you could have some very frustrated Americans. Can you image a room full of groggy Americans, having driven to the office at 6:00 a.m., waiting on a conference call at 6:15 a.m. and starting to get very upset about the reliability of their partner (who has not yet dialed in)? I don’t have to imagine it, I’ve seen it too many times to recount.

Considering the implications of building an International team means taking local culture into account, including concepts about time and timeliness.

How “BRIC” Caught On: Building Global Culture

Those who are married to a spouse from another culture likely understand the depth of our personal cultural roots. My wife is Indian, and I identify myself as being a very culturally aware person (particularly when it comes to South Asian and South American culture). Even so, my formal education and early professional career was firmly rooted in the United States. The management techniques and cultural habits I learned early on were profoundly Western, and very profoundly didn’t work in the East. Despite my eventual career and cultural focus abroad, we still run into cultural obstacles — situations come up that completely take us by surprise in the face of Indian friends and family. Management techniques or cultural norms that I subconsciously still apply can end up offending a visiting guest in our United States home, because we are perceived as an Indian family.

The Global Culture

At the same time, there are of course positive cultural exchanges. When my father-in-law was selling his dental practice, I helped negotiate the terms of the sale between buyer and seller, both being Indian. Indian culture prevented my father-in-law from suggesting a non-refundable option on the purchase transaction — something that we take for granted in the United States. Such an idea would offend an Indian because it questions the value and strength of their relationship, whether it be personal or professional. But, by presenting it as something that would protect my father-in-law’s personal desires to secure his retirement, it was possible to offer the idea in such a way that the buyer would not be offended. Instead, the buyer was able to save face by contributing to the stability of his elder’s future.

It takes some exposure to foreign culture before we can begin to appreciate the complexity, depth, and impact a culture has on our day-to-day business affairs. When speaking on the subject, I usually lead by asking my audience, “Who here has lived in India or China for, say, at least a month, on business?” Understanding my audience is important to delivering an engaging talk, but there’s another reason I ask the question. There’s a distinction between visiting a country or vacationing there, and actually trying to conduct business. In most cases, my audience will have a handful of world travelers, but very few world business people.

Visiting Versus Working There

Last year, I visited Barcelona, Spain for a few weeks on vacation. The trip was thoroughly enjoyable as my wife and I explored new restaurants, chatted with a few locals, and saw the sights. But all the time, business was the furthest thing from my mind — understanding the local culture extended little further than finding out what the best restaurants had on the menu, taking in a local theatre troop’s performance, and figuring out where the best diving opportunities where.

While we were there, we also dropped in to visit a friend of the family that also happens to be a business associate. Even though it was a social visit, the mood and understanding shifted from a superficial appreciation of someone else’s culture, to an actual understanding of lifestyle and what the business environment was like. We found that in our conversation it was easier to truly understand each other, because we had worked together in the past. We had some common ground to share, and we had some different experiences that were unique to our business world. We weren’t just “going with the flow” anymore, but actually participating in a more meaningful way. We wanted to better understand each other, and appreciate each others’ differences.

People that have traveled abroad for business have an advantage over those of us that haven’t. They can appreciate the depth of the cultural differences that we’ll experience. They understand just how deep these cultural differences extend into how we do business, how we negotiate, and what we think of as acceptable in the business world and how we conduct business.

As my wife and I traveled in Barcelona and visited our friend, we experienced some of these cultural differences — but the differences encountered within Western countries (an American culture meeting a Spanish culture) is trivial when compared to the East-meets-West experience. Near East, Middle East, and Far East cultures are dramatically different from Western culture, and building real, effective International relationships with Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, and China requires much more preparation.

In 2001, Jim O’Niell of Goldman Sachs predicted the importance these emerging economies would play on the global landscape in his paper, “Building Better Global Economic BRICs.”⁠1 The term “BRIC” caught on, becoming a widely used synonym for Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Today, we use “BRIC” in day-to-day conversation as we contemplate how the West and the East are become a tightly intertwined, global economic landscape.

1 Building Better Global Economic BRICs, Jim O’Neill, Goldman Sachs, 2001.

How Is Business Culture Affecting Your Business?

A good friend of mine, Chris, told me this fantastic story about his first encounter with his parents-in-law — a story that really drives home the importance of business culture. But if the story is going to have any impact, you’ve got to know Chris a little better.

A Man Cooking In Turkey

Chris is a really smart, well-travelled guy. He’s also pretty straightforward and humble — here’s an example: He was giving me a tour of the new business incubator he was setting up and casually mentioned that he wanted to bring “his bear” in to the break room as part of the decor. I let it pass, not really giving it a second thought. It was some time later that I found out that Chris’ “bear” was in fact a stuffed, formerly live bear that he had personally hunted, killed, skinned, and subsequently ate. It was only then that I found out that bear meat is, apparently, the most delicious meat of all (I have never tried it myself).

Chris is a pretty interesting guy to be around, but not just because of the stories he tells. He’s got a lot of experiences and likes to share them in every way possible. His background was originally in technology, and later he turned this into a strong business sense. And, for this story to make sense, you have to know he also went to culinary school and is an accomplished chef.

So, back to Chris’ story about meeting his new parents-in-law.

Chris met his Middle Eastern wife in the United States, where they also got married. It was a few years into the marriage before an opportunity arose to visit Turkey, where his wife originated. Naturally, Chris and his wife planned to stay with family — doing anything else would have been an unthinkable affront.

After staying with his in-laws for a few days — and, all the while enjoying some incredible home cooked food — Chris wanted to do something nice in return for being welcomed into the family so openly. He had seen how the food was prepared, and with his background he had already learned how to prepare it (partly from training and partly from watching his mother-in-law cook). So, one day he went out to the local market, bought all of the groceries, spices, and meats needed to make a wonderful Turkish meal, and brought it home. Then, he set out to cook a delicious meal for the family, intending to surprise them with his cooking (and hard work) when everyone returned home.

Much to Chris’ surprise, his extended family was absolutely horrified by what he had done. None of the family would touch even a tiny morsel of the dinner he had prepared — in fact, his mother-in-law would not even enter the kitchen. When Chris tried to prepare a plate of food, all of the women left the room! They refused to even sit where they would see him eat the food!

Needless to say, it was quite a shock and disappointment.

GERMANY. Baden-Baden. June 16, 2012, the Feast of the urban area. Women cook traditional Turkish food.
GERMANY. Baden-Baden. June 16, 2012, the Feast of the urban area. Women cook traditional Turkish food.

His wife explained to him, quite simply, telling Chris, “You can’t do that here. You’re a man, in my family’s house, you can’t cook or even help in the kitchen! I know your food is delicious, but nobody will touch it. I will — I’m going to go hide behind the door in my room and eat it because I know it’ll be wonderful, but I can’t let anyone see me eat it!”

Chris had unwittingly fallen victim to culture — to a “social cultural preference.” He had done something taboo in the local culture. There was nothing Chris could do to change the situation. The local culture that dated back thousands of years was set in stone, and was not going to change for Chris’ sake.

Before going on, let me point out that Turkey is a country with great diversity. With over 70 million citizens, it’s bound to be that way! As with many countries, the larger cities tend to be more metropolitan and modern, while towns and villages may be a bit more traditional or old fashioned. Chris’ story is not, of course, indicative of every family culture in Turkey.

Culture, or Business Culture?

Just as every country and every region and every people have social cultural preferences, the corporate world has business cultural preferences. These preferences deal with things like how we communicate, how a subordinate demonstrates respect for a superior, even the way we manage time. These business cultural preferences are deeply ingrained. They can’t be taught, trained, or educated away — it’s not about knowledge, it’s about knowing how to act properly in a particular social environment. Culture is something we start to pick up as a child, and that includes the culture of business in our country.

Chris’ story applies to the business world just as much as the family environment. If you are doing business internationally, in any way, you’ll find this blog interesting. A lot of the content here comes from my book, Building Successful Multinational Business Relationships. My intention in writing the book is to create an awareness of business cultural preferences within your own environment. The most effective way to deal with a foreign culture is to understand our own preferences, and to recognize different preferences as we discover them in other people and other environments. This sensitivity allows us to identify how culture varies, how our preferences don’t match someone else’s preferences. With the right awareness, we can then take action to learn and adapt our behavior, and even our environment.

What Is Culture Really?

So, what is culture, really? The fact is, from our own perspective when talking about our own culture, it won’t sound like “culture” at all. It’s just the way things are.

If you’re American, you’ll believe that everyone has a right to free speech, and believe that anything else is a human rights violation. You’ll know that American football is a national past time of incredible proportion (and you may be surprised that the rest of the world doesn’t really care about it much). You’ll enjoy two or three weeks of vacation each year (if you’re lucky). You will get married for love and think the idea of an arranged marriage is outlandish. You would find it scandalous to have to bribe a government official, and would likely report it as a crime. While you don’t look forward to it, you do rely on a just and reasonably efficient court system. If you are late to an appointment you’ll mutter an excuse if you’re five minutes late, apologize profusely if you’re ten minutes late, and being an hour late would be unthinkable (and probably means you lost the job). When talking with someone you get uncomfortable if they get closer than two feet. After college you rarely go to someone else’s home, and doing so is an invitation-only event (especially if a meal is involved). You think that some foreigners don’t say what they mean, which is just exasperating. You’ll probably hate the idea of using the train system (unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the few cities that has a good one). You find a two-party political system natural. You expect the politicians of both parties to be responsive to business, strong on defense, and concerned with the middle class. You find parliamentary systems (such as Italy’s) inefficient and a little bit comic.

But an American in Turkey can be completely out of place, as we learned from Chris’ visit to his parents-in-law. If you’re Turkish, you know about the concept of freedom of speech but you probably wouldn’t dare talk about it too much. If you’re male, you are likely a futbol fanatic and you support one of the major Turkish teams (and you think it’s silly to use a word like “soccer”). You are blissfully unaware that you have more official and not-so-official vacations than any country in Europe. You expect to marry for love; but the marriage of your parents was very likely arranged by their families (arranged marriage does still take place, particularly in more rural areas). You won’t seriously expect to transact business, or deal with officials, without paying bribes. You dread the court system and know that if you had problems with a customer, landlord, or supplier, taking them to court would be an ordeal that could take months or years. If you are late for an appointment, you’ll mutter an excuse after 30 minutes, and an hour late is still tolerable. You can’t feel comfortable in a conversation if the other person is more than a foot away from you. If a guest drops by, you will gladly serve them tea. When you are negotiating, it’s natural to play convoluted games to get what you want — and in social situations, it’s improper to be too direct. You don’t understand how Americans can get by with a two party system, although “Socialist,” “democratic,” “nationalist,” “republican,” “populist,” “leftist,” and “rightist,” are just vague words for doing approximately the same thing. You think that the situation of the country is hopeless, that none of the countries problems will ever be solved.

This is a small sampling of “culture” at a very high level. This blog delves into business culture, a very specific area that has to do with how people interact and behave in a business context. We’ll examine five of the core business cultural preferences, and hopefully along the way learn how our own culture varies from “their” culture. Understanding this difference is crucial to anyone doing business internationally.

I believe strongly in the power of stories, and so throughout this blog (and my book) you’ll find both informative articles as well as stories. I’ve tried to find stories that express the perspective of a particular culture as it relates to a particular article — and whenever possible, I’ve presented two stories: One from a Western perspective and one from an Eastern perspective. I’ve found it most effective to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes,” a saying that has been traced back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans. Put another way: If two people of the same culture share their experiences abroad, they will likely reinforce each other’s point of view. On the other hand, if two people from different cultures share their experiences, it can be quite enlightening.

I hope you will find both the stories, and the specific knowledge of business cultural preferences, enlightening.