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Cultural Sensitivity: How to Approach International Executives

By: Matt Gossett

 

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Whether you’re an entrepreneur with international exposure or you’ve merely heard stories about cultural diversity, I’m sure you’re aware of how delicate interactions can be in a foreign environment. The importance of cultural sensitivity is only magnified in a business situation. Here are a few cultural differences and best practices to be aware of when traveling to meet with international executives in a foreign office.

 
Timeliness
 
One cultural difference that becomes immediately evident is the importance of timeliness in arriving to a business meeting. Some cultures insist that punctuality is a sign of respect while others are far more relaxed and never expect a meeting to start on time. As a general rule, it’s best to arrive at least 5 minutes early to an initial meeting ready to get started, but don’t be surprised when your meeting with a particular client doesn’t begin until well after you had originally anticipated.
 
Dress
 
People from foreign cultures develop different expectations when it comes to dressing up for business meetings. Unless it would be considered offensive to the client, always wear a suit to your first business meeting. Even if you’ve been told that the office you’re visiting is casual dress, you want to give off the impression that you’re serious about conducting business in a professional manner. After the initial meeting, it might be considered a polite gesture to match the dress of a client.
 
Greeting
 
The greeting exchanged by business people can vary in foreign countries. In some cultures, it’s essential to make eye contact and deliver a firm handshake to whoever you meet. In other cultures, people might be intimidated if you’re too upfront, and they would prefer to greet by exchanging a mere wave or nod of the head before sitting down. In business interactions, you should always try to execute a tasteful greeting by researching cultural norms prior to visiting a client’s international office.
 
Communication
 
The way people communicate varies widely depending on their cultural background. In some cultures, people are loud, proud and quick to interrupt someone else who’s speaking. Other cultures promote a more conservative, soft-spoken manner of communication. It’s critical to develop an understanding of oral tendencies prior to conducting a business meeting since your ability to communicate with the client is paramount to developing a successful working relationship.
 
Body Language
 
The way that you send signals with your body motions can also impress a foreign client. Some cultures expect you to acknowledge the presence of higher level management in the room by showing particular respect when they speak. In other cultures, no distinction needs to be made, as everyone in the room assumes equal status. Going into a meeting, you should be aware of hierarchal importance in that culture, especially when both senior executives and mid-level management are present.
 
Efficiency
 
In some cultures, people expect to maximize their productivity in a business meeting by immediately beginning to speak about whatever issues you’ve come to discuss. Other cultures promote a more relaxed meeting environment where you will begin with small talk, discussing trivial matters such as the weather, travel, and food before getting down to business. When visiting an international office, it’s polite to allow the client to begin the discussion and follow their lead.
 
Examples of Common Cultural Differences:
 
I’d like to mention a few examples of common cultural differences that people encounter during business meeting in some of the world’s leading economies.
 
Germany
Germans are notorious for being punctual and highly efficient when it comes to being productive in a meeting. Expect to get right into to the business discussion upon entering a German business meeting. There is also a good chance that a German team has done extensive research in preparation and has already developed a strong idea in their minds of their desire to work with you.
 
Italy
As is common for citizens of any Latin country, Italians are extremely chatty and oftentimes don’t wait to hear you finish a sentence before they either respond or seemingly ignore you by offering their own opinion. Try not to get frustrated when interrupted in an Italian office. It’s not meant to be offensive, just an insistence that their opinion matters.
 
Brazil
Brazilians are fairly relaxed when it comes to showing up on time for a business meeting. Don’t worry if you get caught up on a phone conversation for a few minutes before prior to entering a meeting. You can also expect to spend some time discussing matters that aren’t directly related to the meeting, as relationship development is a critical component to Brazilian business life.
 
China
Chinese business meetings are uniquely formal. In addition to their expectation for business cards to be exchanged at the meeting, it’s polite to deliver cards with the recipient’s native language facing up and receive them with two hands. Chinese businesses also recognize the importance of hierarchy. Always stand when high level executives enter the room and listen silently as they speak.
 
Conclusion
 
There are many ways to prepare for the cultural differences that you may experience in an international meeting. If you’re interested in learning more about the business culture of a particular country, there are numerous resources at your disposal for finding related information. Worldbusinessculture.com is a great resource that I have used when researching business practices in foreign countries.
What stories do you have to share about international experiences and cultural differences that you have observed in a business setting?
 
Published: October 14, 2013
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Matt Gossett

Matt Gossett is a writer and editor for Tarkenton Companies. A graduate of Washington and Lee, Matt is currently studying International Business at the HEC School of Management in Paris. He specializes in leadership issues, combining insight from business, athletics, and education. Connect with him on

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