Ask a Cross-Cultural Expert: Name 7 Global Trade Tips

02/04/2016 04:52 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2017

Thinking about building relationships, rather than just managing transactions, is essential for successfully navigating global business today. While it's often tempting to think you can fly into another market, get the deal done and the contract signed and fly home, this is contrary to the way business is conducted in many parts of the world. For example, as one Texas-based CEO shared with me recently when talking about his business dealings in Myanmar: "You will likely need to invest in relationships over a period of several years before expecting anything to be signed, sealed or delivered."

So, what are the basics you need to help build trust, inspire respect and create long-lasting business relationships with your trade partners around the world? These 7 tips will set you on the right path:

  1. Speak Their Language: Research the official language of the country and do not assume it is English. Although businesspeople may speak English, it is best to hire your own interpreter so that you communicate your message clearly and understand side conversations. Translate your business card into the local language, a detail appreciated by locals.

  • Understand The Local Belief Systems: Having an awareness of the belief systems and ethnicity is crucial for attire, communication, physical space and distance, gender roles and protocol. For example, Malaysia is home to many diverse ethnic groups, and it is important to respect Muslim, Bumiputra, Chinese and Indian customs when communicating, dining and socializing.
  • Know Your Hellos: Global greetings vary, and tend to be more informal in the U.S. and Australia. Pronouncing names correctly is important worldwide, and using honorifics and titles for denoting hierarchy, gender or age varies by culture. Nothing will ruin an introduction more quickly than defaulting to a first name without an invitation. For example, it is impolite to default to a first name in Myanmar, where people are respectfully addressed with all four names and a title such as: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • Respect Local Gender Roles: There is no hard and fast rule on how women are treated in the world of work. The extent to which a female professional may experience challenges due to gender varies, as indicated by the Global Gender Gap Report. One example is how greetings vary across cultures. A safe rule, especially for men, is to wait to see if a woman offers her hand first before offering yours for a handshake.
  • Be On Local Time: Cultural differences about how people view time impact relationship building between the U.S. and Asia, South America and the Middle East. There are big differences between monochronic cultures (where people tend to do one thing at a time and interruptions and changes in plans are seen as disrespectful) and those that are polychromic (where people take on multiple tasks at once and plans change frequently). Companies lose countless weeks and millions of dollars because they fail to understand the variations within, as well as between, cultures.
  • Avoid Cultural Taboos: These vary depending on the country. Some common U.S. gestures such as crossing legs when sitting, placing feet on a desk or table, and indicating direction with a foot or shoe are considered rude and uncouth in Asia. In several countries, such as the Czech Republic, other taboo gestures include pointing with the index finger.
  • Dress For Success: Wardrobe varies based on country, company culture and seasonal weather. For example, in Japan, in hot, humid months, a professional business suit is still expected. To avoid offending your counterpart, wear modest, professional business dress for initial meetings, official events and contract signings. In less formal situations and countries, light-colored, open collar shirts and dark slacks for men may be acceptable. Be cautious about adopting local fashions, like Myanmar's longhi. Women in African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries are expected to dress modestly, covering arms, legs above the knees and décolleté.
  • At the very least, remember that without a firm foundation of respect and trust, business transactions are like houses built on sand. While in the West we tend to think of relationships as transactional, in the sense that you nurture them only after a deal has been struck, the opposite is true in many parts of the world. Be relationship-focused before, during and after your interactions overseas.

    Sharon Schweitzer, JD is an intercultural and international etiquette expert to Global 2000 and Fortune 50 companies. As founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, her work and travels have taken her to over 60 countries on seven continents. She has over 20 years' experience providing consulting and training to more than 100,000 attorneys and corporate executives in law firms and global corporations. Sharon's early years as an employment attorney involved cultural dynamics between employees and management. She has delivered presentations and workshops for Charles University, Prague; The Ohio State University; and The University of Texas at Austin. Sharon speaks French and some Czech. She is a popular radio and TV guest as well as a sought-after conference speaker, columnist and blogger. Connect with her at www.austinprotocol.com