You Operate Globally, So Dispense With Your Own Local Tendencies

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Professional service firms, as well as corporations, have been operating in an interconnected global marketplace for years. Capital, labor, materials, manufacturing facilities, vendors, clients and customers comprise a worldwide collection of global resources. What I have found is that there is still an uncomfortable (and unnecessary) level of ignorance about what constitutes a sufficient understanding of appropriate behavior when dealing with people from other countries whose customs and practices don’t align with ours.

This is not a result of not trying. Since the early 2000s there has been an increase in monies spent by U.S. companies in such areas as international cross-culture seminars, pre-departure training for expatriates, foreign language training and multicultural staff training, among other endeavors. According to SAGE Publishing, the largest increase between 2003 and 2014 was for companies offering international cross-culture seminars (from 14% to 63%).

Despite this, failure among company employees sent overseas for project implementation still abound. The causative factors in failed overseas assignments are due less to technical incompetence than to a lack of judgment in trying to adjust to the local culture and customs of the foreign country.

Preparation: Learning About Cultural Differences

It’s hard enough to get everyone to work seamlessly and collegially in a US company that has myriad ethnicities and languages. It is exponentially more difficult when traveling overseas to visit with senior management of foreign companies. All it takes is a little effort to research the country or countries you will visit to understand proper etiquette and behavior that can impact your success. How long have we heard stories about behaviors that reflect the long-held view of the “Ugly American”? Love us when we help countries militarily or financially. But as tourists or business people? Not so much.

US companies are no longer the 800-pound gorilla as foreign companies look elsewhere to build alliances. Executives like to work with counterparts they trust and respect. International business relations as far as I can tell are not taught in the undergraduate curriculum, which is ironic given the diversity on today’s campuses. If your job requires traveling to other countries to meet clients or partners from your international affiliates, seek out the training about the local customs and practices. Go online or to a bookstore; you will be able to find the right resources. Take a look at the resources available from the Society of Human Resource Management.

A smart tactic is to speak with colleagues who may have come from the countries you will be visiting. Plan your trip to arrive several days earlier to get a “lay of the land” and familiarize yourself with the daily behaviors of the citizens.

Some Basics of Courtesy

This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it does not. Memorize key phrases or words of the host country. By showing your hosts you have made an attempt, even if not perfect, will evince an effort of courtesy. I am not suggesting fluency, but “hello,” “How are you?” “Nice to meet you,” “Please,” “Thank you,” and even “I am sorry, I need help in understanding.” Such simple gestures, but how often are these ignored. If you think those who live and work in the US need to understand our language, well it works the other way as well.

If you will be meeting with important government representatives responsible for commerce, learn about the country’s government, its structure and practices and policies (and politics). Are there limits to freedom and business development? Learn about who the key players are and the country’s natural resources and banking operations.

Here is a big issue that no matter whether you are the president of the US, a government official or company CEO: What are acceptable customs in the host country? Is shaking hands customary or is there a preferred approach for a greeting? Is gift giving expected and what is considered appropriate? At conferences, business meetings or dinners, what is the proper attire? What about the timing and structure of meetings? Is business discussed immediately or toward the end of the allotted time as the major portion involved your host getting a sense of who you are and how comfortable he or she is in dealing with you? And what is defined as “immediate” or “urgent”? One person’s idea of immediate attention can be another person’s added item on a “to do” list.

Finally, while learning the basics of a language is challenging enough, understanding body language or the unspoken word is even more difficult. In the US, a tacit agreement or a wink and a nod may show agreement. In other countries, this is meaningless. In some Asian countries, executives may not overtly disagree with you or give any other sign of argument. Instead, body language may say it all. Or pat answers such as “We’ll see what happens” may really mean “this is not happening.”

You may know what you want to accomplish overseas, but there is much more to know and practice in a multicultural environment. Proper and thorough preparation can make the difference between success to build on or complete failure. Make sure as a leader of your firm or company that your people are sufficiently prepared to compete in the international arena.

About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at