Dr. John Gray's best-selling book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, says that personal relationships improve when partners work on their communication. Relationships among business cultures might work the same way. Assuming that everyone who speaks English and appears Western thinks in the same way can be a fatal assumption when dealing with foreign businesses.
During my involvement in the international arena I have learned that most foreign deals are never finalized. Many that do get going subsequently under-perform and go over budget. Many of the missed opportunities could have been stunning successes if only the parties had avoided some of the common pitfalls in cross-cultural communication.
When working on a long-term deal, one must not underestimate the importance of first impressions; written, verbal and physical. It's always better to invest more in the beginning than to fail later on.
TIP ONE - Body language:
Body language is the most important element of indirect communication. Make sure to take the time to observe people in the street or office, and only go into meetings once you're relaxed and alert. Always conduct yourself at the tempo of life you observed in the society you're dealing with; appearing out of sync with those around you can prove fatal in an important meeting.
TIP TWO - Expectations:
Always discuss your expectations with your foreign host before embarking on a meeting abroad. Do your homework and be well informed about what you need to achieve your goals. Never promise or demand anything that can't be delivered, and always be prepared to compromise on issues, large and small. One-sided agreement are recipes for conflict and poorly prepared meetings waste both parties' time.
TIP THREE - Listen:
Everyone hates to be lectured; allow your host to do most of the talking at first and be prepared for a bit of small talk. You only get the valuable information if you don't interrupt all the time.
TIP FOUR - Be yourself:
Don't act like somebody else; even Bill Gates made his name by being his dull and boring self. Don't try to be funny or witty at the other person's expense and don't translate jokes. You are there to do business and not to entertain.
TIP FIVE - Cultural familiarity:
A misplaced remark due to cultural unfamiliarity can offend your host and turn the meeting cold in the blink of an eye. It is always good to be familiar with your colleague's culture. Be curious, ask questions and show an interest in their country. Also, remember that most foreigners aren't really interested in all the details of Israel's problems.
TIP SIX - Don't be a lone cowboy:
Engage colleagues with relevant experience. You will be more convincing if they can lend their expertise on issues that aren't your specialty.
All it takes to transcend cultural barriers in the international arena is self-discipline. Remember that at the end of the day, we all want to do business, so you might as well have some fun and not start a clash of civilizations.
The writer is the Senior Business Development Partner at MAV Management Ltd, Israel.