Doing business abroad, a tough challenge

Actualizado: 22 jun 2021

Companies have to learn to spread their wings and make it abroad. But it’s not always that simple. There are some obstacles and differences that every manager has to deal with. So if you want to go further with your business don't miss the clue of today's article.

Barriers when negotiating abroad

The language: languages are not structures you can simply place on top of each other with the hope of ending up with the same meanings. If they were, Eskimos wouldn’t have a hundred words to say the word snow when English speakers only one. Take a car for instance, you wouldn’t drive a Mini on the sand dunes, you’d take the Land Rover. This is why a company doesn’t have to only speak the lingo; it has to speak the culture and culture doesn’t always translate. A joke in one country can easily be an insult in another.

Once you’ve grasped the language, you still have to grapple with the context, should that be a ‘thank you sir’ or a ‘cheers’? How much body language is too much body language and is he looking at me strangely because I gave him three kisses when all he wanted was a handshake? It can sometimes be as tricky to just get their name right; calling someone by their first name will score you brownie points for some but make you look rude by others.

Communication: how should you refer to someone in terms of respect and hierarchy? New business abroad usually means the locals will be working with or for you. Knowing the right amount of respect and order to instill is half the battle. Without properly understanding your audience you might fatally be upsetting your work colleagues and worst still, your employees. This could quickly spell the end to your company’s expansions. Do it properly though, and you’ll happily maintain status quo and push forward new business.

Cultural habits: business risk aversion and business risk taking are not the same across borders, throwing a dice in one country could be seen as lucrative and courageous, but flagrant and reckless elsewhere. This is where you do your research, learning about the history of your suppliers, clients and other stakeholders will be invaluable when you hedge your bets abroad. In some countries, for example, Asia, the approach when negotiating is primarily to establish a solid relationship, in European, we tend to expect a contract, deal brokering, perks and decent cup of coffee.

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Differences in regions


Let’s take China for instance, challenging authority and the status quo is not seen as a brave and inquisitive move; in fact, it might get you into deep trouble. They are taught to be frugal with their emotions and tend to align quickly with public opinion. In this instance, when entering negotiations, you might have to dig a little deeper to get more of an affirmative answer. A simple ‘Yes’ from a Chinese counterpart might mean they have whole heartedly agreed with your proposals, but it might leave you feeling unconvinced.

It is not uncommon in Chinese culture to be at the wrong end of a long line of personal questions. Also, when you are being asked your marital status, age and income, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have plans to take your hand in marriage. In fact they’re just trying to form a bond, to start a conversation and find some common ground to grow a business relationship. However don’t be too tactile, familiarity is uncomfortable, tapping one’s shoulder with a “Just call me Nacho” is not appropriate behavior, perhaps opt for shy and retiring.

Northern Europe (Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark)

I have in mind that story of a friend of mine, telling me how Swedish cashiers were showing scorn when he was asking if they spoke English. Indeed, these countries speak English like a second mother tongue, so when interacting with them, spare the wonders and get on with Shakespeare’s dialect! Just like our Chinese neighbours, emotions and lively attitudes are regarded as immoderate, you will rather impress with meticulous facts and sharp details.

Southern Europe (Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain)

Does sunshine make us happier? I’m afraid I don’t have a clue, but people from those countries definitely have a lively, loud and expressive way of communicating. They are usually open and receive with open arms foreign interactions. Although they have strong regard for traditions and tend to have a hierarchical way of doing business, people value trust and loyalty which facilitates business initiatives.

Latin America

All of the people born in the American continent are Americans, so please do not call only the people from the US Americans or it will be seen offensive. When setting times for an appointment, it is highly recommended to ask whether it is the ‘English hour’ or ‘Latin hour’, as punctuality is not rigid and the idiom ‘Time is money’ does not really apply here. Overall, people tend to be warm and friendly; displays of affection are fine and should not be feared.

With this in mind, you won’t avoid to be faced with fierce competitors, cost management, and convoluted bureaucracy when going international. But at least, your team will have the keys to be successful when dealing with the most subtle and intangible obstacle: Culture.

Some big companies underestimated cross cultural communication

they were doing business abroad and here is how it went:

  • Pepsi launched a campaign in China with the slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life”. When translated, the sentence read: “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”

  • In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated: “Schweppes Toilet Water”

  • The Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux, launched a campaign in the US which could be read with two meanings: ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux’ Unfortunately, the Americans got the wrong one..

  • An American T-shirt manufacturer in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market when the Pope was visiting. Instead of ‘I saw the Pope’ (EL papa), the T shirt read ‘ I saw the potato’ (LA papa).

  • Finally, the Parker Pen Company launched an advert in Mexico supposed to read “it won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”. By mistake, the company thought that the word ‘embarazar’ meant ‘embarrass’, so the ad read: “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant’.

And so the old saying goes: ‘understand first, then be understood!”

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