ComplianceAugust 14, 2018

International business etiquette: Here’s what you need to know

Every culture has its own rules of behavior. In Japan, the exchange of business cards is more like a religious ceremony than an informal exchange.

For the past 35 years, Dean Foster has been using his understanding of cultural anthropology to help Fortune 500 companies and small businesses win international deals.  Negotiating without an understanding of your prospect’s culture is a failed business deal waiting to happen. Learn some general rules of negotiating with other cultures and where to go for more information in this riveting podcast.


Greg Corombos: Hi, I'm Greg Corombos. Our guest this week on Expert Insights is Dean Foster. Dean is the founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions and former worldwide director of Berlitz Cross-Cultural. He is now the executive strategic consultant for Dwellworks Intercultural. In case you haven't picked up on it yet, Dean is an expert on doing international business with a special focus on understanding the cultures and customs of the people you'll do business within various parts of the world. And Dean, thanks very much for being with us.

Dean Foster: A real pleasure, Greg.

Greg Corombos: Well, the point you try to make in your work is that understanding and not understanding other cultures can make a big difference in how those people see you and on the success of your business efforts. So is this something you simply start studying at some point? Or is this something you learned the hard way?

Dean Foster: When it came to my studies, I was anthropology and sociology, and I wasn't looking forward to a career in research or teaching necessarily. I really thought there was a business application to cultural anthropology. And what we did is we started offering information for business people, particularly U.S. Americans who were working with cultures outside of the country, and giving them the information they needed about the culture in order to work more effectively with the people that they were doing business with. And we started this about 35 years ago, and we've been doing it ever since.

Greg Corombos: Well, you've obviously found great success in doing this. So before we get to the right way to do things, it's always probably entertaining. But it's also helpful to know what not to do. So do you have a couple of favorite cultural horror stories you'd like to share?

Dean Foster: Oh, boy, you know, we’ve been doing business basically with Fortune 500 companies, as well as startups out from the back of somebody's garage. And everybody comes to us different stories. It's interesting that a lot of them seem to be in the advertising and marketing field because you just have these cultural misunderstanding of what we're trying to sell and how we sell things. Many, many years ago, Chevy was selling its car at that time, it was the old Nova, and they were trying to sell it in Spain, for example. And it is very hard to sell a car that translates in Spanish as “no go”, “no va”. So that was one of the classics.

There was also a pharmaceutical company that had a very successful ad campaign here in the states with three different billboards. The first billboard was an unhappy face, and then the second billboard was with somebody taking the pill. And the third billboard was a happy face. The message being, if you take our pharmaceuticals, you'll feel better. They transfer this advertising campaign to the Middle East and it failed after millions and millions of dollars being invested. And they found out the reason is, that, in the Middle East, we read from right to left.

Greg Corombos: Those are classics. very, very good. So let's just talk about some of these things. Some of them might seem so obvious, other people might not put much thought into them. So things like introducing yourself, shaking hands, or exchanging business cards. How could those possibly go wrong?

Dean Foster: Everything about the way we do business, every aspect of our behavior changes either a little bit or a lot, depending on the culture that we're in. And so even something as simple as just greeting someone will be different in different countries. In some cultures, you greet people with a handshake. Others, you lean over and give them a little kiss on the cheek. And you have to do this, you have to know the rules for this isn't just between men and women or is it between men, and how do we do it? Is there going to be an embrace? But also, I mean, something as simple as the business card has to be done in a very special way in Japan to show respect. You have to hold your card so that it is readable to the other person, not so that it is upside down to them. You have to read the name, you have to give a moment of silence so that people can digest how you say the name. It gets complicated, and every culture is going to be different.

Again, some more so than others, some less, and you have to know which one is which.

Greg Corombos: So if you take their card and just put it in your pocket, that's considered a great offense.

Dean Foster: That would be an offense if you didn't acknowledge the name, if you didn't read it and give them a moment of silence in respect to the card. And certainly, if you put it in your back pocket, and then sit on it, that's a sign of great disrespect. If you start believing that way, you'll never advance to the next stage.

Greg Corombos: Fascinating. Fascinating. So there's obviously so many different cultures around the world, Dean. So [do you] take a crash course on the countries you want to start doing business with? Or is there a simpler way to do it?

Dean Foster: Well, I think we've made it easy because we've provided the information and a lot of books and on our website. And you can get this information right up front, you know. Our business is to consult with businesses who are working in these other countries. And so we've got the information that you need. And I think the practical realities of where we do business is determined by the nature of our work and where we need to go.

So right now, a lot of folks are doing business in China, in India, and of course, in Europe and Latin America. So there were some cultures that are simply, from a business perspective, more important and more relevant than others. But all this information is available, and we can get it on our website. You can get it from our books. And others, as well, have provided good information.

Greg Corombos: Go ahead and give the website, Dean.

Dean Foster: Sure. It's

Greg Corombos: Very simple, Let's talk about a couple other things in our remaining moments here. What about negotiating? Lots of Americans that I would guess, based on people's different personalities, have different styles on how they would do that. So I would be more aggressive than others, for example. So what should we be ready for in other parts of the world?

Dean Foster: Right. Well, negotiation styles certainly are different. Again, some cultures more, so some cultures less so. And where they differ is important to recognize. In some cultures, you want to, you want to play a basically zero-sum game, or they begin in negotiation based on the premise of zero-sum. In other words, in order for me to win, you have to lose. Other cultures believe more in everybody getting something out of it, a win-win kind of a negotiation.

And remember, you can't change them, because that's not what you're there to do. But it's really hard to change people. So think present you with a zero-sum kind of negotiation style, and you want to do a win-win negotiation style, you have to have a strategy for managing how you're going to change that, and you can change it.

But you have to have that strategy to do it. And of course, the first thing you have to do is know if you're going to be encountering that kind of style. Some cultures, for example, like to bargain. They start a high price expecting to go to a lower price. Other cultures find the bargaining process as untrustworthy. And they don't bargain. They come in at a price that is what they believe to be realistic, and they stay there. And you have to find other ways to build in value. So every culture is going to approach the negotiation process differently. And we have to know how to manage that

Greg Corombos: When you talk about culture kind of generally, does that suggest that, for the most part, it's pretty consistent and say, Western Europe or the Far East? Or could you see vastly different customs and cultures from between Tokyo and Seoul, for example?

Dean Foster: Yes, there can be differences. You know, there are similarities that usually unite larger regions. So for example, in Western Europe, there are similarities that unite a lot of the cultures and countries there. But as you take a closer step to that region, then you start to see differences. And the differences can become stark, even between country and country, even in countries. For example, in Belgium, Northern Belgium, in southern Belgium, a small country, like Belgium has significant cultural differences. So if you're negotiating in Antwerp in the north, that's going to be a very different negotiation process than in Brussels, in the south. But that's Belgium. And that's a unique example of significant differences, even within a small country.

But there are certain things that unite Belgians with other Europeans. And the same thing for the Far East. The same thing for Latin America and Africa. And everywhere you go,

Greg Corombos: We're talking with Dean Foster, and Dean, this is just absolutely fascinating stuff. Based on your experience over 35 years, as you mentioned before, how big of a difference does this make in whether deals get done? How big the deal is, how long relationships can exist for the mutual benefit of both sides?

Dean Foster: Well, you know the good news, Greg, is that we are working and living in a globalizing world. That is a world where we are learning something about each other because of technology, because of communications, etc.

So there is a certain level of similarity in the ways of doing things that are developing. But it's a very superficial level. It's the fact that we may be using some form of global English to communicate with each other, and some basic technology.

But beyond that, when you get down into the deeper levels, when you have to sit face to face with these folks across the table, or when you have to do long distance communications to nail that deal. Then when you get down to that level, people typically behave according to what makes them comfortable, and they retreat to their culture. That's what they're comfortable with. And so the way you do it in Seoul is just simply going to be different from the way we do it in South Africa. And it's that level with the differences emerge that we have to become very, very sensitive to. And that's where we find ourselves either succeeding or really facing a lot of challenges.

So it's at that cultural level that makes the challenge, and most businesses that we work with have learned that if you don't get this right, you put a major major deal at risk. You can lose millions and millions simply by starting off on the wrong foot or simply not knowing what the next step should be.

Greg Corombos: Dean, go ahead and give the website again and go ahead and mention the books that you've published.

Dean Foster: Sure. Thank you. Our website for more information is My book is Bargaining Across Borders, and it talks about the different negotiation styles that exist in business around the world do you

Greg Corombos: Thank you so much for your time today. We greatly appreciate it.

Dean Foster: Greg a pleasure

Greg Corombos: Dean Foster, founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions. He is also the former worldwide director of Berlitz Cross-Cultural, and he's now the executive strategic consultant for Dwellworks Intercultural. I'm Greg Columbus. And for more information on this topic, please call CT at 844-787-7782.

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