Working for an international company is one of the best ways to travel abroad. The benefits of living among a different culture are widely romanticized. But working abroad comes with intense challenges- starting with communication.
So you want to work abroad, eh?
Remember that your company- even an international company- will need a reason to send you abroad. Seriously consider the qualifications required for you to be the best candidate for the job. Speaking Spanish to order a beer is not the same as closing a deal in Spanish. Why should your employer send you to work abroad, when they can probably save money by hiring someone from that country?
Aside from the technical skills for a specific job, you will need to learn how to effectively communicate with business professionals from all over the world. Although English is one of the widest spoken languages, not all countries learn it with the same vocabulary.
As a simple example, in the UK, they call underwear “pants”. So if you’re talking to your business partner in the UK, and compliment their pants, you’re saying that you like their underwear. Awkward...
Remember that someone from a different culture may be speaking English as their second, or even third (fourth, fifth…) language. Depending on their English skill level and personality, many business professionals may prefer conversing through email rather than phone calls. Email allows professionals to perfect their English through writing.
Conversing with different cultures via email
When it comes to email, take caution when communicating with professionals around the globe. Remember, the time zones will be different, so you may not receive an immediate reply.
And if you don’t receive a response, it might be because someone does not understand, but is too shy to ask for clarification. Clarify your emails through bullet points of action items or questions you need answered.
Adhere to the standard greetings of someone’s culture through writing. For example, in the UK, emails are always started with salutations like “Dear”, “Hi”, and “Hello” [Name], and concluded with “Cheers”, “Thank you”, “Sincerely”, and so on.
That means that in the UK, you say Hello and Goodbye to Sally for every single email that you send to her, even though you know that you’re talking to Sally and Sally knows that she’s talking to you. Whew. If you don’t greet Sally or say goodbye to Sally in your emails, you’re being rude.
Business etiquette for international phone calls
Creating a business relationship over the phone is an added challenge of international business. You won’t be able to read the situation through body language or tone of voice, as usual. Even a simple phone call will require more planning than you’re used to.
When you do find yourself on a phone call from someone speaking English as their second language, be considerate of their time zone. Trust me, your business partner will not be thrilled to receive a friendly phone call from you at 4 in the morning their time.
When you’re on the phone, speak concisely, and more slowly that normal. Do not make someone feel stupid. Do not finish someone’s sentence. Do not correct their word or phrase, even if it’s wrong. And no, talking louder does not help someone understand you better (Americans are known for talking really loudly).
But clearly enunciate your words, and pause periodically to ask them if they understand. Usually, someone won’t interrupt you to ask for clarification- it’s too embarrassing. Offer a natural opportunity for the listener to ask a question.
In-person meetings with professionals from different cultures
Traveling to a foreign country shows that you are serious about conducting business with another culture. Study what the people are like by taking public transportation or walking around when it’s safe to do so. If you’re worried about your safety, check the Department of State website for updated travel advisory warnings.
Make an effort to eat the local food. Especially take note of the service industry when it comes to restaurants. For example, a restaurant in Japan may courteously wait on you, as serving with honor is central to their culture. But in the UK, you will probably have to wave like a madman at your server to get their attention. The service industry is a quick way to glimpse the culture of another country.
When it’s time to meet with a business professional in another country, make sure you’ve done your homework. An appropriate greeting may range from a kiss on the cheek to a formal handshake. The way you dress should comply with the cultural norm- many countries require very formal attire for meetings. Something as simple as exchanging your business card may be seen as rude in some cultures.
The amount of time offered for a meeting will also vary by country. In New York City, most meetings will only run for 15 minutes, and the content will be very direct. On the contrary, in Mexico, polite small talk along with formal introductions are expected, so your meetings will be much longer. In India, you expect for your meeting to start 45 minutes late due to their chaotic traffic. On the other hand, showing up late in Sweden is considered extremely rude.
So for Americans, keep in mind that while international business is thrilling, it is much more challenging than local business. You will be constantly learning. You must simultaneously be skilled at planning- and then adapting when your plans fall through. The backgrounds of people will affect how you do business with them.
This blog post would not have been possible without the Nevada Global Business program and Server Technology of London! A special thanks to Marc Marazzi and James Giblette for teaching me about their personal experiences working abroad.
I spent the week visiting international companies in London with MBA students from the University of Nevada, Reno. Through my visits to companies such as IGT, ISN, Lloyds of London, and Server Technology, I learned about international market complexities, which inspired this post.
What are your thoughts on international business? The comments are yours 🙂
Until next time- Saludos!