Culture: The Oft-Overlooked Factor for Succeeding in International Business

What if a magic formula existed to immediately and successfully connect you with international businesses? What if you knew a secret about how to get your business proposal favorably presented to the key decision-maker? Well, there is a method to do exactly these things, but you will have to invest your time learning your target’s culture. In many other countries, the cultural aspect of business plays an important part in the introducing, negotiating, and closing a business deal. Ignore cultural aspects at your own risk.

Here in South Florida, we have many cultural influences that affect our daily lives. As the gateway to Latin America, Miami incorporates numerous culinary, linguistic, and interpersonal cultural factors from more than a dozen countries. Indeed, cafecito and colada create countless opportunities for daily personal interaction with co-workers and friends. Indeed, I specifically recall greeting newcomers to Miami with Cuban coffee, pastelitos, and breakfast empanadas. They were duly impressed. In recent years, Miami’s international flavor has expanded past the South American and Caribbean influence. With Art Basel starting its annual draw of the world art scene, Miami will welcome guests from around the globe.

Fort Lauderdale has also expanded its international reach in the past decade. Presently, the Venice of the United States is home to the North American home of several international businesses and new ones are regularly arriving. Growing international relationships is a priority for Fort Lauderdale’s business community. As both cities continue to expand cross-border interactions, local business success will in part depend on learning how to integrate culture into the discussion. Learning more about a new culture doesn’t always come from the classroom or a book – it has to be experienced . . . Picture the following:

It’s a quarter to 9 in the morning and you are stuck in serious Bogota traffic on your way to your first meeting with your potential Colombian clients. You have 15 minutes to get to your agreed upon location but your taxi driver laughs at the thought of you making it on time to your meeting. He turns to look at you and says, “it is Latin time my friend, you will definitely be late”.

Fifteen minutes late, you arrive at your destination and to your surprise, the other party is still not there. You check your email while you wait and find that they have notified you that they are running late and will be there shortly. Relieved, you sit back and attempt to de-stress while you wait for their arrival.

The culture of doing business can be very confusing. Americans consider being late as rude, showing lack of respect, and having undisciplined personal habits. Ever hear the phrase “time is money”? Well that is exactly how Americans view time. By being late, you are wasting time and therefore money. This way of thinking is why you were so anxious and aggravated when you arrived late to your meeting in Bogota, Colombia.

Now relieved to be sitting, you wonder why the other party is so late. Accustomed to doing business the American way, you consider their tardiness as a lack of respect. But, for Colombians and most Hispanic cultures, lateness is commonplace as little value is attached to punctuality. As long as you notify that you will be arriving late, lateness is forgiven in the Hispanic culture.

The Colombian businessmen arrive 20 minutes late, fully suited and ready for lunch. You all shake hands and greet the women with a kiss on the cheek as is common culture. In the Hispanic culture, high emphasis is placed on building relationships so they ask you how you and your family is doing. They ask probing questions about your life and have a drawn out greeting ritual, but this is only because they want to get to know you and build a relationship. Expect questions on your travel, family and close acquaintances. Before any business talk is made, you must spend plenty of time building personal relationships. Accepting any social invitations as an opportunity to build on your business relationship is the key to success as Colombians value social time and time spent together builds trust.

Three hours into your lunch, the topic of business finally comes up. Lunches are typically the “business meal” but are very drawn out. You finally get your chance to pitch your idea and hear their feedback. You finally accomplished what you set out to do. Close some business.

Latin culture is not the only one that requires investing your time differently than you would here in the United States. A year ago, Emirates Air opened direct flights between Fort Lauderdale and Dubai. FLL is the second airport in Florida to receive Emirates. Dubai is one of the Middle East’s crown jewels; the direct connection with one of Florida’s fastest-growing cities is a boon for businesses in both locales.

But, doing business in Dubai and conducting commerce in America requires adjusting one’s cultural perspective. I found one of the most striking differences between the two cultures to be that personal relationships are paramount in the Middle East while they are more aspirational here in the US. Indeed, most Americans think nothing of the concept of the “cold-call” for a sales representative to introduce their product or service. Such a method would likely fail in many areas of the Middle East.

For the nearly 20 years that I have been interacting, working with, and representing Middle Eastern clients, personal and family relationships are powerful. When a new opportunity arises, every business person I know of considers their network to make introductions. Much of the Middle East business world is still ruled by families, extended families, or members of a particular tribe.[1] Thus, outsiders must first create relationships to make inroads into the business community.

Once a relationship is created, the opportunity for business may then present itself. If the opportunity arises, you will find that the entire presentation to the board, committee, or other leadership will be somewhat choreographed by your insider. This bit of theater will require rehearsals, typically in your hotel or the local office of your colleague. This preparation is invaluable. Because your colleague has the relationship with the group you will be pitching, your colleague will know exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to react. During some high-level negotiations in 2008, I was given specific instructions to present information in a more forceful and youthful manner so that one of the elder and more experienced executives on my team could gently step into the discussion and moderate my comments. This method resonates with the Middle East culture because of its veneration of the wisdom and experience of the elders in its society.

One of the great cultural equalizers is food. As I mentioned, the colada and pastelito breakfast introduced Miami to other Americans. During my active duty Marine Corps days, we celebrated the completion of a training exercise with the Royal Saudi Naval Forces with a traditional Saudi feast that included – jellied camel hump. What did we do? Well, when in Rome Riyadh . . .

Culture is a funny thing filled with complexities. What is considered an etiquette faux pas in one culture could be considered to be acceptable in another. Clients from overseas can be as unprepared for your way of doing business as you are for theirs so it is very important to do your homework and study up on the culture of the country that you will be visiting. Some cultures can be sympathetic to your cultural ignorance but others may not be and that can cost you the deal. Regardless of the amount of reading up you do, be prepared for a culture clash or two!

[1] Indeed, one tribe S’aud took control of the area now known as Saudi Arabia. Two other large tribes that historically lived in that area moved to other areas. The Hashemites to Jordan and Shammar to Iraq.