Reality testing questions to ask yourself overseas

As we travel throughout the world, we come across international business lessons and cultural examples of different behaviors. More often than not, untrained executives head out to do business overseas — won’t seek any training or advice.

When this happens, I often find it best to ask some reality-testing questions. We may not have immediate answers to these inquiries, but they are designed to provoke thought, not be answered immediately. Some examples:
• What does “right now” mean?

When we consider deadlines and time horizons, the manager should realize that terms such as “ASAP” have completely different time frames in other cultures. U.S. business people are unique in the world, in that they are very short-term-focused and have a “time is money” attitude.

• Is this the (for example) Brazilian way of telling me you don’t want to do this?
Here, we say what we mean and mean what we say. However, many cultures are much less direct. Confrontation often is avoided. One may hear how permits aren’t granted, or clients won’t want the offering, or a myriad of other excuses to avoid saying no.

• Do they respect my authority?
On overseas dealings with employees and vendors, executives often are frustrated that they aren’t being listened to or respected. Often in foreign acquisitions or joint ventures, allegiances are with former bosses and clients.

• Who does my foreign employee really work for?
As per the previous question, a firm may have employees overseas but they may have alliances with others, or a conflicting second job.

• Have I heard this correctly?
This is a great way to take pressure off of your foreign colleague (who may be speaking their second or third language). Instead of blaming them for miscommunication, remind yourself that when something doesn’t make sense, it could be your problem, not theirs.

• I know our way of handling this, but what is their way?
Americans in highly trained disciplines — such as law, finance and technology — may see a given problem and its solution. However, foreigners may see very different solutions to those same problems. For example, an American in Turkey with a legal problem may try to find a lawyer. But a Turkish native may instead suggest talking to a bank president or a well-connected business person in order to solve the problem.

• Do the police need evidence?
This probe is meant to scare. But unfortunately it’s an excellent question to ask oneself. What’s to keep you from getting arrested and detained with no explanation and no rights? Something as simple as carrying a camera to the coastline in Taiwan may be illegal.

• What if someone I never met knocks on my door, and says: “Hi. Your firm owes me $11 million.”
Scared yet? It’s hard to believe, but I’ve seen this one happen. You can sign all the contracts you want in many countries, and you still won’t know the story. What debts are owed? What favors are owed? How will you make sure there aren’t vulnerabilities out there? Has a reputation check been done?

• What assumptions might be underlying their actions?
This is particularly important when you hit a cultural wall and can’t figure out certain behaviors. A refrigerator is a great example. If you are granted access to an Israeli house, the host assumes you will open the refrigerator and take something out if you wish. In a Dutch home, the refrigerator is as private as an underwear drawer. In Greece, you won’t ever have the chance to be hungry. What assumptions are the hosts making about their guests?

• How do I know this buyer is a buyer?
The easiest way to fool a competitor is to pose as a buyer. It’s amazing how Americans who can taste a deal will hand over facts, information, intellectual property, client names, blueprints, and even business plans to a would-be customer.

• What’s private and what’s public?
Americans readily discuss things that people in many other cultures would consider private, and thus are offended when they’re mentioned. A private U.S. firm may discuss its total volume of sales (“We did $40 million last year”) where a Swedish firm may discuss the amount of people it employees (“We are now 65 people”).

• How do you know when you are in?

This is the most important question to remember. Too many executives come back from, for example, the Middle East, and tell me how close they are to the locals because they’ve been invited into their homes (which is their version of a handshake). Project managers tell me how easily they manage Indian workers because the programmer in India said, “You are like a sister to me.”