Research Other Countries Before Starting that Business Trip

If you’re going to do business with foreign people, you must understand them. All too often, we don’t understand who we’re dealing with.

When we bring our own mindsets, perceptions, attitudes, values and belief systems to foreign business dealings, we often forget their values and systems are different. Additionally, our foreign counterparts may not be aware of our idiosyncrasies, and may have done little to prepare to meet with us.

Our executives must prepare. Unfortunately, the common argument is that they have busy schedules, hence no time to learn about the places they’ll visit.

Conventional wisdom tells us to take courses and hire experts. While this is true, are there things international deal-makers can do right away to increase their understanding?

Here’s a list of simple things that can be accomplished even by the busiest people:

1. Go to dinner. If your business will take you to Thailand, go to a local Thai restaurant. Try to figure out who the managers and owners are. How are employees treated? How do they behave? Is the food presented in any special way? How long does the meal take, and why? What cultural observations can you draw from the way your meal and payment are handled?

2. Read a newspaper from that country. If you can find an English version or are heading to an English-speaking country, this will be easier. But most countries have newspapers that are published on the Internet, and many offer English versions.

Even if the language is different, look at the way the paper is laid out, how ads are handled, what colors (if any) are used and what sections may exist. How sophisticated is the design and typesetting?

3. Look up the country in the encyclopedia. Get to know some basic facts about country size, GDP, population, major exports and imports, form of government and religious aspects. Just knowing basic facts will separate you from the many international deal-makers who didn’t bother to learn anything.

4. Listen to the music. With the Internet and downloadable music, one can easily find music from the country they’re visiting. And at about $1 per song, it’s very affordable to build a quick collection.

Additionally, the Web can steer you to streaming radio stations from countries you visit. Thus, you can listen to Radio Nigeria in your living room.

5. Talk to a travel agent. While many of us book tickets online, a travel agent (who has been where you’re going) can offer you insights. If the travel agent is a foreigner to that country, like you, they’ll be even more valuable. They can share perceptions with you.

6. Go to the country’s official Web site. See how the host country advertises itself, what it boasts of, what subjects it avoids and how you’re advised to prepare. You can also get official information such as weather, visa requirements, currency rates and restrictions.

7. Talk to a local. A 10-minute conversation with someone from the country you’re visiting is invaluable. You might ask around to see who knows someone from your destination, or you might chat up the waiter or waitress you’ll meet when you have your ethnic meal. If you have an employee from your destination country, invite him/her to lunch.

8. Learn some of the language. A few key phrases will give you insight as to how people communicate, whether the language has a masculine and feminine form (like French), how people disagree, inflections, pronunciation and cognates (words that translate directly into English). You might be surprised to see that the Chinese word for sofa is “sha fa” or that the Japanese word for computer is “computer.”

9. Read a book. Americans are chastised for their lack of historical understanding. Japanese students now outscore American students on American history exams. Pick up a book to read on the plane ride over that discusses history, politics or culture.

A fictional novel with some cultural accuracy also will help. James Clavell’s novels are an excellent example of this; they all deal with stories in Asia, and educate as well as inform. If you’re planning a long stay, the “Culture Shock” series are books written by foreign people who lived where you’re going.

10. Speak to someone who has been there, done that. If you’re sourcing product in Asia, speak to someone who’s been involved in those deals, in the same countries you’re approaching. If you’re marketing in Europe, speak to someone who has marketed products or services in the countries of interest. Find out what went wrong, what went right and what types of obstacles may impede your success.

The few hours spent following this list could reap huge rewards overseas, while avoiding serious pitfalls.

Bill Decker is the managing director of Partners International, which consults with firms on global business and creates partnerships in foreign countries. Reach him at bill@partnersinternational.com.

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