I frequently recall with amusement an “international incident” that occurred some years ago. At the time I was working with another agency and we had been invited to a new business meeting with a leading South Korean technology company. The President was newly appointed and his English was limited. As a consequence there was some awkward silence as we settled around their board room table. Perhaps a little nervous and not comfortable with the lack of small talk, my colleague jumped into the void and began to talk about us. And he went on and on and on. Watching across the table, I could see the President’s consternation. Finally, as my colleague paused for breath, I spoke up, interrupting him. “So that’s who we are,” I said. “But we would like to hear more about you.” At this point the President turned inquiringly to his team and asked rather tentatively, “It my turn now?” He clearly felt he had been preempted and needed to understand the rules at play. He remained courteous throughout the meeting, but we didn’t get the business.
For those of us who spent big chunks of our careers in the hospitality industry, we had to quickly grasp the subtle nuances of cultural expectations that come with working internationally. There is no one-solutions-fits-all approach that works when you are crossing borders. It’s funny that the greatest culprits of these gaffes occur among North Americans. People seem to get that tactically programs may be very different in Germany compared to France. But in dealing with geographies as large as ours, there are regional differences right across Canada and the United States that need to be taken into account in marketing and communications plans. And of course Mexico requires a whole new road map. In doing business with Mexican businesses and indeed with any Latin American companies you need to be aware that people want to establish a friendly rapport before talking business. Leaping in too quickly with the facts and figures is not a good idea. Latin Americans are generally warm and in exchanges don’t be surprised if they move inside your physical comfort zone, even reaching out to touch you casually. The Spanish from Spain are of course, completely different again.
I had a call the other day from a colleague working in the Middle East looking for some advice. I had just read a story in the Wall Street Journal that I was able to share about the ways some of the big international retailers are tailoring their strategies. In order to do business in Saudi Arabia several companies have taken into account cultural mores and the conservative values found in Islamic states. For example, Marks & Spencer recently launched its first stand-alone lingerie store in Saudi Arabia. It is staffed by an all female team, less provocative photographs are used in marketing and even the mannequins are headless to address Islamic concerns about reproducing the human form. Zara, the Spanish retailing giant has also adapted its formulaic approach, blurring images of female models on video screens and turning down the music. WSJ reporter Rory Jones predicts that rules in Saudi Arabia may get even tougher to follow with a new, more conservative ruler on the throne since January of this year.
Educating our customers as they expand their businesses into other countries has become a lot more complicated than learning the rules about presenting business cards. It behooves all of us to gain an understanding about the cultural values that shape a given region and show respect and courtesy for them in preparing our plans. Playing by the rules can make all the difference for companies and for individuals.