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May 6, 2013 - Kent State’s Global Management Professor Discusses Cultural Challenges of International Business

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It's important to find the correct mix with other cultures

Business tactics and casual conversation that work here might not internationally
4:30 am, May 6, 2013

There's a cultural lesson to be found in peanut butter. Americans love it, but that sentiment is not universal outside our borders. So when Vitamix creates recipe books for its blenders sold in other countries, it often omits peanut butter in favor of local specialties, like the red bean paste prepared in many Asian countries.

“You can't walk into any exchange in another country and expect them to perceive things the way you perceive them,” said Jodi Berg, president and CEO of Vitamix, which has distribution centers in 80 countries. “Our presentations are different, our style is different, what we expect to get accomplished in a certain period of time is different.”

Being attuned more to learning than to selling is critical to navigating the cultural challenges of international business transactions, say Ms. Berg and other local pros.

“A lot of knowledge is not necessary,” said Jerry Torma, director of international HR and compensation for Westlake-based Nordson Corp. But, he stressed, openness is essential.

“Culture is an iceberg,” Mr. Torma said. “The more things you see — the food, the language, the dress — you'll start to see more of it.”

To encourage that kind of thinking, he tells every Nordson employee to remember three things.

“There are other time zones than your own; there are other languages than your own; there are other currencies than your own,” Mr. Torma said. “That keeps you open.”

Don't give them the finger

There's a minefield of faux pas that Americans can make when working overseas. In many parts of the world, the American thumbs-up is like offering a middle finger, Mr. Torma said. Turns of phrase like “let's get the ball rolling” or “you'll be our guinea pigs” can prompt confusion or even insult.

But many such missteps are forgivable and won't kill a deal, said Michael Mayo, a professor of marketing at Kent State University.

“People underestimate that if you are new to the market, they will give you a lot of latitude,” Dr. Mayo said. “If you can relax and be more of an explorer, more curious, that's something people outside the U.S. will appreciate.”

For example, Chinese business culture is built on the concept of guanxi, said Steven Feldman, a professor at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management and author of “Trouble in the Middle: American-Chinese Business Relations, Culture, Conflict and Ethics.”

It's a term that describes the network of trusted peers with whom Chinese like to do business, and earning that trust takes time.

“Many of the major mistakes I've seen, sometimes very costly financially, are aggressive, entrepreneur-type executives going in there and trying to do a deal quickly,” Dr. Feldman said. “It's a relationship-based culture, and it takes time to develop over months or even years.”

Large Fortune 500 businesses carry a certain amount of inherent guanxi, he said, but not so for small businesses.

“For a small business, it's open season,” Dr. Feldman said. “Culturally, they don't attribute importance to them. ... It's even more important to have a good middleman to help this process.”

It does fall to employers to prepare their people for such cultural challenges, but the employee must bring just as much to the learning process, said Jim Kuhn, a long-time expert in international HR who now runs recruitment firm Kuhn Global Talent in Hudson.

“They should be driven personally to quest for this information themselves,” Mr. Kuhn said. “You can't pick them based only on technical knowledge because they might not have the right interpersonal skills.”

The little things

Start with language. English may be widely spoken overseas, but “a little bit of language goes a long way (in cultural interactions),” Mr. Kuhn said. “Write five words on the back of your business card and remember them.”

He works with clients on the core competencies needed for success in international business, which include cross-cultural agility, resourcefulness, sensitivity and humility.

It helps to know a bit about how Americans are stereotyped overseas, Mr. Torma said.

“We are (considered) too results-oriented and not enough process-oriented,” he said. “We are generally honest and forthright, but we're a bit too informal, too quickly. (We say) "Just call me Jerry!' Some cultures aren't comfortable with that.”

“Think about cultural sameness instead of differences,” said Dr. Mayo. “Ask, "I see you have soccer trophies for your son. What's it like being a soccer dad?' ... Hit on something they love and they will spend the next 20 minutes talking to you about it.”

That's an easy one for Vitamix — everyone shares a need to eat, said Ms. Berg, and a connection to how what they eat makes them feel.  “People want to help you understand their culture and who they are,” she said. “That's part of human nature.”

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