Tag Archives: Intercultural Communication

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Costa Rica, Part 2

Though Costa Rica shares quite a few cultural similarities with the U.S., one thing that seems to permeate throughout Central America is the importance of family. Perhaps not so surprising in this collectivist culture, many decisions are based on the effect they have on the family. In this peaceful country, Ticos believe in peace through negotiations. However, just because peace or an agreement is the end goal does not mean that you have to sugarcoat your ideas. Ticos are more concerned that honest opinions are expressed than the need to “save face” due to negative or unpleasant opinions. Ticos encourage open dialogue. By no means be disrespectful, but be honest in your opinions and ideas.

Men typically wear conservative suits (where the jacket is kept on until the Tico counterpart removes his first), while women wear dresses or skirts and blouses (pants are not typically worn). Men usually shake hands during greetings, while the abrazo greeting (patting each other on the right forearm or shoulder) is done between women. Kissing is only done between people who know each other well.

Good times to visit Costa Rica are February and March and between September and November. Vacations are usually taken during December and January and for Christmas and Easter. In the public sector, the fiscal year is the same as the calendar year. Make appointments in advance and reconfirm before arrival. Do try to visit Costa Rica before making business arrangements, as face to face contact is preferred over telecommunications.

Costa Ricans have a strong work ethic and tend to focus on the process of accomplishing the goal as much as the result/goal itself. By preferring to take their time with the process, they are attempting to avoid risks and anxiety. Costa Rica may be a monochromatic society, they also like to take their time to complete projects and generally try to avoid precise commitments. They avoid these precise commitments because of their “high uncertainty avoidance” established in their strict rules and policies in the legal system and societal norms. Ticos are more formal and serious than their neighbors. It is advisable to have local legal representation in addition to a local advertising agency.

During these meetings and presentations, everyone involved is encouraged to share their views and ask questions, so to put up a united front each member of your team or delegation to Costa Rica should take part in the presentation. Decision makers in Costa Rica are highly accessible and are willing to participate in frank open dialogue and discussions. The high ranking individual may make the final decision, but usually only after input from almost all involved with the decision, group consensus (group culture). And while a monochromatic society, decisions take time and thought (especially if group consensus is the goal), so try your best not to display any signs of impatience, as that may lower your credibility. Let the decisions stew over a business dinner, perhaps.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Costa Rica, Part 1

During the age of Imperialism, many of those who settled in Costa Rica were seeking land and mercantile opportunities. This “rich coast,” named Costa Rica by Columbus, is barred physically with mountain ranges and water, from instability and hostility that plagues the region, and promotes civility and neutrality within Costa Rican borders. Costa Rica has no official army to guard its borders, a history of peace, a relatively stable democratic republic, one of the highest literacy rates in Central America, and a sound economy.

Though Costa Ricans feel a strong affiliation towards the U.S. ideals of hard work and individual effort, their attitudes towards the U.S. and its citizens is ambivalent. In fact, like Belize, you may feel more comfortable in Costa Rica than other Central American countries. Though sharing in the Central (and Latin) America tradition of being relatively conservative and risk averse, in addition to the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, Ticos are monochromatic (punctuality counts here!), they are probably the most punctual people in Central America. Other Tico distinctions include negotiating patterns in markets, where bargaining is considered a game and an expected practice, it is simply rare in this Central American country. In general, Ticos welcome affluent foreigners, however they do not encourage poor immigrants, for they cite them as the cause of petty crime, loss of civility, and other social ills.

Like the United States, Costa Rica, leans more egalitarian than hierarchical. Costa Rican prosperity, general ethnic homogeneity, and commitment to widespread education contributes to an egalitarian society. While there are various social classes, there is a strong emphasis on the equality and dignity of work regardless of social class. There is no need to tip taxi drivers in this egalitarian culture. Following the egalitarian pattern of Costa Rican society, machismo is not as strong as in other Central American countries. There are lower levels of gender discrimination in Costa Rica. For example, women keep their own identity apart from their husbands in all legal and business matters and there is a greater acceptance fore women in business. “Sharing the wealth” is a government mandate that encourages egalitarianism and enforces the preexisting humanitarian, democratic, and group culture attitudes. This “sharing” culture also extends to Costa Rican mentality—they are open to discussion on almost any topic.

Ticos are also similar to U.S. Americans regarding their demeanor. They are more subdued and detached in their communications styles, similar to U.S. American businessmen and women. Ticos are more reserved, non-emotive, proud and self-respecting. They have strong beliefs and are not easily persuaded. It is these beliefs more than rules that can determine decisions—rules are guidelines, most things are taken on a case by case basis. While they may have a strong self-image, because of the egalitarian mentality, they have a strong distaste for arrogance and expect all, even those in high positions, to display humility. Status is not as important in Costa Rica, and even if you have a lot of accomplishments, tooting your horn here is not exactly smiled upon.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Belize, Part 2

Belize is also different than its neighbors concerning the concept of time. While many of its neighbors have a relaxed view about time and punctuality, Belizeans are more monochromatic like their founders. Punctuality is expected for all business appointments, and while there is some flexibility concerning social occasions, certainly not half an hour or more. While Belizeans are firm believers in punctuality, the pace of life is slightly slower in Belize and like many of you would agree, big decisions need time. They do not have a clear aversion to risk, but actually have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. Unlike Guatemala, Belize is past oriented with a concern for a better future. When a good opportunity presents itself, you will find that individual decision makers can move rather quickly.

Though hierarchy is flexible, start with formality and titles and then ease your way into informality, like the saying, “better to be overdressed than underdressed.” Like mentioned before, outsiders can quickly become involved in a group, so in large groups pluck up the courage and introduce yourself.  Don’t expect personal introductions.

Dress in business situations is expected to be formal (dress pants, shirts, skirts, dresses, etc.), but often accommodates the heat and therefore tends to be more casual. Before your arrival in Belize, it is best to make your appointments at least one week in advance. Then, upon first meetings or introductions, since relationships are key in this country and hierarchy is flexible, make quality (over quantity) connections with people through extended conversations. In the business setting, decisions may take a long time, but punctuality is very important. Since Belize has primarily British roots, many business practices and business laws are similar to those in the United States. Since Belizeans follow many of the British and United States protocols for business, it also means that contracts are exactly as stated, unlike most of Central America, where contracts are flexible. It is also recommended that, like other countries where you conduct business, you have a local contact on the ground to help you conduct business in Belize. However beware that Belizean citizenship can be bought.

Other facts about Belize:

  • To find a particular address, get directions from a well-known landmark.
  • Breakfast is referred to as “tea”.
  • Lunch is referred to as “dinner”.
  • When invited to a home for “tea” or to “drink some tea” you are having what we usually consider “dinner” but also known as “supper”.
  • Belize has a distinct style of popular music and dance called Punta, where the feet remain stationary and the rest of the body (especially the hips move; popular among the Garifuna). So get your dancin’ shoes on!
  • Taking coral or tropical fish out of the country is illegal.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Belize, Part 1

Belize is one of the most unique countries in Central America straying from the cultural norms of her neighbors. Belize, actually has British pirate (arrgh) and African (slaves brought to develop the timber-cutting industry) foundations. It is the youngest independent nation in Central America, achieving its independence from Great Britain in 1964, and abandoning the colonial name British Honduras in favor of its current name: Belize. English, not Spanish, is the official language of Belize, and while there is no official religion, the national prayer has Christian references. Another unique characteristic of Belize is that it is one of the most peaceful countries in Central America. Though its relationship with Guatemala has been strained, it has not suffered a single coup, major uprising, or guerilla war, which have plagued much of Latin America. “The British of Central America” is really an accurate description, given the political system and membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. Belize is a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy with the Queen (of England) as the monarch and chief of state, represented by the governor general, a native of Belize and the prime minister the head of government. Once political parties gain power, they tend to be relatively cooperative with outside business people and investors. The primary industries for business in Belize include tourism, agriculture, forestry, and recently, banking.

Isolated behind a barrier reef, Belize has been ignored, for the most part, by outside forces allowing unique cultures to develop. Caribbean influence is predominant among the business class and along the coast. Creoles formed the backbone for Belizean urban society for decades. However, while the coast and urban areas are very much Caribbean influenced, towards the interior, a majority of inhabitants are Spanish speaking Mexican and Guatemalan. Society itself is male dominated, and women still play traditional roles, though the situation is changing. Women can inherit businesses, but women are infrequently seen in executive roles, and are especially rare in government. However as business grows and women attend university this is changing.

Belize is not necessarily a collectivist society, nor is it an individualist one either, it is rather in between the two paradigms. Social roles maybe strict, however class distinctions are more fluid and hierarchy does not have the same importance as in Belize’s neighbors. Outsiders can be easily and quickly involved in the group, when there is a reason for them to be. So though there may be some cultural stigmas towards women, these are changing, and since hierarchy is not as important, there is more access to all sectors and levels of business. Relationships are also highly important in this society; rules may be respected, but the priority is in honoring social responsibility toward one another.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Honduras

Before the popular GAP owned clothing store came along, the original “Banana Republic” was in reference to Honduras. Bananas, coffee, and wood are the main exports of Honduras. Located on the east side of Central America, the name Honduras was derived from the Spanish word la hondura, referring to the deep water off the country’s Caribbean coast.

The Roman Catholic Church, with about 97% of the population, influences Honduran society by providing structure through Catholic precepts and various holidays. Family, like in other Central American countries, is also highly important here and can be the deciding factor in individual decision making. There is an inherent trust in people because of the network between families, extended families, and friends. In addition to the influence of family and friends, Honduran society is a highly subjective society that bases its decisions on its own feelings, precepts of the Catholic Church, and Mayan cultural heritage. Hondurans, in general are more flexible and willing to see new options and ways of doing things—don’t be afraid to present new perspectives and ideas. Honduras is an open society that readily accepts change.

Honduran society is generally a more egalitarian society, in comparison with other regions of Central America, due, in part, to its relatively homogenous society. The homogenized mestizo society developed without institutionalized slavery, providing the foundations of pluralism in society. Many Hondurans, however, want to seek their prosperity and security elsewhere. There is a inscription above the jail in Trujillo stating, “La ley is duro, pero es la ley,” meaning more or less that the law is the law and that there is no changing it and really no escape from it. The upper classes may believe differently, but in this sense Honduran society is somewhat resigned to their situation, and play their part in respecting the hierarchy of it all.

Honduras is considered to be the pariah state due to its dependence on the U.S. and decreasing power within the region. Since 1990, Honduras has tried to reduce its dependence on the U.S. by encouraging investments from other nations with tax advantages and cheap labor. Honduras has many resident foreigners from Asian and Arab countries who have come to take care of tax advantages. These groups, however, do not have much political influence, mainly due to their lack of cohesion. When choosing foreign representatives for your company, choose someone local and check out their credentials. Make sure to build up confianza and simpatico and a personal relationship; one is less likely to betray a friend than a detached business professional. Harmonious interpersonal skills can compensate for lack of expertise. When purchasing, price may be the major deciding factor, but customer service is the next factor, remember they are buying your personality with the product.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Nicaragua

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America (not including Mexico) and has been considered as a possible site for a sea level canal that would complement Panama’s. Though predominantly an agrarian culture (60% of Nicaragua’s exports), increases in the tourism industry has influenced foreign direct investment in Nicaragua by about 79% from 2007 to 2009. Although Nicaragua shares many of the cultural norms and values of most of Central America, it still has a distinctive culture.

Nicaraguan culture is divided between a more traditional Hispanic formal culture and a new revolutionary egalitarian and informal culture. Like most of Central America, the Roman Catholic Church also holds the majority of supporters here and minimal political influence, giving society structure and hierarchy. However, many of the ruling conservative elite actually subscribe to a form of Neo-Pentecostal Protestantism, which provides justification for the wealth of the ruling elite as evidence of their faith and poverty the lack thereof. The role of religion in justifying wealth and poverty also contributes to the traditional formal culture. This formal culture is often at odds with the newly emerging egalitarian society. Despite the fact that individuals of different classes are treated differently, which one can argue is true of any country, the universal application of the law tends to be a sensitive topic, implying that Nicaraguans are not satisfied with their current state and strive for equality. Unlike many Central American countries, conspicuous display of wealth or distaste and avoidance of manual labor, seen as a sign of privilege, can generate strong negativity, another sign of the struggle for an egalitarian culture. One of the ways that this revolutionary egalitarian culture has begun to take root is in gender roles, there is a higher percentage of women enrolled in school than in most of Central America.

Just because a new egalitarian society is starting to emerge does not imply that Nicaraguans are not a proud people. They are proud of their heritage, their beliefs, and their position within society. When greeting Nicaraguans, handshakes are the accepted norm,and kissing is a common greeting once you have an established relationship. Most of the ruling business elite speak English, but Garifuna is spoken by the coastal African population. In terms of communication, Nicaraguans are less concerned with loss of face and also less inclined to sugarcoat bad news or avoid confrontation. It has been said that Nicaraguans can be direct and blunt in their communication style, but will filter how much or little of their true sentiments to express depending on the rank and status of those present. Despite various mechanisms to “save face,” silence is generally uncommon but used for formal situations or when avoiding confrontation is necessary. Remember, when communicating, remain logical, formal, respectful, and diplomatic…but don’t be a robot! Be warm, open, and personable too!

Though known for Flor de Cana rum, tobacco and beef, Nicaragua’s other industries—tourism, banking, mining, fisheries, and general commerce—are expanding. Nicaraguans tend to look to the future and are inspired by the possibilities that change can bring. Nicaraguans, though typically risk averse, have been known to make fast decisions and swiftly seize opportunities when they are presented with one. The process for decision making mimics the pace of Nicaraguan culture, which is more relaxed, and while punctuality is expected, you may find yourself waiting. Note that time is more monochromatic in the capital city of Mangua. As with many Central American countries, personal relationships with the right people are very important. Known as enchufado in Nicaragua, this is an important business intermediary in your Nicaraguan ventures. You will find that the traditional Hispanic hierarchy exists in the rigidly layered workplace. However, in less traditional, liberal organizations and businesses, there is a strong egalitarian spirit throughout the entire organization.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Panama – Part 2

Panama is the bridge between the Americas, home of the famous canal connecting two Oceans, and the wealthiest country in Central America. Due to the United States’ involvement in the construction of the Panama Canal, Panamanians are very familiar with U.S. culture. However, attitudes towards U.S. influence and involvement are mixed. The country is ruled by a small military right wing elite, which is receptive to U.S. interests, perhaps adding to the tension between the two countries.

It is highly important to establish personalismo—personal relationships and to become part of the Panamanian family (the basis of Panamanian society). Panama shares many of the general business practices outlined in earlier articles concerning the region, such as expected punctuality from foreigners and strong work ethic. Status is important here as in many parts of Central America, and even those with a Bachelors degree are acknowledged with the title licensiado.

When making appointments, initial scheduling should be done far in advance, through direct contact (not intermediaries), and confirmation at least a week before your arrival. Though formal business attire is appreciated, weather in Panama usually dictates a more casual (and comfortable) attire. The lack of jackets and ties are acceptable (and expected), though those in high positions don suits or camisillas—an open necked shirt typically worn untucked. Women typically wear skirts and blouses, or dresses. Women should avoid revealing clothing including shorts, and wearing pants in some rural areas of Panama may draw some attention. Greetings resemble greetings of other Central American countries, with the handshake being the primary gesture of welcome or greeting, and kissing between women is done when they are familiar with each other.

Some negotiations are held at the office, while others are held over lunch at a restaurant (business dinners are rare). Lunch usually takes place around noon, and is an affair that lasts about an hour and a half. Though Panamanian women are still rare in business, their presence is growing. Foreign businesswomen may include their spouses in the invites to business dinners. Wait to be seated, as the host usually sits at one end and the honored guest at the other. Men are expected to stand when women enter or leave the room. And while many business conversations begin with small talk about family, hobbies, or sports (avoid talking about the Canal, race problems or politics), sometimes the host, especially if pressed for time, may dive right into shop talk.

Gift giving in Panama is not expected, but meals of thanks are acceptable. Gifts are appropriate if invited into a Panamanian home or in the rural areas. Gifts should be from the your home country or state, perhaps a local craft or an illustrated book. The latest electronic gadget or expensive liquors, chocolate, wines, and Scotch are appropriate and appreciated.

Respect for others and knowledge, even a precursory knowledge of culture and society of different countries will put you in a more favorable position to do international business.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business With Panama – Part 1

“The U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement will support American jobs, expand markets, and enhance U.S. competitiveness by eliminating tariffs and other barriers to U.S. exports and expanding trade between our two countries.” – Panama Trade Promotion Agreement

With a growth rate of 6.2 percent in 2010 and a similar annual forecast until 2015, Panama is one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. The U.S. Trade Agreement can result in the liberalization of trade in goods and services where U.S. firms will have better access to Panama’s services sector. With an increased interest and support from the U.S. government for increased trade relations with Panama, Panama may be the next market to break into.

Like many countries in Central America, Catholicism is the dominant religion (80% of the population) and gives society structure, emphasizing reverence and respect for hierarchy—seniority, the elderly, and status. Just because respect for hierarchy is important in this Central American society does not mean that there is no respect for those of lower classes or the youth, in fact Panamanians believe in the inherent worth of every individual and therefore avoid public criticism. Panamanians like to maintain an image of harmony, so while people are not publicly criticized, it does not imply that they are never criticized (out of hearing of others). Though traditional Panamanian society dictates a high respect for the elite, young Panamanians are less sympathetic to many of the privileges awarded to the elite. While Panamanians are followers of strong leaders, the Panamanian youth are not as compliant with the extent of elite privileges.

There is a large disparity between the wealthy and poor, and while different races and groups exist, there are rigid class distinctions. Los Rabiblancos (whitetails)—the white urban Panamanian elite—hold most of the country’s wealth and are most likely the same people who run the business sector of Panama. Though Spanish is the official language of Panama, the familiarity with U.S. customs has led to the spread of the English language throughout most of the region and certainly anyone you plan on doing business with.

While Panamanians are open to all sorts of information, they tend to be very subjective and somewhat politicized; for example, if a Panamanian has anti-(U.S.) American views, he or she may reject any information from the United States. Panamanians rely on their gut instincts, and unless educated abroad, will rarely let objective facts stand in the way of their true intentions and desires. Younger Panamanians tend to be more objective. The family is just as important here in Panama as in many other countries in Central America and is the single most important social unit. Decisions are made with the family in mind in this collectivist culture, so when negotiating or pitching ideas, keep in mind that your Panamanian business associates are looking to benefit their family and extended family/families. The family (and extended family) provides stability and protection against a sometimes hostile and more often unpredictable world. These personal relationships, built on mutual trust, are maintained at all costs.

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business In & With Guatemala

The Mayans of Mexico also inhabited what is now known as Guatemala, labeling it the “Land of Tree;” in fact Guatemala was the first country to have uncovered the ancient ruins of the Mayan astrological calendar computation. So according to the Mayan calendar, we need to make 2012 count! Like Mexico and many countries in this region, Guatemala also adheres to many of the cultural norms outlined in previous articles concerning communication, business practices, hierarchy, meeting etiquette, etc. However, as many countries share similarities, they also differ significantly establishing them as unique cultures.

Like Mexico, the precepts of the Catholic Church give structure to life and have little influence in the government. However, unlike Mexico, Catholicism is not the official religion; over the years, the Church lost popularity amongst the wealthy. The Catholic Church and the family, like Mexico give Guatemalans a sense of structure and consistency throughout Guatemala’s troubled history of revolutions and military coups. Wealth and family give the individual status and security for the future. The general outlook of Guatemalans tends to be fatalistic, accepting their prescribed role in society, though hoping for better futures. Hierarchy here plays a part in the structure of society and tends to be rigid in some respects, such as women’s roles (only women may be charged with adultery) and lax in others, such as interactions between high ranking business executives or government officials and foreign sales people.

Perhaps it is because Catholicism, and consequently precepts of rigid hierarchy, have fallen out of favor with the wealthy (i.e. those in power, executives of companies, high ranking government officials) that reaching high ranking officials is easier than in Mexico, i.e. there are not as many hoops to jump through in Guatemala to see the boss. These executives, however, perhaps because of their rank are not afraid to say what they feel and tend to be open and speak bluntly. Other nuances of Guatemalan business culture is the fact that since Guatemala is a small market, one bad word or opinion of you, or your company, can go a long way, unfortunately. Well, good thing you are reading this…now you have a heads up! When it comes to results or process, the inclination is towards progress. The process itself may take a particularly long time, so as to ease those who are opposed to change into the new situation or processes. Similar to Asian countries, Guatemala is a collectivist country (thinking in terms of the group or family) and Guatemalans are opposed to change for the heck of it; in fact you will find many Asian owned manufacturing companies in Guatemala. When selling to Guatemalans, price may be the single most important factor in the purchasing decision.

Some other unique characteristics of Guatemala:

  • Business is not discussed in a home or around family
  • Loud voices are not met kindly
  • Military clothing is illegal
  • Mexican food is still typically spicier than Guatemalan food

Country Focus: Intercultural Nuances of Doing Business In & With Mexico

Chilies, corn, chocolate, and culture…Mexico has it all.  Mexico city is built upon the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and is one of the largest cities of the world. Mexico itself has the 11th largest economy in the world and shares the second largest border in the world with the United States. John Rice, President & CEO of General Electric Growth and Operations, cites that one of the most compelling reasons to do business in Mexico is the “opportunity and quality of the people” and the fact that you “can find just about anything here.”

While many of Central America’s customs and cultural traditions mentioned in previous articles are also shared in Mexico, including responsibility to the group, traditional gender roles, communication patterns, business practices (meetings, negotiations, etc.), Mexico itself has a unique culture apart from these shared characteristics.

A primary figure featured throughout Mexico is the Virgen de Guadalupe, who is a symbol of unity between the Aztec and Spanish cultures. She also serves as a symbol for Mexican nationality. The Catholic Church has a strong presence in Mexican society (90% of the population) and also serves to reinforce social hierarchy. One’s role in the social structure, and the presence of responsibility to extended members of family (which, as a business associate, you are attempting to become part of) give a sense of stability to life. Because hierarchy and reputation go hand in hand, it is also important as a high-ranking business professional not to cause humiliation by publicly criticizing; remember to try and preserve relationships.

Not only is Mexico one of the United State’s largest exporters, but Mexico also has the largest upper middle class of all Latin American countries. John Farrell, Country Director of Google, notes that Mexico has a “young population” which will result in a large workforce in the future.

Other nuances of Mexican culture include:

  • The “thumbs up” hand gesture generally means approval.
  • The “thumbs down” hand gesture is seen as obscene and vulgar.
  • Though taxi drivers are not generally tipped; tips for drinks and food in Mexican restaurants is about 15%, perhaps more in tourist cities.
  • When making appointments in Mexico, make them approximately two weeks prior to your arrival, via e-mail or phone, then confirm a week before your arrival.
  • Genuine cantinas in Mexico are visited by men, a woman’s presence is considered scandalous.
  • Do not drink the tap water, except where officially noted; this applies to ice as well.
  • Lunch is the main meal of the day and can be an extended affair; business lunches are popular.
  • Business meals are not typically the time to make business decisions.
  • The most common toast in Mexico is ¡salud! to health and prosperity.

¡Salud! to your business plans in Mexico!

Mexico and Central America, Part 5: Meetings and Negotiations

There are two different types of business meetings in Mexico and Central America: a meeting between peers and a meeting between unequals. Both have different goals and are conducted differently.

Between Peers: With the high status of participants having been established, meaning that all the formalities of going through lower channels of subordinate communications, these business associates can communicate openly sharing ideas. These meetings act as forums for sharing ideas and making decisions, and everyone is expected to contribute to the general decision making process (as the need for group consensus dictates). Discussions may be loud and vibrant with everyone talking at once with all comfortable with their position to pay attention to formalities. In these meetings questions are common and interruptions expected. Imagine this as different heads of households coming together to, say, make a decision about a city ordinance that affects your neighborhood. Each is comfortable and secure in their position as head of house and sees each participant as his peer, and feels like (s)he can speak freely.

As opposed to meetings…

Between Non-Peers (or Unequals): Meetings between subordinates (of all different levels) are typically more formal as it is the beginning of relationships that hopefully culminates in the dialogues mentioned above. These meetings are usually called by the decision-makers to gather information, clarify goals, and/or formulate action plans. There is no real sharing of ideas or efforts at problem solving. This first meeting is to really size up the other company. Your goal should be to establish compatibility and mutual respect (simpatico), be warm and dignified, and make a good impression. Similar to parents sending their children to play with other children on the street, collect basic information and get a general idea of compatibility and intentions, in other words lay the groundwork for heads of house to meet.

Once in the position to present proposals come well prepared. Your presentations should be carefully planned, logically organized, and beautifully presented with interesting visual aides (charts, graphs, and handouts)—remember how important it is to look successful, make yourself a force to be reckoned with! Bargaining is an expected way of negotiating, as ingrained in society and present in small shops and markets. Bargaining is an instrument to building trust so be reasonable, don’t divulge information easily, and don’t overcompensate (you don’t want to appear easy!). Bargaining is a tool used across the world as a way to build a relationship where both sides seem to appear to win. It’s a game and you are expected to play! Like contracts in China, contracts in Central America are seen as legal formalities, which can be altered if there is a need. Families and their extended networks help each other out, they take care of each other, you are marrying into the Central American family and the business!

Mexico and Central America, Part 4: Tempo, El Jefe, and Notarios

While it is expected that new business associates will arrive at the appointed time, “la gringa” or “Norteamericano,” meetings typically won’t begin until everyone arrives, or at least the decision makers. Though this is not the standard for social gatherings, where it is acceptable to be late up to an hour. (Arriving sooner at these social events may interrupt the host’s own prep time.) Time is organized around what has to get done for the day, and it is usual that workers will stay past the typical workday to get projects done. Since decisions are made with the group (family) and relationships (obligations to friends) in mind, the clock takes a backseat. It is this same approach to projects and deadlines that put relationships over the rules of the clock. It matters how things are accomplished just as much as the final result. Central American cultures are more risk averse than risk taking, and would rather it “measure twice, cut once,” hence the tedious decision making process. The decision process is a subjective one, deriving from gut instinct to personal beliefs, and relationships.

Subordinates’ attention to detail and the perfection of form, which elongates the completion of projects and meeting of deadlines, is exacerbated by the creative use of resources and the navigation through bureaucratic hoops. Hierarchy dictates, subordinates are to follow decisions of their superiors and provide detailed information. Bosses or “los jefes” are expected to disseminate information, provide guidance, and make decisions. As the father, the head of household is the primary decision maker and the children are the subordinates; the Central American business organization operates in a similar manner as a household. The rigid hierarchy also dictates that proper protocol must be followed if you are to speak with the senior business associate, provided that you are deemed important enough. So first begin with becoming acquainted with the children (subordinates) then proceed to addressing the second in command (the wife or woman of the house) and then proceed to pursue a meeting with “el jefe” (head of the house).

Due to the penchant of Central Americans distaste of saying “no” to requests, in order to prove their ability (and preserve their pride), it is best to have a trusted contact on the ground before departing for home. Notarios are responsible administrators who serve as local intermediaries; they act as liaisons between you and the people you are meeting with. If we want to talk about it in terms of the family, consider this a mutual friend, who acts as an intermediary with you and the family and is willing to give you an honest opinion (with both interests at heart).

Mexico and Central America, Part 3: Favors, Relationships, and Status

Mexico and Central America are both relationship and status driven societies. It’s really about who you are and who know and how they “take care” of you. The wait staff may serve a table that arrived after you because they know the diners, or because they are aware of the diners’ statuses. Additionally, if you are one of three business proposals and the Central American company has a personal relationship with an associate of another company, well, which company do you think will be chosen?

It is important to network as much as possible and lay some groundwork before attempting to conduct business with Central American companies. By building these relationships, you build confianza (trust, special treatment or personal favors) and simpatico (establishing compatibility). Realize that people in Central America like to do business with those they trust and are essentially on good personal terms especially family. Many of us do not hesitate when family asks for favors and we do anything in our power to help out family.  Centro Americans are similar, knowing that their families would take care of them and they would take care of their family (or extended kin). The long and short of it, build relationships and network, pay it forward (treat them like family and stress compatibility), and present yourself as the friend (i.e. extended family) who they know will grant a favor should they ask.

So establish relationships with company associates before proposing business deals… if they will have you. Along with paternalism in Central American society is the importance of reputation. Not only do you need to be wary of the hierarchical structure and what you say, but you have to present yourself as someone worth caring about. Central Americans want to conduct business with important people, with top people at your company, therefore putting your best foot (or sets of feet) forward for important business deals is extremely important. In Central America, wealth and power are synonymous and shown through an ostentatious display of wealth with luxury items and status symbols. They dine at fine establishments, wear luxury brands, drive expensive cars, physically displaying their success. As a potential business associate of these Central American companies, it is also important for you to portray yourself as an equal, by staying in fancy hotels, dining at fine establishments, dressing well, pretty much going the whole nine yards. By living somewhat extravagantly you imply that you are successful, like how in medieval times skinny was considered ugly and heavier was beautiful as it meant rich and bountiful, i.e. successful. Put your full title and all the advanced degrees on your business cards, act the part, dress the part.

The dress for business occasions is typically formal. The fashionable look to Europe. Men dress in stylish (dark) suits, white shirts, interesting and sophisticated ties, polished shoes, stylish accessories (watches, cufflinks, ties, etc.). Women dress fashionably and accessorized.

Mexico and Central America, Part 2: Introductions and Communications

As with most cultures, in Centro-American culture it is best to be introduced through a third party like a friend of the family. Being well-connected is an admiral trait in Central America. Women are introduced first, then men, usually according to seniority and importance. Unlike Asian cultures, which stress the importance of business cards with introductions and greetings, it’s more casual in Central America where a soft hand shake or kissing (air kisses please!) will suffice. Business cards may be exchanged, but they are used mainly as a resume device indicating your rank in the company, so be sure to put your full title and any advance degrees you hold, because they care. Oh, and Spanish on one side of the card, please and thanks.

Just because there is less hype about business cards in Central America than Asia does not mean that the culture is informal. On the contrary, titles and hierarchy create a formal culture. Hierarchy dictates who is spoken to first, as well as communication styles. Due to respect for hierarchy and dependence on others in making decisions, watching what you say is highly advisable. Though there is a desire for smooth interpersonal working relationships, silence is uncommon in communications. There is more a of a penchant for multiple conversations simultaneously and frequent interruptions.  Think of a huge family party with lots of conversations, laughter and raised voices. Many businesses in Central America want to prove that they are capable of conducting business and will rarely shoot down a reasonable request, even if they lack the means to accomplish it.

In the United States there are certain norms, or rules, when it comes to space between people.  Personal space, which is typically indicated as a bubble around your person… well that’s going to be popped real fast in Central America. People in Central America tend to stand closer to others and the whole (air) kissing thing is not a typical greeting in the U.S. but it is part of the culture. Once again, think of this like a family gathering or greeting, where the mother usually offers a hug to any of her children’s friends or acquaintances (well, my mother does at least). It is not necessarily an invasion of personal space just a gesture of welcome. Similarly winking and whistling is not necessarily a “come hither” gesture, but more of a reaction to what you may be saying, so don’t take it personal. And while eye contact indicates paying attention, ladies beware of machismo, and limit eye contact as it may encourage further advances. Central Americans are usually more “touchy” than us here in the U.S., but we are so used to being detached when it comes to business that we can come across as distant and rational, maybe even cold, so try to change it up a bit and be a little more personable and warm…remember you want to be part of their family, accepted into their society, gain their trust.

Mexico and Central America, Part 1: Family Culture and Traditional Roles

When considering how one would want to ingratiate oneself into Mexican and Central American cultures, collectively hereafter referred to as Central American, I find that it is similar to how one would try to be a part of another family, in fact a lot of cultural norms are similar to the family structures, mi amigo.

Individuals in Central American societies operate as part of a larger machine or group. While there are select individuals who have the power to make decisions, these choices are made with the whole of the group in mind. Going back to the family analogy of Central America, the father or “padre” of the family (society)makes decisions based on what he thinks will be the best solution for the entire family. There is an affinity in Central American societies for group affiliations; meaning, in order to be “accepted” into society as a whole, one must identify with a group, business, association, etc. While individuals exert some independence from society, like that family, individuals will always look to their families or groups for stability. Hierarchy in groups is also reflected in society as a whole, where deference is given to bosses and subordinates, consequently fall in line.

Many Centro American societies, especially Mexican societies, are very paternalistic, which is often reflected in their political systems. Paternalistic societies indicate that the man is the head of the household and therefore has an obligation to the family to care and maintain it. Basically these societies will look after their own families and friends. Keep in mind while dealing with Centro American societies, there is a strong commitment to caring for their family (read: business organizations).

Since it has been established that many Centro American societies are paternalistic, this implies that there are distinct gender roles in these societies. A woman’s expected role is to care and nurture the family. There are very few women who serve positions other than administrative work in the business sector. Women who are looking to do business in this part of the world, be aware of the machismo! Comments that are made in these countries made be thought of as “come ons” to those of us in the United States, but should not be taken personally. Generally they should be ignored, and it is best not to encourage these advances. Additionally, women have to work harder to maintain the respect of her Central American male colleagues, treading a fine line of not being too aggressive and not too soft where authority can be questioned.

Promoting Prosperity for a Better World: International Trade Administration

“The defining purpose of the [International Trade Administration] is helping to create economic opportunities for American workers and businesses. By promoting trade and investment we are promoting prosperity for a better world.”

The International Trade Administration (ITA) works to improve the global business environment and helps U.S. organizations compete at home and abroad. The site itself is really a mass of information, providing information for importers and exporters alike and thus the ultimate resource for international trade.

GOALS:

  • Promote U.S. trade and investment: the ITA helps U.S. companies navigate foreign markets, by educating companies about how to tailor their activities to the specific market (financing, marketing, assembly, logistics, etc.)
  • Strengthen U.S. industry competitiveness: ITA advances policies and strategies that stimulate innovation and advancement, enhance economic growth, and support the U.S. manufacturing and services industry. They represent U.S. industry’s commercial interests in trade negotiations, bilateral and multilateral discussions, and in policymaking.
  • Ensure fair trade: ITA ensures fair trade by working to remove costly barriers to product and service exports through:
    • Market Access and Compliance (MAC): works to liberalize trade (see below).
    • Trade Compliance Center: tracks specific cases whether U.S. firms are experiencing barriers to entry or not receiving the full potential of negotiated agreements.
    • Import Administration: lead unit on enforcing trade laws and agreements (see below).

The ITA website itself is composed of a number of other ITA managed websites, creating a directory according to topic. For example, under the “Services” tab there are a number of topics, Market Research falls under export.gov, whereas “AD (Antidumping)/CVD (Countervailing Duty) Counseling” is categorized under “Import Administration.”

ORGANIZATIONS: FOUR BUSINESS UNITS

  • U.S. Commercial Service: promote U.S. exports (especially small and medium sized companies), provides commercial diplomacy support for U.S. business interests around the world.
  • Manufacturing and Services: helps shape industry specific trade policy.
  • Market Access and Compliance: helps create trade opportunities through the removal of market access barriers and works to achieve full compliance by foreign nations with U.S. trade agreements.
  • Import Administration: enforces U.S. trade laws and agreements by preventing unfairly traded imports and safeguarding the competitive strength of U.S. businesses.

TRADE TOPICS:

  • About Trade (including: foreign trade zones, sustainability, market access, standards, etc.)
  • Exporting (including: national export initiative, trade agreements, general export assistance, etc.)
  • Compliance (including: import monitoring program, trade compliance center, etc.)
  • Enforcement (including: laws and regulations, trade compliance filing, trade remedies, etc.)
  • Events (including: conferences, trade events, webinars, domestic trade shows, etc.)

DATA & ANALYSIS:

PROGRAMS:

 

On Korea, Part 3: Meetings, Negotiations, Dinner & Alcohol

Utilize your network! Relationships are important in Korean society, they are the basis from which everything else is built, including business. The ability to accomplish your business goals is proportionate to who you know, and additionally their status and contacts. Korean companies are often members of larger conglomerates, and high ranking officers are usually involved with government agencies…waiting is all part of the game—there may be quite a few people you need to meet with in order for your proposals to go anywhere. The lone wolf that meets you for your business meting may serve as gatekeepers, but this person may be the one who sells your proposal to the rest of his company.  He or she are your first obstacle to success in South Korea, so present to him or her as if they were the last person you would present to.

Meetings: Most meetings, like China and Japan, are formalities with an exchange of information, so be prepared to provide copious amounts of it. Sending materials ahead of you so that your Korean colleagues can review it could be something to consider. It goes without stating to come well organized and prepared; during the meeting avoid disagreement and present a united front. These Irish of Asia are prepared to express emotions, and barter with you…en garde!

Negotiations: Korean negotiations are more emotionally charged than most other countries in Asia, and some in the West. They may be aggressive, direct and quicker to express anger or frustration…how are you going to react to all of this? Keep your cool (Save your face!). Usually if they have a good feeling about you, price (if fair) is not really an issue…let them buy your personality first, business is easier that way. Contracts are similar to the Chinese memorandums: flexibility is key. When your meeting starts to divert to social chit chat, your meeting is probably over…however if they are curious about a particular facet of your proposal…pursue it! Bow at the beginning and end of a meeting…and prepare to get to know everyone after hours.

After Hours: Dinner has become the main meal of the day, and business dinners invitations are customary. DO NOT DENY! It is important to establish these informal relations as it builds on your personal character, which is not really separate from you business persona. Koreans have similar dining etiquette as the Chinese and Japanese, concerning seating arrangements, how much food to put on your plate, the use and placement of chopsticks, etc, however “elbow support” is used when passing food or drink. Mutual trust and compatibility are the basis for good business relationships in Korea; in order to asses your true personality, alcohol is used. Among alcohol’s many powers, one of its main powers, unfortunately, is allowing people to speak their mind, regardless of situation. Know your limits, what may be said after a two, or three, or four, or five (are we starting to slur our words yet?) drinks can be taken seriously the following morning.

On Korea, Part 2: Introductions, Communication, Face & Flexibility

Introductions: No touchy! As with most Asian cultures, Korea is also a non-touching culture, so wait to be introduced to Korean colleagues. Business cards are typically exchanged, with similar practices of presentation as mentioned in previous countries (in the native language, use of both hands in presentation, accompanied by a slight bow, etc.), concluding with the Korean handshake, with what is known as “elbow support.” The Korean handshake is similar to China’s in its limp grasping of the other’s hand, but only using one hand (instead of two). “Elbow support” is when your right hand is extended, your left hand grasps your lower (extended) right arm. Caught ya! Be honest, you just tried to do it! The gesture has come to mean extra sincerity; it is a Korean gesture of hospitality and welcome; gifts, drinks, documents, and meals are given and received in the same manner. Women, do not expect Korean men to offer their hand first, you have to take the initiative; conversely Korean women may prefer not to shake a Westerner’s, particularly a man’s, hand. As you leave for the next leg of your journey throughout South Korea, a small farewell bow is expected to every individual present, though some younger staffers may wave.

Communication: Many older Koreans do not speak English, and since age is revered here, those people are probably the big players, but some young people may, since it is widely taught in schools. A translator may suit your purposes better, if you want to play it safe. A note of caution, Korea and Japan have some bitter relations, due to their history of invasion, so refrain from using your Japanese here, unless you represent a Japanese company.

Face, Silence, and Flexibility: Like China, context is important in South Korea, but allows for confrontational speech. Let’s be clear, direct, but not blunt…we are still trying to save (your) face here! While Koreans may say what they feel (remember, “Irish of Asia”), they are still mindful of preserving face and avoid being disrespectful (oh, Confucius!).  Koreans are also practitioners of silence, which they see as a proactive form of communication. Silence may be due to confusion, or lack of full understanding, or may be utilized to practice evaluate you and try to figure out what you are thinking  or feeling, a mind-reading process (all about saving face). As Westerners we tend to prefer noise, of some sort, even background noise, instead of silence. Suppress your urges and be silent! You don’t want to give more information than you are willing because you were looking to fill the void. The use of visual aids—pictures, graphs, numbers, charts—can be used to avoid confusion. When you are ready to sign “contracts” with Koreans, they are similar to China where these “contracts” are really “memorandums” where they outline how business partners intend to work together, in ever changing situations. This is a relationship: good business partners take care of each other.

On Korea, Part 1: Confucius, Individualism, Relationships & Trust

The U.S. and South Korea have enjoyed a long security alliance, and the revised free trade agreement will be the most commercially significant agreement in more than 16 years. South Korea will likely become a major U.S. trading partner…so laying some groundwork right now, would probably be a good idea.

South Korea has been conquered time and time again through different Asian countries, they have been considered the “Irish of Asia” sharing similar histories and becoming the defensive and feisty ones of Asia, you have to wonder if there’s any red hair there. Considered to be more individualistic and emotional than their Asian counterparts, Koreans do share cultural similarities with their Japanese and Chinese invaders.

Confucius Influence: Similar to both Japan and China, they have a long respect for Confucian teachings, especially those concerning hierarchy, seniority, modesty and honor. They show respect for seniority and rank through humility and preserving face, so watch what you say! Like Japan and China, they have similar protocols for showing respect that are determine from where you sit to who starts introductions.

Individualism: Though there is a stronger presence of Christianity in South Korea, those who are Buddhists follow the Mahayana tradition. This tradition of Buddhism stresses the strength of the individual in achieving nirvana, or the end of suffering. Koreans, like many Mahayana Buddhist countries believe that the universe is beyond their understanding, and that many things are determined on greater forces, such as fate and ancestors, but that the individual has the power to achieve nirvana.

Their Korean individualism is often at odds with their group oriented culture rooted in obligations to families or groups (workers or those involved in the family business). There is a strong feeling of interdependency of among members of a group or business, the group dynamic is therefore important; harmony is preserved by saving face, avoiding saying “no” directly. While Koreans may gather information from below, and decisions may be made with consensus, nuances of individualism still play a part in the process. For example, meetings are also usually conducted with an individual, or a few people, instead of with a group, so the person that meets you in the lobby, he may hold the keys to your success in the emerald city.

Relationships & Trust: Western individualism is recognized, but the self is down played in the big picture. Relationships are really what matter, the heart of Korean society, the grease that moves the wheels. These relationships usually determine future action. With good relations comes good kibbun (kai-bon) or good feeling, which involves trust and intuitive logic. Similar to how Chinese tend to do business with those they trust, it is similar in Korea, they prefer good energy between the two companies and peoples before conducting business. However, build a network: if your only point of contact is out of favor or somehow demoted, your business prospects are looking rather grim. Network, network, network: the right people can determine success or failure.

On Hong Kong: The Little Asian Tiger- Fully Grown & Unique

Hong Kong, known as one of the Four Asian Tigers, maintained high growth rates and rapid industrialization between the early 1960s and 1990s and has developed into an advanced economy. Operating under the People’s Republic of China as a special administrative region, Hong Kong is one of the most bustling regions of China. Once a consolation prize to the British during the Opium Wars, Hong Kong was officially returned to China in 1997. The British used Hong Kong as a place to earn money and Hong Kong has become the financial capital of Asia.

Hong Kong Chinese are very fast-paced and look to the future, but still hold onto their Chinese cultural ways, including Confucian beliefs, concepts of acknowledging hierarchy, and guanxi (gwuan-she). Business meeting decorum, Chinese banquets, punctuality, and business card exchanges are all similar to practices on the mainland. However, Hong Kong has developed a personality all its own.

Whereas mainland Chinese speak Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese reigns supreme here. English is the lingua franca so don’t worry about having to memorize the six tones of Cantonese, your English will most likely be your mode of communication as many businesspeople speak English. In fact, with the language barrier no longer existing, you may find yourself more comfortable here than most of Asia, as this culture is highly westernized, resembling cities of Europe or the United States. Many people here are western educated and employ modern western modes of thinking more often that intuitive or associative modes of thought. There is little use of, or time for, silence as this city is fast-paced, where people speak very fast and very loudly, in both English and Cantonese. Since Hong Kong has special administrative privileges, there is also a free flow of information, as opposed to censored China.

You will also find that women play a larger role in business in Hong Kong, as opposed to China, where they adopt many western customs and habits. Hong Kong Chinese tend to Anglicize their names, and married women tend to adopt their husbands names (taking the form taitai-“Mrs.”). Hong Kong is also a huge shopping society and are avid followers of high-fashion, so while the signs may be in Chinese, you may feel like you’re in an another fashion capital in Europe. This is such a consumer culture that China allows visitors to enter Hong Kong (to spend money) in order to boost the Hong Kong economy.

When giving gifts in Hong Kong, your gifts tend to be more valuable and Western luxury-types, imported liquors, name brand items, etc. During the Chinese New Year red envelopes are filled with cash (crisp new bills, no even amount or number of bills) as a traditional gift, hong bao (hong-bow). Business people give these to associates who provided assistance during the previous year (but no one government related!) or to employees by employers.

Now that you know a little bit about Hong Kong, perhaps you will find your Golden Egg.

On Taiwan, Part 2: Meeting Etiquette, Seating, Banquets & Drinking

The Taiwanese usually take their vacations in the beginning of the year, encompassing Chinese New Year, so it would be best to schedule business meetings after March or April, but unless you’re a fan of rain, try to avoid the June through August monsoon season. So we have addressed that Taiwan has elements of both Japanese and Chinese culture, follows Confucian philosophy, the idea of harmony, and the use of indirect communication. The use of indirect communication adds to the persona of Taiwanese as low-key people who rarely display emotions (e.g. anger or open frustration) and consider a display of strong emotions as a loss of control. Business cards have been exchanged and translated into the Taiwanese variant of Chinese so we are just about to head into the meeting room, a couple pointers first…

The Taiwanese business organizational structure is one that demands impartiality and obedience. Decisions are made by the consensus of the group and are deferred to the oldest. They also tend to rely on their gut or immediate feelings as the primary source for making decisions, so your first impression on them is vital! Younger Taiwanese, however, are using more facts to make decisions (whew!). They also tend to think associatively and stress wholeness over fragmentation, so present them with plans for the big picture.

Meeting etiquette, seating, and purpose are the similar to practices in both China and Japan. Though the Taiwanese want to save face and preserve harmony, they are inherently Chinese and enjoy a good bartering process…so be prepared to make concessions. The basis of Taiwanese relationships, whether they are professional or personal, is respect and trust, and any breach of these will not be taken lightly. When presenting your proposal touch on major points, while being prepared to discuss all of its aspects. You may want to consider sending some of your materials before your arrive, so that your Taiwanese colleagues have the opportunity to look over them first. Breaking up your presentation into segments, allowing time between for any questions, may be something to consider as well.

If you think that after the meeting is done you are free to go….Wrong! Be prepared for the traditional Chinese banquet, where basic rules of Chinese banquets apply. If sitting at a roundtable, the honored guest will be facing the door, so that if ninjas attack your business dinner, the guest will be the first to know and the host the last. It is considered polite to try all dishes offered, but do not leave a full bowl of rice, it may be considered as rude. Resist discussing business at dinner, unless your host brings it up. Remind yourself to send a thank you note to your host when you return to your office or accommodations, for the banquets are usually just the start of a long evening of drinking and other forms of merriment. You may have to revisit your karaoke playlist from Japan.

On Taiwan, Part 1: A Formidable Asian Tiger In It’s Own Right

Another Tiger of Asia is Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa. While China has tried to reclaim Taiwan after the Japanese returned it following World War II, the Kuomintang claims it is the legitimate government of all Chinese people. The current rebel government of Taiwan is modeled on a representative democracy (celebrating its own Nationalist Day on October 10). It does not have “official” relations with the U.S. but has specific offices that maintain unofficial diplomatic representation. Its highly successful capitalist economy was at first a source of cheap piece goods labor, then it produced and assembled electronic components, and later emerged as a leading supplier of computer chips and information systems. Your phone probably contains some part that was manufactured in Taiwan, although you are advised not to take apart your phone to find out. With that being said, make sure that your products are patented or registered in Taiwan to prevent imitation.

Taiwan has come a long way, and yet it has nuances of both Japan and China. Like most of Asia, Taiwan adheres to the teachings of Confucian, particularly hierarchy concerning elders, where they are acknowledged first in a group, allowed to pass first, etc. Also like China and Japan, their approach to time is similar, be punctual, but things may take the time they need to develop. However, unlike China, where the basic unit of society is one’s work group, the basic unit here is the family. The purpose of life in Taiwan is to work hard, be successful in business and accumulate wealth for one’s family.

Japan’s presence is still felt in Taiwan, in not only the language—some of the oldest Taiwanese speak Japanese—but also in the idea of preserving harmony through saving face and indirect communication. When in a meeting with the Taiwanese, emphasizing the compatibility of your two companies, personal amicability, and desire to conduct business will make your company a more desirable business partner. Though profits are important, harmonious relations are crucial here.

Westerners are stereotyped as being boisterous, and unlike Hong Kong, dress here is more on the modest side, so try to leave the glittery skirts and red leather pants at home! Men should wear conservative suits and ties (you can remove your jacket if your Taiwanese colleague doe so first). Women should wear conservative skirts and blouses or suits; pantsuits are considered business casual. And as a side note, for women, revealing clothing may be considered as a mark of “poor” (*cough*loose*cough) character.

Since English is the second language spoken here, many businesspeople, especially younger ones, feel comfortable enough to communicate in English, and their names are in the same order as westerners. The exchange of business cards is similar to the importance of Japan and the style of the Chinese. Many younger, foreign-educated Taiwanese, use the handshake, or more like a handclasp, as a form of greeting. Taiwanese women will shake hands, however western women may need to initiate one with their Taiwanese male colleagues.

On China, Part 3: Avert Misunderstanding with Tranquility, Poise & Balance

So we have had some contact with our colleague in China, but now to be formally introduced. Yes, it requires business cards, and yes it is similar to the Japanese presentation of business cards: use of two hands, the Chinese script facing your colleague (gold is the most prestigious color and red signifies severance of a relationship) accompanied with a bow. The traditional Chinese bow involves placing your right fist in the palm of your left hand, holding both hands at the stomach level and bowing deeply, so instead of the Western bow (bending of the waist and dropping of the head) you can impress them with this move.

Opposite of Japan, where there is a bottom-up decision-making process, where the subordinates do most of the screening work for their bosses, and influence the choices their bosses make, China makes more decisions in a top-down manner. The key decisions come from individuals in high positions; the access to power determines the action. Conducting meetings in China is very similar to conducting meetings in Japan, where the first meeting is typically a formality to exchange information. Remember, the Chinese conduct business with those they trust, so that may be your task for the first meeting. Come to your business meeting well organized with your team and avoid points of disagreement or uncertainty. You may want to consider bringing your own interpreter (BYOI) so that you can convey exactly what you want but your attempts at Chinese will be appreciated.

Remember it was mentioned that the Chinese thrive on negotiating, well they favor the idea of a zero-sum game (one winner and one loser) too. Expect them to make overblown demands or offer to give up something inconsequential, in hopes you will give up something valuable. You may be asked to give more than you receive, but you are the teacher in this scenario, and the teacher is always expected to give more than the student; these unequal relationships are okay in this Confucian society. Play your part, enjoy the show, and stick to positive sum game strategies and equal relationships. Remember they also believe in somewhat flexible contracts, ones that can be adjusted as situations change because it is the Chinese belief that good partners take care of each other (it is personal).

The Chinese banquet is an important aspect of doing business in China, which women are expected to partake in, and lasts approximately two hours. Delicacies will primarily be local with famous dishes from other regions. There is not much conversation during the meal, as the food is to be appreciated, but if conversation occurs, it definitely is not about business. Compliment your host throughout the meal, for this is one of the few times the Chinese will accept them.  Crack open that fortune cookie at the end of your meal and heed the advice: None of the secrets of success will work unless you do.

On China, Part 2: Good Communication & Relationships Will Bring Success

It is difficult to change the minds of the Chinese, but not impossible. In the U.S. we have a tendency to “wine and dine” clients, more or less buttering them up to proposals, creating a personal relationship, so that in essence they buy you as a person and your proposal as a favor. China is highly relationship based, so get ready to utilize your networking skills, cause you are going to need them.

China has never had a dependent legal system, a representative political system, and with a recent financial system, relationships are the only things, throughout history, that the Chinese can rely on. They depend on informal networks of relationships and obligations between people, guanxi (gwuan-she), and it is usually these relationships that determine future action. There is little separation between the professional and the personal, you will be seen as one whole person and your business practices reflect your personal values. Respect and trust must be earned in this formal culture before the Chinese conduct business. This is where your awesome networking skills come in handy. Many recommend making Chinese contacts with those you wish to do business with and start building up a personal relationship, so that when you do get to talkin’ about business you are already on your way to building guanxi.

Well now that you have started the conversation, let’s address communications styles. Though context plays a large part in communicating styles in China, its influence is not as great as in Japan. As the situations change, the Chinese expect flexibility. Are you surprised when you have entered a contract with your Chinese colleagues and they are asking to renegotiate? Well, the contract was ideal then, but things have changed, and adjustments have to be made…they require and expect flexibility. The Chinese, therefore, prefer short statements of intent that attempt to control how the business partners will work together in an unpredictable fluctuating world.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” is a Chinese proverb meant to convey that symbols and graphic representations can sometimes communicate what cannot be said directly. The Chinese rely on these symbolic expressions for they may decrease the need to save face. The Chinese, like the Japanese, work to save face, and will avoid directly saying “no.” However, unlike the Japanese who try to avoid all conflict and debate, the Chinese thrive on negotiating, where various forms of “no” are implied. They will move quickly to seize opportunities, if they present themselves, but unless the terms are ideal, the Chinese will take their time. Like the Japanese, the Chinese believe that things will take the time they need, but that does not include your arrival time. Though the clock is not the boss here, you need to be on time to your meetings!

On China, Part 1: Respect Confucianism’s Hierarchy, Taoism’s Nature & Buddhism’s Individual Responsibility

Japan is a gateway to Asia, but across the sea lies the world’s largest population toiling away to create the second largest economy in the world. China is on the rise looking to take advantage of good business opportunities and increase their presence in the global economy, as if we couldn’t already feel them. Are you looking to benefit from China’s tremendous growth?

First, some basics: Not only do they have the highest population and the second largest economy, but they are the oldest continuous civilization. China, while operating under a Communist political system, has liberalized its markets and expanded rapidly. Though do keep in mind that the Communist Party in China permeates through almost every facet of Chinese life including business. Politics play a significant role in Chinese business, for a rise in the company is also a rise in Chinese bureaucracy. The Chinese businessman’s primarily goal is to protect oneself and position instead of getting immediate business goals accomplished – business goals take a backseat to self-preservation. China is also notorious for violating Intellectual Property Rights, as they favor things made in China, and will use reverse engineering on your product to produce their own. So if your area is in technology, be aware that this is common.

Essentially a group oriented culture, there is a strong tradition of individual responsibility in China. While the Chinese still see your representatives as being exactly that, representatives of your company, they value the individual. This mentality originates from Mahayana Buddhism, which believes that individuals can obtain nirvana (peace/end of suffering) through hard work and sacrifice. Mahayana Buddhism stresses individual responsibility to achieving nirvana. The effect of this belief is that Chinese group orientation is not as strong. In this way they are similar to Americans who, while having a responsibility to their group or organization, also have a responsibility to themselves in achieving their state of nirvana. Dependency on others, in China, occurs when many individuals perform repetitive tasks to achieve a communal goal.

China adheres, like Japan and most of Asia, to the teachings of Confucius. Confucius’ belief in the rigid hierarchy in society is embedded from the meeting room to household: it dictates a respect for elders, the importance of saving face, honor, and humility. The emphasis on hierarchy normalizes inequality in China, where they believe it is natural that some are in power and others not, that some dictate and others follow. This passivity in the static nature of the world is rooted in one of the other major religions of China, Taoism. Taoism, known for the yin-yang symbol, teaches passivity (founding philosophy in martial arts), which is used as a justification for the static nature of the world. Due to their belief in this static nature of the world, they are unwilling to change for change’s sake and therefore it will take a lot of convincing for them to change their ways.

Guest Blog: Doing Business in Japan – Meetings; Takin’ Care of Business

We now understand some facets of Japanese culture and have gone through business card (meishi) introduction protocols, now onto the meeting room.

In terms of attire, generally people who stand out are not thought of highly. With that being said, dark suits, white shirts, and subdued ties for men are appropriate. Also, polished shoes are something else you should consider, since they will be quite the focal point during meishi exchanges. For women, business suits or dresses at a conservative length are acceptable.

Hierarchy reigns: seniors, or those of highest rank, are greeted first, allowed to enter the room first, and are seated first. In terms of seating arrangements, wait to be seated, as these arrangements are usually thought out in advance. The most honored position is in the middle of the table (where a person of high rank would sit) and the second person of highest rank would be seated on the opposite side, guests of honor are seated farthest from the door in the middle of the table.

Meetings, especially first meetings, are typically formalities where information is exchanged and pre-made decisions are confirmed. This first meeting is an introduction to not only your company but you as a person. The Japanese consider business relationships and personal relationships as of equal importance. Your team should be well organized, each knowledgeable of all material, and understanding their roles in the business meeting. Should you and your team disagree with each other or seem unsure or uncertain, do not let the Japanese see this, as this will also create doubt in their minds about your projects or proposals. Additionally, changing terms of an agreement at the last minute implies unreliability and trustworthiness. Be sure to provide plenty of information that cannot be deduced, in additional translated materials to leave behind so as to answer any questions.

Though business meetings may conclude during the day, it is not uncommon to be asked to dinner or drinks after hours. Do not turn this down, as many business transactions occur after hours. The Japanese have two personalities: a personality for the office or formal situations – tatemae (tot-eh-mai), and a genuine personality where one expresses what he or she truly feels and believes –  honne (ho-ney). These after hour meetings allow you, the visitor, to gain the trust of your Japanese colleagues. It is also during these after hour meetings that useful information can be gained from lower ranking Japanese colleagues, where they may tell their American counterparts their boss’s true feelings concerning the business meeting. Do note, however, that women are not welcome where geisha are present nor are spouses expected to attend business dinners.

A playlist of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Journey, and Madonna, and some of your favorites on the flight over can help you brush up on your lyrics, for you may be asked to belt out your favorite song later in the evening.

You have to take care of business…even after hours.

Guest Blog: Doing Business in Japan – the Business Card Exchange

Preserving Harmony and Hierarchy:

We have established two major facets of Japanese society: importance of the group over the individual and the philosophy of harmony between all things. In order to preserve this harmony, derived from their Shinto beliefs, the Japanese tend to communicate indirectly in what some may call high-context communication.

High context communication means that the real information is embedded in the context in which the communication occurs, going beyond the words, reading all facial expressions, and body language. The Japanese tend to be very vague, because over explaining implies that the other party knows nothing about the subject of discussion. This ambiguity allows the Japanese to maintain harmony, by not stating the obvious, and encouraging others to be aware of how the other party is feeling. For example, right before saying “no” outright, a look of uneasiness usually passes on our faces. The Japanese, in order to avoid this outright rejection, use euphemisms, such as, “This project sounds very difficult,” which is meant to say “no” in a gentle manner, but also encourages you to figure out why they are not interested. It is meant to save “face” or embarrassment.

One way you can “save [your] face” is to understand the order (hierarchy) of Japanese society. While conducting business in Japan, it is best to know as much as possible about the people with whom you will be meeting. Japan has a strict hierarchy in their business or organization and those titles are meant to be used and recognized. One way to show respect for a person of high rank is when you first meet.

Usually, when you meet a Japanese business professional, you exchange business cards: meishi (meh-she). This is an important ritual in Japanese society – it reflects humility, hierarchy and face. Bring a lot, preferably with a Japanese translation on the back (company, title, name, contact info-in that order), because you will give one to everyone you meet. They should be in pristine condition, for they are seen as an extension of you, and the Japanese consider their meishi as an extension of themselves. When presenting meishi, use two hands and hold your card facing your Japanese colleague, and with a slight bow, eyes looking downwards, exchange cards. The bow indicates humility and respect for someone of high rank, acknowledging hierarchy – as a side note, the depth of the bow is determined on the status of your colleague, the higher in rank, the deeper the bow, and vice versa.

Don’t forget to smile, it will show sincerity. Once cards have been exchanged, read it carefully, attempt to pronounce names, so that they may correct you if necessary, but do not write on it! When storing the received meishi, place them in your left inside jacket pocket (closest to your heart) – it is a place of honor. Conversely, do not place received meishi, whether in a wallet or not,  in your back pants pocket…ever! This is a huge sign of disrespect.

Now to begin the business meeting…

Guest Blog: Doing Business in Japan. First Understand the Japanese Mindset

Hajimemashite (Ha-jee-meh-mosh-teh), nice to meet you.

The Japanese culture can be just as difficult to decipher as the Japanese characters and language. The Japanese are a very proud people who maintain a unique identity rooted in age-old traditions. These cultural norms and practices affect the way that the Japanese conduct business, which affects the way that business persons who wish to do business in Japan need to be aware of. In order to successfully conduct business in Japan, we need to try and understand the Japanese mind.

Basic Manners:

  • When entering a home and some restaurants, you are expected to remove your shoes.
  • Always be on time!
  • Business dinners mean business attire.
  • While you should refrain from talking too much while eating, it is okay to slurp your noodles (it shows appreciation for the cooking).
  • Leave the rice alone! No soy sauce on the white rice! A seaweed and sesame seed topping, called furikake, is used as a garnish.

Sincere Mutual Respect is translatable into every language and culture

Identity and the Individual: In America, the explorer and the pioneer are praised for the guts and gumption to take chances. We praised these pioneers for taking risks and experimenting, while we profit from their successes and forgot their failures, because their failures were exactly that, their failures. In America, we praise the individual and essentially separate them from who they work for or any group affiliation. It is the individual first and the company or other associations second. In Japan, it is the reverse. The group is more important than the individual. The Japanese think and act on behalf of the group, whereas an individual’s failure in America is the individual’s failure, the individual’s failure in Japan is the company’s failure. So remember, you and your team are a representation of your whole company. Your actions and behavior will be interpreted as the company’s attitude and not just your own.

Exchange of Business Cards

Harmony: Their philosophy of groupthink is simply stated with the aphorism: “We all eat from the same pot”. We all contribute to the success of this organization and are all responsible for its failures.  A commonly recognized aphorism in America would be the Three Musketeers’ “One for all, and all for One.” Japan is a small island with limited resources, so before industrialization, during the modern age of Japan, farmers had to cooperate with the villagers, both acting for the good of all, trying to achieve a positive-sum game, one which everyone wins. The idea of harmony is a concept that is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and it carries over to the meeting rooms. For example, Americans tend to debate until a solution is reached. Actual debate with the Japanese, involving conflict, creates discomfort and can cause a loss of face which is seen as an embarrassment. Japanese business persons will try to achieve harmony and avoid conflict at all costs.

Taking the time to understand the Japanese mind, is essential to your business succeeding in Japan.