Stop Faking Cultural Understanding: 5 Tips for Building Effective Relationships Overseas

Posted: 07/17/2019 - 07:11
Business Relationships Overseas
As the world continues to shrink and the global supply chain grows, it’s not enough to invest minimally in your international relationships—it means truly understanding the people and culture you’re working with. These relationships can become a valuable asset to your business, giving you an advantage over competitors.  
For companies preparing to manage global relationships, the bar is higher than merely basic knowledge of the language and a calendar of local holidays and festivals. Investing in these relationships requires innovation and curiosity.   
Let’s explore five tips that can help you build long-lasting relationships while avoiding obstacles in doing business with different cultures. 

1. Familiarize yourself with specific cultural differences 

Cultural differences are emphasized at the start of the relationship as trust builds and potential deals are discussed and closed. Knowing how to address these relationships and what trust looks like (and doesn’t look like) is very important. 

Here are a few examples:

  1. In China, business relationships are built on guanxi, a network of contacts and relationships. It’s important to build a sense of rapport and establish your credibility in the area, which is something that can be done by introductions from mutual contacts.  
  2. South American cultures need time for trust to be established, even before business decisions can be made. For individuals from a results-based culture, this might seem like a waste of time, but it is essential for a long-lasting relationship.  
  3. When it comes to the culture in India, allow time for small talk and conversations. Direct communication isn’t the best option as it will often make people feel unnecessary pressure. Learn how to read between the lines of what is being said.

"Cultural differences can have a huge impact when setting up an initial relationship. In the United States, you may be able to do it over the phone. In Asia, it takes face-to-face time, contact and trust.” – Gene Tyndall, Chief Strategy Officer at Tompkins International, Inc.

Respect the cultural differences by taking the time to determine the best course of action and interact with your business counterparts in a way that shows respect.  

2.  Use references to learn about culture and specific contacts 

Another tactic when it comes to learning about the culture is making use of references.  
If you’ve gathered references to learn more about the business track record of a factory or supplier, use that as an opportunity to learn how the individuals behind the business operate as well.  
Ask the reference questions about their preferred methods of communication, how projects have been executed, and any behavioral nuances that will help you connect and work best with them. This gives you an unbiased opportunity to learn valuable information about their culture and personal preferences that can help as you build the relationship.  

3. Remain observative and curious 

The next step is to continue being curious. If the relationship with your suppliers and factory owners is important to you, this ongoing learning must be as well.  
Be curious! Observe everything in the area and in your interactions. Ask good questions and watch how responses are given. See the local vibe in person, if possible. Go to the region and experience the culture firsthand. Even meet face-to-face with the factory owners (if appropriate) and take time to investigate the local area to get a feel for how people interact. 
This curiosity will help you continue learning about your partners and to develop a mutually beneficial relationship.  

4. Investigate communication styles, both locally and internationally 

Learning about local culture goes beyond the basics of cultural events and broad assessments (even though they can be helpful) of how a region behaves in business circumstances and extends to the nuances of their communication styles.  
As Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and belonging at Atlassian said, “The differences between communication styles often cause more agony than they really need to.”  
An approach to communication that is helpful comes from best-selling author and leadership coach Mark Murphy. He breaks communication down into four main categories: analytical, intuitive, functional and personal.  
This approach, explained on Fast Company, focuses on the information that each style is looking for in the conversation and how to communicate with them.  
  1. Analytical: Communication is largely logical and without emotion. The focus is on data, numbers and detailed information.  
  2. Intuitive: Thrives on big-picture ideas and quick answers. They want a broad overview that stays high-level without a lot of details.  
  3. Functional: It’s all about the process. This communication style focuses on step-by-step guides, the process and plans.  
  4. Personal: This communication style values connection, relationships and emotional language first and foremost. Communication is a chance to get to know people rather than just move a project forward.  
Using these styles to learn how your counterparts in other cultures prefer to communicate (whether through observation, asking questions or talking to references) can help as you look to build long-term relationships.  

5. Invest in the people

Ultimately it comes down to seeing the relationships behind the business transactions, especially as you look to build and maintain great partnerships with your suppliers and factory owners. Be curious, observe everything and use your resources to take a deeper look at culture, beyond the basics.

Then you will see a transition from learning about the culture to learning from each other.  

About The Author

Albert Brenner's picture

As a co-owner of multiple private label companies, Albert Brenner works with customers to create expert solutions to their specific product needs. His private label manufacturing/design/importing firm, Altraco, formed over 38 years ago, produces products, including those for Fortune 500 companies, in home improvement, sporting goods, automotive, aviation, relaxation and wellness products.