Succeeding in a Varied Business Culture

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Today, many people do business outside of their own country, either in person or by some form of communication, and this can prove to be a dicey proposition. Even in the United States there are differences in customs between states and regions. A word that is translated incorrectly or a custom broken unintentionally can have disastrous consequences which could result in the loss of an important contact and/or business, so it is important to know the customs of the area or country before you begin.


Dr. Ivan Misner, the Founder and Chairman of BNI, an international referral networking organization, is an expert in the field and a best selling author. He offers some tips and information to help with successful networking in different cultures.

  1. Use of Slang Misner suggests that a phrase used may have a different meaning to a business person in another country, so be careful with its use. He gives the example of the phrase "word of mouth" which does not translate the same in some European countries. "I had to explain that this has a totally different connotation in the United States. There were a lot of people over here getting quite excited about this "mouth to mouth" marketing taking place in Europe." Even in England, words such as "jumper", "chips", "football" and "public school" have different meanings than they do in American. Slang dictionaries are available on-line, if there is a question about a certain word or phrase.
  2. Business Cards Exchanging cards is considered very important in most cultures. Misner says, "The business card means much more in the Asian culture than it does here in America. It's truly an extension of the individual and is treated with respect." For example, in Japan a card is presented face up, with both hands holding it by the top corners. The card should be given one careful look and not simply stuffed in a pocket or used to jot a note. The exchange ceremony is called "meishi" and not to respect the customs can cause offense.
  3. Personal Interaction/Personal Space "Some cultural dynamics are fine with close, personal interaction, while others demand a bigger bubble." Misner suggests for Americans they typically are: public space (ranges from 12 to 25 feet), social space (ranges from 4 to 10 feet), personal space (ranges from 2 to 4 feet), and intimate space (ranges out from one foot). "This is not a point to underestimate," he warns. Be aware of the differences, as what Americans consider intimate space differs in other cultures. Social space equates to our idea of intimate space in Saudi Arabia, where close contact is usual, but the opposite is true in the Netherlands.

Dr Misner suggests speaking to someone who is familiar with the countries customs. He mentions an associate informing him of the Orthodox Jewish custom of not shaking hands with a person of the opposite gender as an example of valuable information to be gained close to home. He also notes is an excellent source that is divided into countries for ease of reference.

Networking is a valuable business tool and it should be used at every opportunity, just be sure to "do your homework ahead of time," as Misner advises.

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