At the March 2019 Women in International Trade Roundtable hosted by SobelCo with the US Department of Commercial Services, many of the attendees described themselves as ‘small business  owners.’  But at the same time these women were present at this meeting specifically to focus on doing business internationally!

Doing Business Globally is Complicated

Global trade used to be an opportunity reserved for only the largest corporations. Technology has changed all that. Today, the smallest entrepreneurs find themselves with opportunities both around the corner and around the world at the same time, fostered by online capabilities and social media marketing.

Doing business internationally brings many challenges. Some of the most obvious obstacles include doing deals in a foreign language, understanding foreign currency exchanges, bridging significant time zones, or even arranging for efficient and cost effective transportation and logistics.

While these are challenges that permeate any business deal that takes place across borders, there are other, more subtle concerns that can become deal killers.

Understanding Cultural Norms is Critical

Appropriate etiquette has always been the basis for shaping and influencing all interactions, whether commercial, social, or even political.  But communication, attitudes and behaviors are different in every country. So if you are going to embrace the idea of owning or leading a multi-national focused company, you need to understand the differences and behave in a way that is comfortable and familiar in a host country.     

Which Areas Matter Most?

Getting off to a good start, and making the right first impression, is key. Because each country has its own expectations, it is important for you to confirm what is acceptable in the areas where you are interested in working.  You cannot count on what you are accustomed to, or what seems to be common sense based on your background. In the United States, for instance, it might be “common sense” that looking a colleague in the eye shows respect. But in other countries, that very frank, and honest approach is considered to be rude or disrespectful and too forthright. To succeed, you will need to re-think everything and understand new rules governing good manners. In fact, it is an important lesson to remember that your behaviors should take into account what is valued in the culture and country you are visiting, not the behavior or treatment that you value.  

Something as simple as a hand shake, which we take for granted in the United States is even complicated! Here are some common contrasts:

  • France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the UK, India and Russia all expect a handshake – but the Italians aren’t surprised by a ‘kiss’ – pressing cheek to cheek, Russia expects a handshake with eye contact, Germany, Canada and the US prefers a firm handshake while India approves a gentle handshake.   In Japan, bowing is preferred. China likes a handshake, but offered in order starting with the most senior person. In United Arab Emirates, the right hand must always be offered in any handshake.
  • If a simple handshake can be so complicated, you can imagine the other details that also must be carefully considered! The hand–off and acceptance of a business card (which may include a translated version in the country’s language) is also different in each country, ranging from a casual acceptance in the US, where notes are often written right on the card, to a formal two-handed process in China and Japan with the card kept in immaculate condition.
  • Punctuality, length of time of the business meeting, assigned seating at the table, and the order of the speakers and topics on the agenda also must be conducted in concert with the attitudes of the host country.   

It isn’t Always the Culture

As the SobelCo – US Department of Commercial Services Roundtable discussion ended, there was one final observation that is important to share.

This was the reminder that while it is essential to understand a country and its culture, it is equally as important to know something about the region you are visiting (such as recognizing that the attitudes in the northeast part of the US might be very different than the attitudes in the southwest!) as well as researching the company and becoming familiar with the people you will be meeting.

It is a good idea to avoid stereotyping business owners (“the Germans are tough negotiators”) and instead pay more attention to the individuals and their own unique personalities, which will also impact the conversation and the success of your business interactions.

For additional information about exporting your products and services, please email Susan Widmer  -