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Business without borders: Tips for crossing the cultural divide

Australia is a small economy in worldwide terms, and sooner or later, most businesses will need to deal with suppliers, customers or partners located overseas. Some countries are culturally similar, whereas others – even if the official language is English – are deceptively different.

Having spent a few decades doing business overseas in the furniture industry, and now in a new three-way venture with Chinese, Italian, and Australian partners, I have a few general tips to help you prepare for any international relationship.

  1. Do your homework

While doing due diligence on any potential partner should be a necessary step in a business relationship, you should start broader and study the country’s history to understand cultural context. This will give you an idea of touchy subjects to avoid, such as certain historical events, as well as topics that are likely to be embraced, for example, sport.

If it is a non-English-speaking country, even if English is widely spoken, learn a few phrases of the language, to show you have made an effort.

  1. Respect local business customs

Each country has a way of doing business, and that’s likely to be different from how we do business in Australia, from negotiation timelines and how meetings are run, to how deals are sealed. Familiarise yourself with these so you know what to expect.

In China, for example, business deals are usually finalised over a dinner and alcohol is always involved. While you don’t have to drink yourself under the table, it’s expected that you will participate.

Don’t expect to work on certain days of the week (Sunday, for example) and have respect for major holidays, which are often important family days. Just as you would think it strange if someone tried to schedule a business meeting with you on New Year’s Day here, find out when they’re likely to be unavailable.

Put yourself in their shoes before insisting on a meeting, even if you are short of time while visiting their country and have a limited schedule.

  1. Make a professional impression

You do not need to learn intricate greetings, such as the different range of bows in Japanese culture, a professional handshake is fine. Always look someone in the eye when you shake hands – very important in any culture!

If you have a mutual contact, it helps to obtain a referral to establish an element of trust. Otherwise, just be sensible and approach any new business with respect and courtesy and as equals. 

  1. Immerse yourself

If you’ll be sharing a meal with your hosts, always try and sample the local cuisine offered to you. If you don’t like it, just leave it respectfully on your plate – don’t refuse it. If you have dietary requirements, make them known prior to confirming the venue.

Try to leave some time to see the sights of that country after your work is finished. It will not only make a business trip more pleasant, it will also give you something to compliment your hosts on next time you meet.

Steve Layton is the CEO and founder of Sofa Brands and a longstanding key player in the Australian furniture industry.

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