Conducting Business in an Intercultural Context

Article excerpt

More than 10 years ago, my wife attended the National Autonomous University of Mexico pursuing a master's degree in Latin American studies. There were 10 students in her class; five of them were Japanese or Korean. They were not just students interested in this part of the world, they had been sent by their companies to understand Latin American culture. These companies had no trade with Latin America, but were planning to and wanted to understand our culture before doing business with us. Maybe this explains, in part, why Mexico and the United States have problems with the commercial deficit while the Asians enjoy a surplus.

In a world of rapid and continuous change, of economic globalization, and with increasing international competition, the North American Free Trade Agreement can be a source of opportunity for businesses located in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Nevertheless, in order to take advantage of the prospects and possibilities the agreement will bring, executives from these countries will have to work with their counterparts. There is a need to understand different social and business cultures including perceptions, values, attitudes, and conducts.

For instance, there are different perceptions of time. The first time Maurice Van der Kuylen, an executive of a Belgian telecommunications company was doing business in China, he told his Chinese counterpart: "Time is money, Mr. Fong."

"Time is eternity, Mr. Vander Kuylen," said Mr. Fong, defining the situation in a different way.

Diverse approaches to business meetings between Japanese and Americans show the need for international executives to understand differences among cultures. Hirotaka Takeuchi, from Hitotsubashi University, considers Americans talkative and controlling. They usually take control of meetings immediately as opposed to the Japanese, who prefer to wait and listen. In fact, the higher the executive is in the hierarchy, the more quiet Takeuchi is, and the more he listens.

Whether it is a new enterprise, a branch office, or negotiation with executives, good multicultural communication abilities are necessary. Because effective communication helps business transactions run smoothly, there are some skills of intercultural communication that are a must for the international executive.

The following are five characteristics an international executive should possess.

Be As Strong As Water

* He or she should be "as strong as water"--flexible and adaptable. Water is flexible enough to follow a riverbed, but can be strong enough to destroy rocks. …

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