How to Navigate Culture Differences: Tips from the Experts

Author
Charlie Bradley
Marketing Executive | Business West
19th June 2017

I have been marketing for Business West’s International Trade Services for over two years now and I am always very interested – and sometimes surprised - in the cultural differences between the UK and the rest of the world. I asked our team of International Trade Advisers if they would give me  their personal experiences and culture shocks when it comes to trading with Germany, Poland, Mexico, Australia and India.

Germany

Although Germany is one of our closest neighbours in Europe, business practice and culture can differ more than you might expect.  Some of this can be put down to language.  Whilst it is true that almost every young person who studies up to A level tends to take English as their foreign language, which can lead British business people to assume that “everyone speaks English” in Germany, a recent poll said that only 50% of German company directors would be confident about holding a phone call in English. 

As a result, forced to speak in a foreign language to do business with you, Germans may come across as brusque, or even perceived as rude, when they are literally translating what they mean to say in German into English. They are being perfectly polite in their own language! 

Here are some tips to get the best out of doing business with Germans

1. Deliver what you say you will do. We often come across as being wishy washy and ditherers, so don’t say “I’ll try for Tuesday” because the German hears Tuesday!

2. Allow extra time if necessary. It might come as a surprise that German customer service may be of a lower standard than in the UK; our lead times are often faster.  

3. Germans will often start negotiations with a challenging statement.  Don’t jump to the conclusion they are being rude or don’t want your product.  This is your chance to prove your product or service’s worth.  

4. Don’t be afraid to go back to “old fashioned” features and benefits 

By Hilary Charman, ITA for the Department for International Trade. Hilary is based in Somerset and Bristol and has recently won a fellowship award at the Institute of Export for her continued service to businesses who need support to export.

Poland

The Poles and the Brits have something of a special relationship, not just because there are so many Poles working in the UK, but also because of our strong historical links forged in the 20th century - so as a UK exporter, you should find a particularly warm welcome there. We also share the same sense of humour - we both like to tell self-deprecating jokes, which many other European cultures just don’t understand!  

In the UK, we have learned to respect the Poles’ skills, abilities, and willingness to work hard, characteristics also evident in the way they run their businesses.  Just one caveat; the Poles – by nature obliging optimists – will generally tell you what they think you want to hear, so do ensure you have clarified the T&Cs of any deal.  And if doing business with any kind of state entity, be well-prepared for potentially tortuous levels of bureaucracy.

And of course, once the meeting is over, expect to cement your relationship by slaking your thirst with excellent Polish beer! 

By Hilary Green, ITA for the Department for International Trade. Hilary is based in Gloucestershire and Bristol and is our market specialist for the Central Eastern European region.

Mexico

In Mexico, building relationships is key; they like to get to know you – the person – before they will discuss business, which means get ready for long lunches, questions about your family and education, and if you are in Mexico at the time, what you think of their fantastic country.

Here’s some tips to be aware of when trading with Mexicans:

1. They can be indirect – especially if what they need to say is “no” or “I hate your product” – they will say yes and then prevaricate until it drives you crazy

2. Mexicans often don’t reply to emails – you may need to chase repeatedly, or just phone

3. Mexico is still quite a “machista” society so can be a challenge for women to be taken seriously; patience and demonstrating your credibility is the only way to tackle this

4. The business scene is hierarchical, meaning Mexicans would expect your senior Directors to visit to show commitment before junior staff can get on with doing business; decision-making is only done at senior levels

By Sarah Hildersley, Market Specialist for Latin America for the Extend Your Global Reach programme. Sarah is an ex-diplomat who has worked in the Middle East and Mexico for many years.

Australia

In Australia, the business culture is broadly similar to that of the UK. Australian business people are approachable and happy to meet UK companies who have a product or service they like. However they can be more direct in stating their opinions and preferences.

They can appear casual and laid back in business meetings but they are hard-working and appreciate punctuality.  They can use “colourful” language in everyday conversation but best to gauge the mood of your audience before doing this yourself.

By Andrew Fraser, ITA for the Department for International Trade. Andrew brings a wealth of experience to help Bristol and Swindon businesses trade overseas and specialises in the Australian market.

India

English is the language of business in India and you will find most business managers speak it fluently, although of course the literal translation of the language can vary across different cultures, especially as cultures vary so much even from North to South  For example, Indians can sometimes have an issue with saying “no” because it may come across as offensive. They prefer to beat around the bush with phrases such as “we’ll see” or “that may be difficult”.  Try reading between the lines because trying to make your contacts be more direct with you can often push them away.

Here are a few more tips to ensure a productive meeting with your Indian business partners:

1. Give as much warning as possible for your intended travel and meeting dates

2. Punctuality is expected but in return, you must expect arrangements to change several times and meetings to start and finish late

3. Negotiations can be slow by UK standards, so show good character and be patient, trying not to force your associates to make a decision

4. Indians place great value on relationships; take the time to develop contacts and relationships

By Ameeta Virk, Market Specialist for India on the Extend Your Global Reach programme. Ameeta is a multi-linguist from California and is very versed in trading with the US and India. 

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