Working with nationals around the world: Enjoying the experience
Mexico City, April, 22, 2019
Andrew L. Davis
Whether interviewing, promoting, managing, meeting or just entertaining, doing business with overseas nationals reaps rewards that make all the invested time and effort worthwhile. It is, after all, about the people (to risk sounding cliché); there is nothing like interacting and learning from those in similar professions but from different backgrounds.
Growing up in England, one of my father’s favorite topics of interest at the weekend retreat was his latest business trip…where did he go this time? Tokyo? White Plains? Santiago? Mexico City? More than the sights, sounds, and tastes, the part that fascinated me the most was his interaction with people…
For some reason his thought process struck me is being different…the ability to take peoples’ value and belief systems as a given, always to be respected. It was a quite different attitude towards overseas cultures from what I heard at school, where teachers spewed out words like ‘alien’, ‘foreign’, ‘different’, ‘division’, and ‘inferior’. I used to think this was a weakness of a tired private schooling system, but since I have found out that these stereotypes are surprisingly universal.
I heeded my father’s call and decided to do some traveling of my own. Cross-cultural experiences of the sort he used to talk about are now abound wherever work has given me the chance to go.
One can never be surprised; though one must never get tired of learning. One can never feel insulted; however one must always remember where one is from. One must always happily oblige the host; the experience should always be a lasting one. Do not bother boarding the plane otherwise!
The most difficult hurdle to get over while maintaining decorum is what one considers as being undesirable behavior on the part of the locals. New Yorkers, as a case in point, are known for their directness. After having made a prior appointment two months beforehand with an importer at his facility in the Bronx, and after the long trip from Mexico, the first words uttered by the host at the said appointment were a firm: “I have no time for this!”
Being an Englishmen with a reserved disposition, communication and attention is an area which I have always had difficulty with. Taking students on trade missions, at times it is difficult getting hosts to place importance on the younger stars of the show, as in China, where more senior visitors are given priority.
Eye contact was also a factor which took me a long time to master…an essential part of Latin American communication. Even for somebody with years of such experience, receiving an industrial real estate broker from Texas and sitting in front of intense wobbling eyeballs can also be a challenge!
After living for too much time in Mexico, where borrowing and lending money is second nature between friends and family, I had forgotten that the good nature of Mexicans is not necessarily shared elsewhere, and made the mistake of asking a colleague from the USA for a short term loan…only to be told that he did not loan money to friends! Presumably, this is not due to more stingy behavior in the United States, but rather because of a genuine fear of having to confront friends with reminders of outstanding debt.
Working with a colleague from Washington D.C. on an itinerary in Mexico City, I thought I had sent a perfectly complete schedule of confirmed dates, times, places, personnel, logistical details, and themes of the meetings. This would have been more than enough for a Mexican client, who would leave flexibility for necessary last-minute changes. Not so for the colleague from DC, who then gravely said that the disappointing document was missing objectives, strategies and bullet points with desired outcomes for each meeting!
Preparing to face your counterpart:
The negotiating table is always a fascinating laboratory for cultural challenges. I have noticed that in Mexico, people are expected to interject with intelligent comments at strategic intervals (not speaking up enough gives the impression of insecurity and having a lack of knowledge). In China, however, participants are expected to stay quiet and keep clear out of respect. In the USA, one is expected to be forthright and speak one’s mind, applauded for honesty; although in Japan being too forthright is a sign of taking unnecessary risk.
Back to Mexico…
Long-term collaborations in education with those from low context cultures will also be a source of surprise…a colleague from the USA once made me feel guilty about late payment after having accepted shared risk for non-payment for a not-for-profit concern.
Another situation found me mediating a work session between an overseas consultant and a Mexican government official concerning presentation formats; I found myself in the middle of a squabble about the clarity of written reports and the software they need to be written on…they both had their cultural take on how a presentation “should be done” and were adamant in terms of “that is the way it is done around here.”
Timing is another factor which has always baffled me. This is not just when to open one’s mouth, but when to say certain things. To make suggestions early on or later in a negotiation depends on the cultural setting and also on the personalities sitting at the negotiating table. Once I wanted to be assertive and firm to impress my Mexican boss in a negotiation; nevertheless had I made the suggestion early on in the negotiation rather than as an impasse-breaking scheme. Acting on the latter would have provided the boss with ammunition and would have broken the all-dreaded silence we were suffering from at the beginning of the session.
Small talk, often recommended to us by the experts as a way of paving the way to difficult negotiation, I have found to be a challenge at times. Once it occurred to me to bring up my pet subject of Renaissance music with a Florentine colleague (also an enthusiast in Renaissance art), but made the cardinal sin of mentioning Northern European composers instead of Italians (even though the counterparts from the north had studied and worked in Italy for a large portion of their lives). Furthermore, the suggestion of music at the time being more creative and exploratory than painting did not go down well either…and this was before a business meeting (nothing to do with art at all!).
Of course, these cultural surprises can be regional; people react and behave differently depending on where you hop on or off the plane. I remember receiving a director of a large dairy foods company in Santa Fe, Mexico City for a presentation who only had “one hour.” At the end of the session, he had to run, and I told him (remembering to use my good Mexican manners) that I would keep him company to his car. He insisted it was not necessary and kept running! The following day I ran into an old friend in the State of Veracruz from the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial; after telling him I was only to give a conference and would be leaving at 3 pm, he looked very upset. My friend told me he was going to invite me out for breakfast after I had finished (although I suspected he probably making a promise he could not keep); when I called him to say I was ready for our meeting, he apologized and said he had broken a tooth! Whether the emergency was real or not I have no idea, but if it was not I would not have minded, as during my years in Veracruz I had learnt that people feel the need to oblige although they know they may not be able to keep their word; whereas in the executive cosmopolitan Mexico City, prioritizing limited time is now a necessity.
At times one has to go with the flow of the protocol, even though one is not sure whether the mickey is being taken out of one or not. On one occasion, a Chinese CEO of a solar panel company asked me straight out (in the meeting room before any discussion of any kind): “Do you like to drink?” “In moderation, I love to!” I replied, trying to think of a way of pleasing him while taking care of a health problem of mine. The Chinese are famous for their toasting, but I never expected such forwardness! In the end, I just enjoyed the experience.
I have not been saved from reverse cultural shock, either. Arriving five minutes late to an appointment at the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs in London, I called my host from the street corner to let him know I was on my way up as there was a hold-up on the way. When we met in the lobby, he lectured me on the importance of calling before the start of the meeting (this was prior to the advent of the mobile phone).
There is also the risk of arriving too early to a meeting. On one occasion I decided in my good English way to show up 10 minutes before a scheduled real estate development negotiation in Mexico City, just to show that I was serious. The receptionist was not sure how to handle the situation (it seemed the invitation to sit down was only given to those who arrive on the dot)…I felt guilty about sitting down on borrowed time! I also felt like a salesperson more than a business partner.
Some of these experiences may seem like misunderstandings that get in the way of getting things done; that would be stressful and would probably want to make the business traveler want to get back home as soon as possible.
Some of the beauty of travelling and meeting others is the opportunity to understand that we all think differently.
Andrew L. Davis
«…the beauty of travelling and meeting others is the opportunity to understand that we all think differently.»
When listening to my father at the dinner table, he might have been quoting the novelist Henry Miller: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”