Culture shock-proofing

Written by Allan Britnell

You step out of the airport and into the intense tropical heat. But more than the humidity is making you sweat. You’ve arrived for an extended business trip, yet you don’t speak the language, have no local currency and, worst of all, have just noticed you’re not wearing pants.

Relax. It’s just a bad dream. But if you send one of your executives overseas for a long-term posting without properly preparing them, they may find the culture shock so debilitating they won’t complete the work they were sent to do.

“There are lots of little everyday challenges that become a big deal when you put them all together,” says Lionel Laroche, president of MCB Solutions. Laroche’s Toronto-based consultancy provides those headed overseas with a country-specific overview of “the things they’ll find really surprising.” Fees range from $1,500 for a half-day meeting to $5,000 for an intensive two-day session, and Laroche will come to you to conduct them.

The material covered in these sessions ranges from social (Do you shake, bow or kiss when meeting someone?) to functional (How do you get money in countries like China that have restrictions on foreigners holding currency?). And while Laroche won’t teach you Mandarin, he will provide a cheat sheet of helpful phrases.

Eating is one daily routine that can cross over into the work world. Foreign hosts may offer a local delicacy that, like Afghan sheep eyeballs, may seem less than palatable. Your employee’s reaction to the offering will be viewed as an indicator of their own — and your company’s — willingness to adapt.

Business customs can also pose pitfalls. “Virtually every interaction we have in the business world is done differently somewhere else,” says Laroche.

Walking into a situation unaware of local practices can sabotage a business deal. Negotiation styles, for example, vary sharply. In the Middle East, haggling is fundamental to business, and your initial asking price should be about triple what you hope to receive. In Germany, on the other hand, it should be within a few percent of what you hope for. “In Germany, if you use an asking price that works in the Middle East, they’ll throw you out because you’re trying to gouge them,” says Laroche. Now that’s a nightmare you’d rather avoid.

© 2004 Allan Britnell

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