The Intersection Between International Business and International Culture: Watch for the Speed Bumps

Silhouetted business people stand and walk along a path next to a globe of the planet

We’ve all done it: we see the sign saying “Speed Bump,” but we don’t slow down quickly enough or we just ignore it. The feeling that we hit something, and maybe even feel a twinge in our backs, reminds us that we should have driven over the speed bump slowly. We tell ourselves we won’t make that mistake again.

There are many speed bumps in international business and one that creates many problems in particular is culture. Culture has been defined hundreds of ways. Although we might not think about it, we implicitly understand it to mean the customs, traditions, values and norms of the places in which we live and all the permutations within these components.

Companies of all sizes need to watch for speed bumps. Multinational corporations with employees and facilities around the world need to understand that taking their corporate culture to other countries often presents innumerable challenges. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) with little or no international business experience should take the time to hone their international cultural sensitivity and awareness. Whether a company is large or an SME, those employees charged with international business development should not exhibit ethnocentric behavior, i.e., if employees believe their culture is superior to others, they may very well find themselves in some unpleasant and awkward situations in other countries. Cultures are different from one another, not better or worse.

Fortunately, there are an enormous number of articles, websites and books that employees can use to learn about other cultures and increase their cultural sensitivity and awareness. These two articles offer a few quick tips: Business Culture and 6 Examples of Cultural Differences in Business Communication. Travel to other countries and enjoy the experience. Stay in another country for a while. Cultural immersion is ideal, but it isn’t possible for everyone, and very few of us have the time and/or resources to visit all 190-plus countries in the world. This is not an insurmountable situation.

Learn. Ask questions: what holidays are celebrated/observed in other countries? What are the work hours and are they based on religious observances? How do I address people in other countries? Do I shake hands, hug, or bow when meeting someone? What language(s) do they speak? Do I need an interpreter? How should I present my business card and should it be translated? Are there topics I shouldn’t raise? Are they prompt for meetings? How do they approach business negotiations? All of these questions and many more can be answered with relative ease.

So, enjoy and revel in the differences. By increasing your cultural sensitivity and awareness, you increase the likelihood of growing your company’s international business. Take the time to learn, and travel if you can. The investment in your personal growth and professional development will reap enormous rewards. And slow down for those speed bumps.


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Richard Corson
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Richard Corson is the President of Corson International Trade Consulting, LLC, which offers customized strategic planning for companies and educational institutions seeking to grow internationally. Prior to establishing his company, Richard was an International Trade Specialist and Director of the East Michigan U.S. Export Assistance Center, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, for nearly thirty years.

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