Corporate business in Europe and the USA
Speaking the common language with partners and customers
I have been leading our XME.digital platform development for over five years. It is a Fast-code platform designed to implement applications and digital products for start-ups and corporate clients. I have worked with global businesses for more than twenty years in different roles: as an international company employee, a contractor and customer of tiny and large organizations from the US, Western and East-European, and Middle East regions. Based on what I learned over time, I want to share my understanding of making it easy.
The world has changed, and geography does not define your counterpart's culture and expected collaboration manner as much as it was before. Each behavioural model is a combination of language, industry, company and role of both communication partners. And, above them all, there is an individual character and background, and it is the key to successful and beneficial communication.
Dealing with international clients is a person-to-person matter. And a culture inevitably comes along. It's important to consider it from both sides: how could you understand the person, and how could they understand you.
The cultural groups have many ways of splitting, like Western and Eastern, Northern and Southern. This breakdown can go to counties and city blocks with specific contexts, wording, and associations. And here are dozens of stereotypes: Germans are straightforward and sound rude. Ukrainians are greedy (or it was about Dutch?), North Americans are arrogant. Russians look like they are at a funeral, and Belorussians are aggressive, Indians say "yes" even if it's "no," Spanish are too religious, and Italians are always late. Although it could have its proof sometimes, it works better in coarse jokes than in real business. Though, it could be helpful when taken as questions, not statements.
READ MORE on the subject – The cultural differences between East and West by Yang Liu
Does the English knowledge reflect the level of expertise? It definitely has a strong connection for some countries that widely use English in education, like the Netherlands, Norway, Israel, Cyprus, etc. And you can expect quite natural ice-breaking conversations with people from countries where English movies are not dubbed to the local language. Other nations, including Ukrainians, usually have to put a lot of personal effort to get proficient English experience. Many professionals choose to prioritize professional growth instead of polishing their English.
But it also pretty much depends on the role they play. A team member, who tells what was done and what decisions were made, could speak crappy, being smart as a whip.
For example, as a Ukrainian, in my 20's, I had my first-ever job interview in English – and it was generally the first time I spoke English on my own – was successful. Despite all problems and efforts to figure out how to talk to that tolerant Dutchman, we worked for about five years after.
Another side is when getting across specific information is not enough and counterparts have another target: to convince and inspire. When you move to abstract matters, there are many chances that understanding could be lost in idioms, metaphors, and analogies.
And what about the native language of the counterpart? If you know it, you don't need any advice. If you know a few words, it could add some fun, but it's worth considering that English-speaking people are used to tolerating surprising interpretations of their native language. It does not always match the ordinary experience of other nations and can cause minor confusion.
The country defines the culture, and it is the geography that primarily shapes our views. However, each country itself is completely patchy. Ukraine is an example: you can feel here a civilizational split between Western and Eastern, modern and orthodox, high-speed and peaceful, overcrowded and barely populated, pro-Europe and thanks-we-are-fine-where-we-are, it's-not-of-my-business or I-can't-stand-it-any-longer. Historical events or even personas caused this split – not by the territory or social groups themselves but by the cultural specifics of individuals. Ukrainians learn to tolerate each other – and to the rest of the world, too.
The same thing you can notice in other places. For example, we partner with a company from Switzerland. Associatively, Switzerland is a german-speaking country. On the other hand, the French language is in use there, too. But we cooperate with the Italian region. They are different in terms of behaviour, culture, and others. We had to discover it and take into account their features from the first meeting.
Every region will have its specifics, but the company you are working with has its own culture, which you have to consider.
Start-ups adopt the "go-go!" culture. Release the product quickly and update it often. Win fast, or admit defeat. Make it dirty but now. Founders are always under harsh pressure and therefore stress the employees. Although it makes start-up work ambitious and inspiring.
Corporations put notable efforts to consolidate employees among regions for a predictable form of behaviour that could dominate over the local culture of a particular region. Thus, despite the country, most employees could share the company's attitude, tone of voice, and decision-making process. Respectively, companies with offices in the United Kingdom, India, Ukraine, Australia, Switzerland, Mexico have a tangible influence of each location on its USA headquarters culture. But inevitably, they will struggle with different perceptions of overtimes, deadlines and personal borders.
Certainly, industries arrange businesses to their specific groups, imposing knowledge, organizational structure, and people. Having a many-year background in the telecommunications industry, I can easily understand problems and priorities with other companies in most regions. The same glory works for the IT and software businesses. However, industries like heavy manufacturing or agriculture do not usually communicate much and could have difficulty understanding, at least due to language barriers.
READ MORE on the subject – The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer
They say organizational culture, aka the culture of people, eats corporate culture for breakfast. All organizations have inner political games and personal approaches affecting the result. In a particular place, in a particular organization and culture, a particular individual – may not match the expectations.
The individual's personality and the emotional side caused by the customer-vendor relationship can outweigh all specific aspects of the country, culture and organization. Despite all the rational and formal criteria, the emotional and perceptual side plays an essential role in successful collaboration, especially in the long term. The perfect match between counterparties' characters could create synergy and multiply results. On the contrary, rejection of the personality could create a lose-lose situation due to a lack of trust and understanding.
Frankly, there are no perfect people, but there could be excellent teams. It's not always an option, but in some cases, making a selection of partners based on personal perception could make perfect sense.
READ MORE on the subject – Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don't Agree with or Like or Trust by Adam Kahane
What to do when your intuition doesn't help?
If your intuition poorly helps, there is a method called the GLOBE Framework. Statistics and previous researches create a structure in this madness by highlighting particular aspects of each culture. It is designed for the region-based analysis but perfectly works for all levels mentioned above. If you could find the answers to some questions on the essential knowledge, you can significantly simplify and build more confident and predictable communication:
Are they always right, or do they seek the correct answer?
Are they OK with "We'll decide when the time comes," or do they need to clarify all the details beforehand?
Do they plan a week, month, or year ahead?
Would they say: "What a moron did it?!" or instead: "You may want to pay attention to some details."
Finding answers to these and a few more, sometimes, apparent questions could help you to find a common language better, faster, easier.
READ MORE on the subject – the GLOBE Framework
What to do when there is no information?
It would help to have proper preparation to get a good result from any negotiations. You can skip preparing yourself only when the result of the meeting is predetermined, but is it worth wasting time then?
Some approaches always work for almost all negotiations and presentations. At the very least, it allows you to get to the right stage of communication. In the best case, it could give you instruments to rule the process (and to have less stress, too).
If you have a typical one-hour meeting, it usually has the following stages:
The first 15 minutes, you talk about the weather, Covid-19, "break the ice" – any topic. This is your very first meeting, and usually, it's the moment that allows both sides to understand how the other communicate and learn language accent and adjust the style.
This time is precious for you to ensure that the other party hears and understands you. It would help if you planned this time slot. Especially if you have a presentation and want to make a clear point. Keep in mind that you have already spent your first 15 minutes. If you go straight with a presentation without exchanging pleasantries or small talk, it could be a bad sign. It works for both European and Asian cultures. The exception, of course, is when you were asked to get straight to the point: when time is short, or there's no need like it’s a regular status call.
The Main 30 minutes you talk on the subject. No longer, ideally including the discussion of your idea involving both sides. During this time slot, you need to deliver the main ideas and hear thoughts, comments, or concerns on the subject from your vis-a-vis. You’d better have them prepared and verified beforehand.
We have assumed that you have no information, but you are never left entirely without the resources to get some details. Generally, no one makes a presentation completely blind. If we talk about selling in person, you could do proper research about the company, the team, the people – what they do, who they are, and their areas of responsibility. Often, companies post information about themselves on resources like LinkedIn or SlideShare, and you can figure out a lot about their business, vision, and values from there. If you devote your time to this, you will get a precious result.
The last 15 minutes to sync up and say goodbye. It's not always a specific part of the negotiation, and the conversation can touch any subject. Still, it's crucial to check if you're on the same page, synchronize the vision and values, and understand whether you can and are willing to work together.
We discuss everything that can help determine how to perform all you've just discussed in the Main part. You can define a responsible person and establish a timeline to get things done, or you can talk on general topics and become closer on a personal level.
Few tips on how to simplify communication flow
One of the biggest problems that frequently happens on projects is a lack of understanding. Engineers could fail in understanding the sales team; business representatives or investors could get confused about what the technical team says. In such cases, you need someone in the negotiating team who can understand each person's concerns in that subject area, complete the whole picture and make it more understandable for the other party. Sometimes it could require repeating the same things. Sometimes – saying the same things with different words. Sometimes you need to re-examine materials or ask additional questions. But either way, it’s in your best interests to make sure that all parties understand each other.
All of the initiatives mentioned above work well when you have a long-term collaboration, and it is the tenth session in a row. You had plenty of time to know each other better, feel the vibes and understand the context. But what if this is your first meeting and you have no previous experience with these people?
"What did they say?"
It would be best to say "I don't understand" if you really don't. "I do not understand" always sounds fine in communication with European or American partners. From both sides – be prepared to hear it, too, and to answer accordingly. Of course, if you do not understand for the third time, it would be strange. But you definitely should get the point.
You'd better expect misunderstandings and that not all of the information will reach the addressee. As studies say, the other person receives only ~50% of all told in an individual's native language. In practice, it can fall to 20% in complex negotiations, and this is expected. Assure that someone from counterparties will take notes. It is always a good idea to record and summarize everything you agree on in the written form. It will make it easier for you to get back to the recorded decisions and agreements in the future if needed.
It's great if you can make a good joke. But when you're joking within another culture, you have to consider the difference in stereotypes. There's a very high chance of making a bad joke. Our humour is often on edge, but you never know for sure where the limit is. We should be careful with jokes and avoid topics that might be offensive.
You could start with a joke about yourself: your youth, children, or pets if it’s appropriate and sounds natural. Watch the reactions and then decide if it’s worth going deeper into making fun or simply leaving it in concrete business communication.
Trust and predictability
Trust and predictability are two things you should always consider and carefully build up. Many things can disappoint or mislead, be careful not to add more. Also, try not to overreact to anything different from your perfect picture of the world.
Trust suffers first in the case of any remote cooperation. It is hard to trust a picture on the screen; it is hard to trust someone you saw more than six months ago or vice versa – someone with whom the total communication time is concise. It is possible to build trust, though it's elementary to lose it. You should always ask yourself: What do they expect from me? Where do they count on me? How can I justify their trust? Does this sound fine from all points of view?
Predictability can help to reduce the level of stress in remote communication. Better say twice about what you're going to do. Better repeat three times about what you're not going to do. Such predictability helps to understand how a distributed worldwide team can produce the result you expect and intend.
While working with a client, we understand that the client has promises, obligations, or business goals, too. He is aware of his risks and can control them to a certain extent. He cannot take control of other factors, and our job is giving the client more leverage to manage those things that can happen on our side, in our part of the job.
As a Summary
People are amazing. Companies and whole countries stand on the most outstanding representatives of the nations. Each person in all stages of negotiations is essential. We should strive to be on the one page, neglect any stereotypes, and carefully create our own opinion of the person we face. Solid and reliable relationships are so strong – but so tender at the same time. Let's stay humans in this fast-changing world.
Let's migrate to the future.