In the dark days of technology, when faxes were the fastest way to communicate with clients, I was contacted by a Japanese company to do some design and illustrations for them. They had seen my work in the New York Daily News, which, unlike their rival, The New York Times, was strictly a New York City paper. Someone in the company’s New York office was a fan of my work and that’s how I caught their notice. I was excited at the prospect of working with a client outside of America and, in a conversation with my sister, who was a foreign diplomatic and trade studies student at the University of Pennsylvania, she sat me down for some much needed lessons on dealing with the Japanese. Without that advice, I would have insulted the executives I was slated to meet.
“First, remember to bow when bowed to and bow slightly lower than the person who bowed to you,” she imparted. Okay. I had gotten that from watching the Shogun miniseries on TV.
“When you are handed a business card,” she continued with the lesson, “hold it gently by the lower corners with both hands, look at it with reverence and place all the cards you get on the table in front of you and NEVER put them in your back pocket! You’ll need to refer to everyone by using ‘San’ at the end of their names.”
The lesson went on for about an hour and I was glad she had prepared me for the meeting. “And hold back your weird sense of humor!” she warned me at the end of our conversation. I did have a strange sense of humor that sometimes wasn’t appreciated by American clients, so it was good advice for dealing with the Japanese.
The meeting went well with the exchange of business cards, their cards being printed on the front in Japanese and the back in English with their photos on the cards, which was unusual back then for anyone’s card but as they handed me their cards, they pronounced their names and instructed me to call them by American surnames. My contact person, Minuro Yoshida, instructed me to call him, “Mike.” As I was a fan of Japanese cinema and TV, I was perfectly able to pronounce Japanese names and used “Yoshida San, “etc. for the half-dozen executives who were in attendance. “Yoshida San had previously met with me at my studio, which was jam packed with Japanese transforming robots and Godzilla posters in the original Japanese and during my meeting with his fellow executives, he was obviously telling them of my fandom for Japanese culture.
They decided to give me the project and that was my entry into the international market. As the project went on, “Mike” was kind enough to guide me through some “touchy” parts of dealing with his firm. There would be no contract as the Japanese were men of their word. WHile I was a bit nervous, more so about misunderstandings, everything went smoothly and they were a great client.
Over the next couple of years, I found my popularity rising in Japan as requests for interviews on radio shows and further projects would come in by fax and my peers envied me aloud for my international status.
Further intrusions into the global market came through stock images and being at the right functions in New York City, as well as working for companies that dealt on a global scale. Today, my clients are almost exclusively non-American and I have to say, I prefer it that way. Culturalisms are still an important part of working across national lines and the world has surpassed the U.S. in many ways of doing business.
With the internet, any business can reach across borders to do global business. PayPal, as one internet payment service, along with most credit cards, allows the transfer of funds in any monetary denomination. But what you put out there about your business may be offensive to others. The rules of manners are usually observed for others in this nation but it has to be taken farther when dealing with the world.
Understanding WE are also Foreigners
The old cliché of the “ugly American” still exists. This was the belief among American tourists that everyone in the world should speak English and if they don’t, yelling in English will make one understood. Well, almost everyone in the world does speak English and most of them speak it better than most Americans. More good news, most people in the world speak at least three languages while Europeans speak and average of five languages. In America, we study either Spanish, French or German for one to three years but without practice, often lose the ability quickly… if it’s ever really learned. It’s not really the language barrier that becomes a problem with foreign business dealings but cultural differences as well as the use of colloquialisms.
Colloquialisms are the little sayings that are particular to a certain culture and/or pop culture reference that may not translate outside of your language/culture. “Cockney” for instance, is hardly recognized in England, much less other nations. Speech patterns among those of us from Brooklyn, which include swear words as adjectives, as well as verbs, are considered offensive to the rest of the world.
Cultural differences, as mentioned in the passages of my dealings with the Japanese, are tricky and MUST be respected for a strong working relationship. In some cultures, negotiation is part of doing business while in others, it’s considered insulting. Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to learn more about other cultures before a business relationship begins. Some handy tips to form the basics of dealing with other cultures are:
Understand relativism: Some things are relative to a particular frame or reference, such as a language or a culture. Understand that people from other cultures will have an entirely differently value system.
Stay away from religion: There are cultures that believe passionately in their religions and what strikes you as unreal, may be another person’s daily life and an important part of their existence. If you’ve ever seen a Twitter account where the person identifies their religion, along with their business information, it’s a safe bet they find their beliefs an important part of how they do business. In the long run, that will hurt you. Every nation knows modern business acumen and that overrides religious tenants with the exception of days of sabbath and certain holy days.
Know proper business acumen: I was pleasantly surprised that when communicating via email with foreign clients that if they didn’t respond within 24 hours, they were very apologetic for the lapse in communication. Americans have a bad habit of not returning emails or telephone calls. Even in America, it’s considered rude. Even if you are snt a message from a foreign company that you might consider spam (not the dead Nigerian millionaire emails, of course), it’s best to reply with a polite thank you but explain it doesn’t meet your business needs at the present time. One minute of your time may save a future opportunity.
By the same token, if you make any sort of promise or call to action, follow through! Your word is your bond with most cultures.
Be upfront and open: We all make mistakes and a slip from one party may cause a misunderstanding or be an insult. In every culture, an apology and attempt to alleviate the situation is always appreciated. Do not get defensive and do not make accusations.
Humor can be misunderstood: As my sister so aptly put it, I have a weird sense of humor and making sure I held back on any humor when meeting with the Japanese executives was the correct thing to do. Even with that, Yoshida San pointed out later that the other executives enjoyed my humor during our meeting. I thanked him but to this day I have no idea what they found funny. Stay away from humor. Keeping a conversation light and friendly may be considered humor in many cultures and too friendly in others. Be polite and business-like. If you smile while speaking, it comes through as positive and that is always appreciated by any culture.
You are not better, smarter or superior in any way: The playing field is always level. Respect in any dealing is the proper approach. In my corporate experience, witnessing some loudmouth decide he/she was going to play alpha dog to executives from another firm, The entire conference room froze. In one meeting, viewing new technological products, a fellow coworker insulted the products by informing the visiting executives that they had inferior products as she had checked out a sample and it didn’t work. One of the executives was very disturbed at that news and apologized profusely. When he examined the product, he calmly explained that she hadn’t removed a small tab that was labelled, “remove tab before using.” You could cut the embarrassment in the room with a knife. The coworker was nicknamed “Tabby” and lived with that for the rest of her time with the company, which wasn’t too long.
Saving “face”: Be aware that people from some cultures have an indirect way of making a point and will use third parties to communicate sensitive or difficult issues; this is, in their view another way of saving you from the embarrassment of direct confrontation. There are many cultures that deal indirectly or use “unusual” negotiating tactics that are not unusual to them. For example, a foreign client might insist you promised a 50% discount on their next order. While you are 100% sure you never said that, it would be an insult to them to claim you never said that. You are directly accusing them of lying and being dishonorable. Instead, the proper comeback is to negotiate by explaining that you had quoted that for a billion pieces of your product but would be happy to offer a 20% discount for their standing order of a million units. They might respond with an offer of 30% and you can meet in the middle with 25%. now your profit margin before quoting any prices or discounts and when unsure in the heat of the moment, put the question of quoted discounts on a third patron your side of the table and promise to get back to them with an “attractive offer.” Being apologetic may bruise your ego but it will save the relationship and no one will think less of you in the scheme of this type of negotiation.
Learn a bit of the language: Just the offer of “hello,” “good-bye,” and “thank you” in a client’s native language is greatly appreciated by others. When I start dealing with a foreign client, the first thing I do is to apologize for not speaking their language and state my appreciation for their ability to speak English. They usually apologize for their English, to which I respond, “your English is better than mine!” The humor puts them at ease and breaks the “ugly American” syndrome. When there is a misunderstanding due to the language barrier, I apologize for not understanding, explaining my stance and work to create a middle ground that pleases both parties. Misunderstandings happen, even between people of the same language and culture. If you work it out calmly, everyone will appreciate it.
Know the implications of doing business overseas: Familiarize yourself with importing/exporting rules, regulations and costs BEFORE you quote any prices for foreign clients. What kind of tariffs are you facing? Who will pay those fees? What kind of delay will happen in customs? How fast can fees be transferred to your bank? These are all parts of doing business just as shipping/delivery costs are part of any deal within the United States.
English is hard: English is the hardest language to learn as we have multiple meanings for some words. When speaking to a foreign client, speak slowly, and avoid using abbreviations and acronyms as much as possible. Avoid slang or reference to pop culture or national sports stars as these may be unknown in many in other countries. Follow up any spoken conversation with the main points in an email just to make sure everything is understood and ask for feedback or any questions.
Finding Foreign Clients
Thanks to the same internet that allows us to communicate across the globe, it’s easy to find clients in other nations. By searching out companies that deal with your field of business, you can then use sites such as LinkedIn or Google searches to find the person you need to contact at those companies. Just like client contact with any company in the U.S., the world keeps shrinking in terms of dealing globally. Reaching out to foreign companies is no different.
When I started providing blog content, I was approached by a company in Canada to write an article. Once that was published, I wrote to blogs in other countries, using a link to that content and inquired if they were interested in my providing content for them. A blog publishing firm in Germany had seen that content on the Canadian blog and agreed to put my content in one of their English language blog. From there, I was able to contact other blogs in England, Australia, India, Italy, Russia, Singapore and elsewhere to inquire if they were interested in English language content. With the exception of Antarctica, I now have clients on every continent.
When my content is published, I Google the title and see what other blogs and news sources pick up the content and that gives me other prospective clients to approach. Sure, there is always competition from writers in those countries, as anywhere, but by opening my client search to the world, rather than just the U.S., or the town in which I live, I have greater opportunities for income and I have made some close friends in other nations who will no doubt have a couch I can stay on when I travel around the world.
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