Mind Your Manners! Cultural Nuances in Business
Culture plays an enormous role in how people think, behave and communicate. When entering new international markets, business people should always be aware of the cultural nuances in business that are present. Below are insights from Eurolink Managing Director, Joe Mannion:
Doing business internationally is as challenging as it is fun. The title here, ‘Mind Your Manners’, is a throwback to when I was a young export executive, learning my trade from some older, and incredibly experienced managers. In doing so, I learned a lot about the cultural nuances we must be aware of in international business.
I had the good fortune, after completing my education at Trinity College Dublin, to land a job with a part of a global drinks empire. This business was exporting to over 80 countries across the world and took expansion very seriously. I had already lived, worked and studied in a number of countries by then, including the US, Germany, France and the UK, so I thought I had a good handle on how to be among people of different cultures and languages. I loved, and still do love, the variety and uniqueness of people from different backgrounds. Figuring out what makes them tick can be fascinating, even if a little confusing at times!
My boss at the time had built a well-earned reputation as a serious and successful international businessperson. John had built a great team around him of smart and hard-working executives, all with decades of international business experience. With great humility, he would share knowledge and contacts, and he was an amazing coach to a young guy like me. He read and researched markets extensively, and encouraged us all to do the same – something I carry with me to this day.
Within just a few weeks of starting, I was thrown into the deep end (or so I thought) and sent off on international trips. I was tasked with negotiating deals for our brands with organisations from global retailers and distributors, to the buying officers for the US, Canadian and British military worldwide. There’s nothing like surrendering your passport and being escorted by military police on to a military base to calm young nerves before a business meeting!
Soon after I started, a sudden crisis had developed, as the CEO of our Spanish distributor took serious insult when he received a gift from my boss. It’s important to note that Spain was the 2nd biggest export market in the world at this time for the products in question. What was even more concerning for me was that I was about to be seconded to work in Spain full-time for the distributor for a six-month period. What was the problem, and what could I do about it, or at least learn from it?
With the very best of intentions, my boss had sent a copy of a business book to the CEO in Spain – an international bestseller of the time, entitled ‘Mind Your Manners!’. John found it fascinating, as we all did, in that it explained the cultural differences and nuances between people across different countries. He learned a lot from the book and enjoyed the anecdotes in it which explained how to be able to better understand your international customers, and how to build better relationships and business with them. A great idea. What could possibly go wrong?
John had sent a handwritten note with the book, saying how much he hoped they would learn from it. We quickly received a sharply worded communication from the office in Spain, asking John to explain why he had insulted them by sending this book. Oh dear. The CEO had asked one of his employees to quickly translate the English title of the book to Spanish. Upon hearing that he was being told to ‘mind his manners’ deep offence was taken. The book was not read (which would have cleared up any misunderstanding, perhaps). Worse still, it took some months of slow, careful communication between our offices and our Spanish partners to rebuild the excellent relations that we had enjoyed before.
A simple, well-meant gesture that isn’t executed carefully, or simply interpreted hastily, can cause anyone problems in international business relations. When it comes to cultural nuances, forewarned is forearmed.
I did get to work in Spain with the CEO and his team throughout the country. It was a wonderful business and personal experience, while I also learned the Spanish language and culture. We built great business and relationships together. Of course, I was always very careful to mind my manners at all times!