You Say Tomato

Forbes Magazine  by Lalita Khosla – Best of the Web

forbesmagazineIn negotiating with foreign business people, small things matter. During seemingly endless negotiations with the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI), Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing’s (nyse: MMM – news – people) (3M) Harry Heltzer and a few of his colleagues left the table and began preparing tea. Later, their prospective partners, executives of the Sumitomo Trading Co., asked why Heltzer and his crew had behaved so uncharacteristically. Heltzer, who later rose to be 3M’s chief executive, smiled and explained: You guys know how to haggle with MITI; we just wanted to be out of your way.

That little gesture of trust made a deep and lasting impression on the Sumitomo people; 40 years later the Sumitomo 3M joint venture is one of the most successful in Japan and contributes more than 10% of 3M’s total profits.

Americans aren’t always so sensitive to foreign tastes and habits. More recently, for instance, at Hewlett-Packard (nyse: HWP – news – people) a group of engineers in California began designing software with HP’s engineers in Grenoble, France. A rift nearly destroyed the project.

HP engineers in San Jose sent long, detailed e-mail to their counterparts in Grenoble. The engineers in Grenoble viewed the lengthy e-mail as patronizing and replied with quick, concise e-mail. That made the U.S. engineers believe that the French were withholding information. The process spiraled out of control. People started blaming personalities. A cultural logjam rolled into place.

HP turned to Charis Intercultural Training, a consulting firm based in Pleasanton, Calif., to help improve the relationship. “We went in as cultural sleuths,” says Charis President Marian Stetson-Rodriguez. Charis quizzed members of each team, asking about their preferred communication styles. After six months of cultural training, the relationship improved.

Helping business people avoid intercultural faux pas has become a $100-million business for companies like Charis and San Francisco-based Meridian Resources. Intel, for instance, uses Charis to provide 55 training classes to instruct Intel employees on cultural nuances.

Here are a few hints from the people at Charis and Meridian. By remembering these subtle points, your partnerships may avoid running into trouble:

  • Italians, Germans and French don’t soften up executives with praise before they criticize. Americans do, and to the Europeans that seems manipulative.
  • Israelis, accustomed to fast-paced meetings, have no patience for American smalltalk.
  • British executives often complain that their U.S. counterparts chatter too much. Our penchant for informality, egalitarianism and spontaneity sometimes jars people.
  • Europeans often feel they are being treated like children when Americans insist they wear name tags.
  • Indian executives are used to interrupting one another. If Americans listen without asking for clarification or posing questions, the Indians may feel the Americans aren’t paying attention.
  • When negotiating with Malaysian or Japanese executives, periodically allow for 6 seconds of silence. If you are negotiating with an Israeli, don’t pause.
  • Think twice before asking some foreigners questions like “How was your weekend?” That sounds intrusive to foreigners who tend to regard their business and private lives as totally compartmentalized.