The importance of cultural customs during a business meeting

When organizing a meeting with international businesspersons, the vast majority of managers focus on more work-related matters, such as creating a schedule, crafting a presentation that highlights the keynotes of the meeting, and working on how to best adapt the product in a foreign country. They think that a smooth, flawless presentation of the product will convince the foreign client to buy it. Even when thinking about the language barrier, their knowledge stops at hiring an interpreter to translate the speech for the partner. But what they hardly consider is another subtle, yet very crucial factor: cultural customs.

What are cultural customs?

When wanting to sell your product to a potential international buyer, there are some cultural differences you have to take into account during your meeting. Cultural customs are patterned behaviors peculiar to a given person or country, that help differentiate one culture from another. More often than not, businesspersons tend to mistake customs with personality traits of their foreign clients, ignoring how much of an impact culture can have on the meeting. American author and professor at Paris INSEAD Business School, Erin Meyer explains that this unawareness of cultural disparities happens because people react to everything from their cultural perspective and assume that all controversy and misunderstanding are rooted in personality.

When an American and a Chinese Businessman Meet

In “The Cultural Map”, Meyer tells us a few anecdotes from the time she spent doing research for this book. She explains the conduct of a business meeting she held with a Chinese client. As she goes through her notes for three full hours, Meyer asks herself why her client isn’t reacting nor jumping in to give her some feedback. At the end of the presentation, she confronts him about it, and it turns out that the Chinese client was not stereotypically reserved, as she had thought. On the contrary, he was waiting, out of courtesy, for her to give him the floor.

As it turned out, it was all a cultural misunderstanding based on insufficient knowledge, on both parties, of the other cultural customs.

A matter of Time

Another crucial factor to bear in mind when conducting business with a foreign businessperson is the concept of time. In his book “Understanding Cultural Differences”, the American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, Edward T. Hall, shows two time systems important in international business: monochronic and polychronic time. The first is typical of countries such as the USA and Northern European countries (Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Northern France), and it’s characterized by the division of time in specific, scheduled tasks, carried out consecutively. The second, as you can imagine, is the exact opposite. Polychronic countries, such as Southern European countries (Italy, Spain, Southern France) and Latin American countries, have a more dynamic concept of time, doing multiple things at once. But differences don’t stop there. While monochronic people are committed to the job and take deadlines and schedules seriously, polychronic people tend to consider these as minor, giving more importance to people and human relationships. Another difference lies in the constant change of plans of countries like Italy and Spain, which might be a problem when doing business with a Swiss or a German, who adhere devotedly to the schedule.

Time is also an important source to be considered when planning a meeting, even an online one. For example, it’s best to be aware of the different time zones when arranging a meeting with a client overseas and whose time difference is eight hours. You surely wouldn’t want to wake them up in the middle of the night to try to sell them your product! 

Another thing you wouldn’t want to do is scheduling your meeting too early – or too late! The French, for instance, tend to welcome the client even with a very short notice and will be happy to work together. On the other hand, Americans associate a short notice to a less important meeting than one scheduled months in advance.

Should we be aware of cultural customs?

In conclusion, whether we are aware of it or not, subtle differences in cultural customs can have a tremendous impact on how we get the job done. As small as they might seem, these differences can still frustrate your foreign clients as much as they can frustrate you when you don’t get your feedback right away, or when others don’t let you express your ideas during a presentation. 

In the globalized world we live in, cultural customs are a reality and it’s our job to educate ourselves in order to avoid misunderstanding, needless conflict, and ultimate failure.