Leadership and International Business Culture and Etiquette:  We speak the same language, right?

By Henrik Wiberg - Director of Consulting Services
May 2019

The world has gotten a lot smaller than it used to be, figuratively speaking of course, because travel and communication have gotten so much better and affordable during the last decade. More people than ever travel to other countries for both business and leisure and more and more companies are finding it essential to expand operations or take advantage of other benefits of doing business beyond their home country. That said, many companies make the mistake of assuming that success at home will easily translate to success abroad. Having lived and worked for large corporations in several countries, I have come across some interesting, funny, and downright risky business situations over the years. I will share a few insights below to highlight why when working across borders (and oceans) it is so important to have partners and employees with international experience.

In most cases, language differences in countries other than your own will prompt a decision to partner with professionals or employ someone who speaks the language and, preferably, originates from that foreign country. Even with these measures, companies tend to underestimate the complexity and time line to enter a new market. Solid research, mapping the competitive landscape, and learning the purchase patterns are just a few things on your project list. Problems often arise when one assumes that speaking a common language is enough.

In Europe and Asia
I am originally from Sweden, so I’ll begin with some insight on my home region. The Scandinavian way of working is non-hierarchical and autonomous. Employees typically agree on deliverables and reporting points or seek advice from their supervisor. Micromanagement is rare and frowned upon. Scandinavia includes the countries Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland.

  • Danes will tell you directly to stay out of their business. They are traders, negotiators, and pretty vocal. When you have concluded a negotiation and are about to sign a contract, they may start negotiating again. After a negotiation they could smile agreeably and leave the meeting to happily do what they think is right.
  • Finns are known for their “Sisu” or just getting things done, no fuss or discussion.
  • Norwegians are usually very optimistic and amicable people. In fact, it is difficult to be annoyed with them ever. That is, until they leave the office at 4 pm to go to their cabins for skiing or hiking.
  • Swedes are typically more passive aggressive until they reach their boiling point.

While Scandinavian countries are very similar on the surface, with high taxes, high living standards, free schools, and free healthcare, there are significant differences between the countries that emanate from years back. They all think Swedes are excessively equal, politically correct, and always discussing things in meetings. The purpose of the meetings is to seek consensus on decisions so that everyone (and I do mean EVERYONE) has their say. This can be a tedious process and decisions tend to take much more time in Swedish companies. Working with Swedish companies takes patience. All Swedes will collectively work in accordance with the decision. Swedes are rarely boastful of their accomplishments.

Swedes would happily extend their work scope to achieve the overall task, interacting with others and taking initiative, all in the spirit of collective achievement. Swedes do not talk about what they just achieved, even if they just helped an important customer or came up with a new algorithm which saved weeks in a product launch. If they do, it could be perceived as boasting and they will soon be set straight by their coworkers or friends. You see, that kind of behavior would be a violation of The Law of Jante, an unwritten law, which is a sociological code of conduct.

Try to have a German produce something for you without proper product requirements, customer segment specifications, detailed budget and delivery break-down. You are in for a ride. Germans are generally structured, hierarchical, educated, and conscientious. It takes time to get to know a German, but when you do, you have a friend for life.

In addition to enjoying food and wine, the French are sticklers for detailed reports and follow-up. They can be as passionate about their careers and achieving objectives as they are about their wines. Incidentally, if change is needed in a French company involving reassignment or layoffs, one must prepare extremely well for the French labor laws and powerful unions.

Doing business in Asia deserves a chapter of its own because there are long standing traditions and many unspoken rules in Asian countries. China, Japan, and South Korea, with their enormous economies, are business targets to the rest of the world. It is important to be courteous and to hand over your business card respectfully. Make sure no one loses face in a negotiation. After an initial meeting, sharing a meal is the proper etiquette to be taken seriously.

In the United States
When Americans ask how you are doing, you should not tell them how you stayed up all night because your son had the flu. Americans are courteous and “How are you” is a phrase, just like saying “Hello” or “Good morning.” Don’t send an email to an American requesting a report by tomorrow without a friendly opening statement. Including a reason for the request and/or a quick call to give a heads up is essential. If someone bumps into you or accidentally gets in your way, most Americans say, “I’m sorry.” Not doing so is perceived as rude. Customer service is generally much better than in Europe and, should you be unhappy with your product or meal, you can simply return it. And yes, you tip generously for good service knowing that your waiter probably has a very low base salary.

Americans appreciate clear objectives, specific responsibilities, and deliverables. Keeping ones superior well-informed and in agreement is a good and necessary way of operating in the United States. Use well-organized written agendas for all meetings. Provide and adhere to schedules. Most Americans are hard-working and are chasing their dreams. U.S. labor laws are generally more flexible than in other parts of the world, making it easier for companies to hire and fire. Smart and hard-working employees can quickly advance. It is imperative to encourage and incentivize U.S employees, not only control them. At-will employment agreements are less common in European countries, as is hourly employment and commission only compensation.

 All of the successful companies and people I have encountered had a few things in common when entering a new market or taking over a foreign business:

  1. Research. Get your facts and numbers straight prior to even making the decision to expand or acquire. Ask what people appreciate and dislike in the new country.
  2. Curiosity. It helps if you are genuinely interested, ask questions, and are open to new ideas.
  3. Experience. When working internationally, work with people who either currently (or previously) live and work in other countries.
  4. Patience. Moving into a new country or acquiring and integrating a new company takes more time than you initially anticipate. Adjust your expectations and timeline. To quote Warren Buffett, “You can´t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant. Some things just take time.”
  5. Language. How you express yourself will differentiate how you are perceived and how successful you are, regardless of language and nationality.

The above-mentioned descriptions of people and practices are not intended to be stereotypical, but to highlight cultural differences. By gaining insight into these differences, we will be better equipped to achieve success in foreign lands.

MichaelSilver has a diverse team of highly qualified professionals who were either born in other countries or have significant first-hand international experience. We have helped numerous international businesses successfully establish in the U.S and in other countries. If your company is considering international expansion, please contact Henrik C. Wiberg at +1.847.826.1055 or [email protected] for a complimentary, confidential consultation.

Henrik C. Wiberg, Director or Consulting Services, has more than 20 years of consulting and executive experience in many European countries and the U.S. He has held CEO and other senior management roles in the U.S. and around the world. Those roles include executive positions with all of the big three automotive companies at dealer, national sales company, and manufacturer levels. He has also worked with many companies on a multitude of general business consulting matters.