From the May 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

It's your first big trip abroad to meet potential partners in Indonesia. After settling in, they throw a dinner party in your honor. At one point during the festivities, they offer you the gratuitous fish eye (for your consumption, of course). Now, be honest: Did their gift catch you off guard?

It shouldn't have, especially since this scenario is harmonious with Indonesian culture. And as any entrepreneur who's conducted overseas meetings can tell you, the only way to prevail in the initial face-to-face meetings with potential partners is to acquire--and demonstrate--a thorough understanding of their culture. If you do your homework, chances are you can minimize the surprises and maximize the results.

Why are initial meetings so critical? "Because so many cultures are relationship-oriented rather than task-oriented," explains Julia A. Sloan, founder of conflict mediation and intercultural training firm Sloan International in New York City. "And when you're going into a relationship-oriented culture, people simply can't hear what you have to share with them in terms of business until they get to know you as a person."

That's advice Steve Snyder followed when he took his firm international. The founder of 21st Century Laboratories Inc. in Tempe, Arizona, was the recipient of the honorary fish eye mentioned above. But his numerous in-person meetings have certainly paid off: Today he exports vitamin supplements to more than 40 countries worldwide.

"It's not difficult," says Snyder of meeting preparation. "It's just being aware of the surroundings you're in and not being ignorant."

That means realizing ahead of time that in Asia, your business dealings will not lead to a concrete resolution right away. You also need to know how to present your business card appropriately and to bring a gift to your host when it's expected. It means understanding why it's important to tone down the American traits that can interfere with progress in international meetings, such as aggressiveness, impatience and frequently interrupting to get your point across.

Says Sloan, "A lot of times I find that problems come from the assumption that the American way of doing business is a universal notion, when in fact, it's not."

For more on taking your business international, see "Going The Distance".

Do The Right Thing

According to Hilka Klinkenberg, founder of Etiquette International in New York City, less than 25 percent of U.S. business ventures abroad are successful. "A lot of that is because Americans don't do their homework or because they think the rest of the world should do business the way they do business," she says.

To avoid making costly mistakes in overseas meetings, Klinkenberg offers the following tips:

  • Build a relationship before you get down to business. "That entails making small talk and getting to know one another without [immediately] getting into business discussions," she says.
  • Don't impose time limits. Says Klinkenberg, "Keep [the meeting] as open as possible, because it adds strength to your negotiating position."
  • Do your research. Learn at least a few pointers and facts about the country; it shows you respect your potential partners' cultural heritage. Also, get comfortable with the basic words in their language.
  • Bring your own interpreter. If they provide the interpreter, warns Klinkenberg, "the interpreter is going to have the other person's intentions at heart, not yours."
  • Understand body language. "People think silent language is universal--it's not," she says.
  • Dress with respect and authority.

Contact Sources

21st Century Laboratories Inc., http://www.21stcenturyvitamins.com

Etiquette International, (212) 628-7209, hilka@etiquetteintl.com

Sloan International, (212) 362-9455, jas127@columbia.edu