President of Pennsylvania-based Getting Through Customs, Terri Morrison started the first book of her bestselling "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands" series in 1994. Since then, she has penned 10 different titles in addition to developing the "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands" digital database for corporate, government, and nonprofit entities. Morrison also frequently speaks on intercultural communications and will be presenting a session titled "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: Communicating Across Cultures" at EXHIBITORLIVE in Last Vegas next February.
"When in Rome …" starts an old adage about how to behave when you're far from home. But what if you have no idea what Romans do? For the 55 percent of companies currently exhibiting outside the United States and the 70 percent that plan to explore exhibiting in global markets in the next few years, it's not just a rhetorical question, but an imperative.
Terri Morrison understands the dangers and downsides of not knowing traditional customs and etiquette – both for exhibitors taking part in international shows and those participating in domestic events that attract ethnically diverse audiences. President of Getting Through Customs and author or co-author of six books in the "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands" series, Morrison explains cultural tips for doing business overseas with the expertise of an anthropologist and the precision of a United Nations translator. Here she expands on those topics and more, including why you always accept an invitation to a meal in Brazil, why negotiations with Russians rarely result in compromise, and why you shouldn't mention Winnie the Pooh in China.
EXHIBITOR Magazine: Exhibit managers participate in trade shows held throughout the world. Is it essential they research each individual country and culture, or are there regional tips that suffice as a crash course?
Just saying you're going to exhibit in Asia could mean any of 48 countries. And the internal cultural variations in countries like China, India, and Indonesia are vast. Research is not merely important. It is indispensable to your objectives.
Take just one cultural characteristic: the long- or short-term orientations toward time. The variation is huge. If you present a deeply involved, long-term plan to Filipino prospects, they may consider it onerous and unrealistic. You would have greater success by breaking your project down into manageable sections.
However, if you listen to the billionaires in China, they often talk about 100-year plans. And the long-term, family-owned business model is so important in Japan that owners literally adopt the CEOs of their companies to protect the future of the family firm, as is the case at Kikkoman Corp., Suzuki Motor Corp., and Toyota Motor Corp.
EM: In what ways do U.S. exhibitors typically clash with other cultures?
One potential rift that often impacts international business is between what are known are monochronic and polychronic cultures. Monochronic cultures, such as the United Sates, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, and Northern Europe consider time a precious commodity. People arrive on time, like to save time, and do one thing at a time until a task is complete. If you resolve one aspect of a contract, you don't expect to go back and renegotiate.
If you were to show up very early for an appointment in a German booth and the person you are scheduled to meet with is on the phone, he or she may make brief eye contact but will focus on the call until that matter is resolved. Last-minute surprises, interruptions, or schedule changes don't work well with monochronics.
Polychronic cultures consider time more malleable. They are more than comfortable dealing with multiple projects and issues concurrently, and they value relationships more than schedules. Mediterranean, Latin American, African and Arabic cultures are primarily polychronic. In these environments, a business meeting might start late and feature overlapping conversations, phone calls, or texts. Interruptions are relatively common, and plans can change without serious consequences.
If you were to show up early for an appointment in a Brazilian booth, your contact might not have arrived yet. But if she or he were there and on the phone, she or he would make eye contact, probably move toward you, give you a brief kiss on the cheek, and exchange a word or two while wrapping up the phone call.
"Attendees from transactional cultures prefer informational displays on the periphery. This allows them to avoid spending time making small talk."
EM: In your work, you talk often of transactional versus relationship-based cultures. What are the differences, and how do they impact exhibit marketing?
In transactional cultures like the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and other Northern European countries, trust and credibility are based upon the quality of your product, your reputation, and your price. People obey rules and regulations in these cultures. They stop at stop signs even when no one is around. Everything about a business exchange in a transactional culture is measured in quantitative data with clear financial and legal terms.
In relationship-based cultures, on the other hand, trust and credibility are established by the quality of the relationship. If you understand that, you can approach business much differently. In Mexico, Brazil, China, and Japan, you construct the foundation of a business by building the relationship first. The product is important, of course, but it is secondary to the relationship. That is why in Brazil or South Korea, for example, you should never turn down an invitation to a meal, for it is in that social setting that the business relationship will be built.
When it comes to your booth, attendees from transactional cultures may prefer informational displays on the periphery. That allows them to avoid spending time making small talk with staffers, especially if booth personnel are not particularly well-versed in the technical aspects of the product. They also appreciate a means of downloading your technical data immediately.
For relationship-based cultures, including those in many Asian and Latin American countries, you want to invest more time engaging with individuals face to face. So you may want to provide guests with refreshments (including alcohol) and staff your space with more people than usual because those guests are likely to take part in longer conversations.
EM: Whether cultures are transactional- or relationship-based, what's the best way to build trust with client from other countries?
Do what makes them comfortable. In Japan there is a term, omoiyari, which roughly translates as considerate caring for others, or almost prescient empathy. It carries a very deep, entrenched meaning in Japanese life. For a Japanese audience, then, you would demonstrate omoiyari in your booth having all literature, signage, and presentations available in Japanese.
Another element that factors into omoiyari is giving visitors adequate physical space. Standing 6 to 8 inches away from an attendee can be normal in Brazil or the Middle East – except in the Middle East both parties would need to be of the same gender for this to be acceptable. But in China and Japan, the traditional distance between people should be about 2.5 to 3 feet, which allows room to bow and show respect for the hierarchical structure of their societies.
By the same token, omoiyari can also mean avoiding imagery or content that might be offensive or even taboo. I recently saw a booth with images of adorable dogs all over its exterior – though the product itself wasn't canine related. That imagery would be distasteful in much of the Middle East, where dogs are often considered unclean. Similarly, images of pigs, pork products, or alcohol would be inappropriate in Muslim societies. And any trace of Winnie the Pooh on or in your booth would not win you many fans in China, where the bear has appeared in memes that mock President Xi Jinping. This started when people saw President Xi walking with the much leaner President Obama, and they started posting pictures of the two online, except with Winnie the Pooh in place of Xi and Tigger standing in for Obama. It became a highly taboo topic in China and was that country's most censored image in 2015, according to Global Risk Insights, because the Chinese believe it undermines the dignity of the presidential office.
EM: Let's turn the tables: How do other countries and cultures view Americans?
Different cultures have different views, but most believe that Americans are currently a bit more blunt by comparison, and somewhat lacking in diplomatic skills. Europeans and Asians in particular value diplomacy – an important skill in regions that either have had many wars or have strong hierarchical cultures.
We also do not seem to value our privacy as much as Europeans. We are open and trusting with information that an Austrian would consider confidential. Americans also brainstorm in public all the time, even disagreeing with supervisors in meetings with potential competitors sitting there. That is considered to be openly divisive, disrespectful to your team, and dangerous in many circumstances.
On the whole, we are louder in public than many cultures, we lack knowledge of history or geography – Can you label all 50 states on a map or Canada's 10 provinces and three territories? – and we're generally monolingual.
EM: How might those characteristics affect business negotiations?
Many international executives do substantial research on us, and we often can't even pronounce their names correctly. That gives them an advantage some will consciously use.
When you negotiate with Russians, they may employ chess tactics. Lenin loved to play, and people there used to learn chess in elementary school. It's a military game of strategy and logic, and even if a Russian doesn't play chess, he or she likely learned the tactics during their military or governmental training.
"Different cultures have different views, but most believe Americans are a bit more blunt by comparison."
One of the things chess players look for is a weak link. In your group, it might be a person who publicly disagrees with the boss, brags a lot, or reveals too much information. Russians may target that person, plying him or her with compliments and favors, all while gaining more data. Russians also believe negotiations are a zero-sum game, meaning if they win something, you must lose something. The American belief that negotiations can be win-win strikes them as somewhat infantile.
EM: EXHIBITOR's research shows that 70 percent of exhibit managers are female. What should women be more aware of when doing business overseas or interacting with foreign prospects?
There are very few truly egalitarian countries, so inequality exists across many levels around the world. That said, there are some techniques for ensuring you receive the respect your position demands. A proper introduction by your CEO to the highest-level individual in the target company is helpful. If the senior person is not available to do that, at least make sure that others you supervise in your company defer questions and decisions to you.
I have a personal example. Some years ago, I was heading a presentation with my friend and colleague Hans H.B. Koehler, the former director of the Wharton Export Network at the University of Pennsylvania. Even though I had been clearly positioned as the lead presenter, a group of Germans in the audience peppered Hans with questions in German. After the first question, Hans simply looked over at me and then relayed the question in English. Immediately after that, it happened again. And again, Hans looked at me, translated the question, and asked what I thought.
By the end of the second question, the audience got the point and began addressing me directly with questions in English. His support was key to them recognizing my credibility.
EM: Globalization makes it seem that cultures are homogenizing. The writer Thomas Friedman famously declared that the world is becoming flat, meaning that traditional historical and geographic divisions are increasingly irrelevant to the global marketplace. Do you believe that is true?
I believe that technology gives the illusion of sameness. With the world becoming more connected, we do have access to far more people and ideas, and we do have many common threads. However, once you scratch below the surface of connective technologies, the world is still very much local.
Take speech patterns, for example. A booth staffer's excited description of a new product might be considered too hyped and exaggerated to Germans and Australians, while speaking in a controlled monotone could communicate a lack of interest to Italians and Brazilians. Repeatedly using a person's first name – something many marketers are trained to do in sales meetings – is grating to Finns, Brits, and many other cultures. They consider it pushy, insincere, and obviously manipulative.
Regional marketing practices are still widely varied. In some other nations, like Germany, you cannot juxtapose your product against a competitor's. Advertising in South Africa tends to be very visual because there are so many languages. Consequently, exhibitors at a South African show would be wise to invest in pictorial graphics to tell their brand or product stories. In predominantly Islamic cultures, including the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Indonesia, there are laws against depicting a man and a woman alone together in an ad – regulations that also apply to trade show exhibits.
In Saudi Arabia, you would never use the flag in any advertisement or promotional item because the Arabic inscription on it is the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, which includes Allah's name. Many companies, organizations, and countries have inadvertently broken this taboo, such as the time the American military tossed soccer balls out of a helicopter in Afghanistan. The balls were adorned with the flags of countries playing in the World Cup, and Saudi Arabia's flag was included. That was doubly unfortunate, because not only was Allah's name on a promotional item, but also the toy is kicked with one's foot, which is considered unclean in much of the world. My point is this: Ignorance is no excuse. Wherever you go in the world, it helps to know the local customs – for everyone's benefit.E
Author and speaker Terri Morrison shares five country-specific, conversational icebreakers that won't get lost in translation.
United Arab Emirates
Many Emiratis are well-traveled and have studied at elite American or European universities. Inquiring about their educational experiences and the countries where they studied is a good way to share viewpoints.
To cement your relationship with a Chinese counterpart, one of your preliminary questions should demonstrate that you share a common interest: "Do I understand correctly that you are a fan of calligraphy/Yao Ming/country music/etc.? So am I!"
Your Indian associate may begin the meeting with inquiries into your journey, your health, and your family. You should be ready with gracious answers and reciprocate with questions about your prospect's favorite hobbies, travels, sports, and so forth.
Italians are exceedingly aware of fashionable attire and appreciate la bella figura (i.e., a refined, beautiful image). They have a discerning sense of style and will recognize brand names. So in a way, your first icebreaker is your choice of clothing.
In general, you will be introduced to senior executives by a third party. Learn the Japanese phrase for "Pleased to meet you," which is doozo yoroshiku (doh-oh-zoh yo-row-she-coo). Then express appreciation for the executive's time and the opportunity to meet.
Learn more about how cultural differences can – and should – impact your international exhibiting endeavors during Terri Morrison's session at EXHIBITORLIVE: Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: Communicating Across Cultures. For more information, visit www.ExhibitorLive.com.