Tuesday 21 May 2019

Gina London: Culture jam: making that extra effort on the road

'I'm on a whistle-stop tour in Australia and New Zealand over the next couple of weeks - and today I want to emphasise how important it is to purposefully mix business with pleasure.' Stock image
'I'm on a whistle-stop tour in Australia and New Zealand over the next couple of weeks - and today I want to emphasise how important it is to purposefully mix business with pleasure.' Stock image

Gina London

'It's one of the seven natural wonders of the world, bigger than the great wall of China, and it's even visible from space," my enthusiastic guide Hayley said.

A marine biologist and part of the crew of Quicksilver Cruises, which lead excursions to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Hayley proudly revealed the anemone hiding places of Nemo-like clown fish, touched an 80-year-old giant clam to make its hinge shut, and hilariously teased a white damselfish as part of our advanced snorkel tour.

The pleasure she displayed in sharing the magnificent coral ecosystem with us was as deep and clear as the water we swam in.

I'm on a whistle-stop tour in Australia and New Zealand over the next couple of weeks - and today I want to emphasise how important it is to purposefully mix business with pleasure. Not simply for selfish relaxation or entertainment reasons, but because your foreign hosts will likely be as delighted as Hayley was to showcase their own countries.

International travel is part of many business professionals' lives. And now that Irish companies are no longer in denial that Brexit is going to happen and flights are becoming more comfortable and convenient - like Cathay Pacific's launch earlier this month of the first direct flights to Hong Kong - places like Asia and Australia and elsewhere offer more and more opportunities to scale and grow than the familiar UK.

If you're going to invest time to travel to another country to consider expanding your business, you need to invest energy into learning as much as you can about your target country as well. Don't just research online. I find plenty of stilted, dated or plain incorrect information on websites. Also ask people you trust who have already travelled to the area. I'm sure the friendly folks at Enterprise Ireland have experts on the ground who have been there and done that.

In a global marketplace, it makes sense to get a sense of the people and communities in which you may be serving, so examine traditions, customs, fashion, art. There are so many aspects of a region's culture, you may not know where to start. So, let's start at the beginning.

1 Greetings: Learn the proper way to greet someone. This may range from shaking hands, embracing with a firm back pat, air kissing cheeks one, two or sometimes even three times, or slightly bowing toward the other person while you put your hands together as if in prayer. Remember, you're the guest. Your host's country's traditional greeting style is the one that matters.

2 Business cards: Even if you're digitising the cards you receive and not hanging on to the paper, it's still important for you to understand there may be a protocol about the way you hand out and accept business cards in the first place.

In many Asian countries, for instance, the Western practice of taking a card from someone in a rushed manner and tossing it into your handbag or pocket is not polite. It's preferred that the card exchange becomes a little ceremony. Pinch your card on one or even better two corners making sure the print is properly directed toward the receiver. Extend it toward the other person and then take the card offered to you. Look down and take time to actually read through it. Afterward, look up, give a slight nod and smile to indicate you understand. Bonus points if you ask a question or make a comment related to the card.

3 Gift giving: As much as your host may take pride in sharing their country with you, you may also want to consider bringing a bit of your home country to them. Some countries, such as Japan, Costa Rica or Poland, appreciate thoughtful gifts. But others, such as Malaysia or Paraguay, are wary of accepting gifts, especially during initial meetings, as they don't want them to be considered as bribes. One could help you, the other hurt you. Do your homework.

4 Celebrations and events: A great opportunity to bond with international business prospects is over meals, sporting events or city festivals. Even if you're not normally a fan of spicy food, don't know the first thing about cricket, or have never been to Carnivale before, I encourage you to embrace sharing a new cultural experience with your hosts. Draw the line depending on your personal convictions, of course. For instance, I'll happily attend a cricket match or eat most spicy food - but you'll never get me to eat spicy crickets.

5 Language: If you are the CEO or sending a high-level delegation to the other country, consider putting up a special section on your website or create a LinkedIn group page dedicated to your trip. Words of welcome in the host's language will show respect and help accelerate rapport building with the people you meet in your next international business meeting.

You need to go beyond learning how to order a beer in the other language. Speak a few words in your host's native tongue. Your prospective business partners will appreciate the effort. Remember, if you want to be interesting, you have to take interest.

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