Cross-Cultural Relationship Building

March 10, 2015

As globalization continues to eradicate boundaries between businesses, competition accrues and the need to differentiate service offerings becomes increasingly important. The potential success of business partnerships are no longer simply evaluated by the quantitative value associated to the offering, but by the relationship built around the offered service. That being said, understanding the stages of relationship building are vital and must be kept top of mind from the first meeting onwards. For business travelers, there has never been a more important time to truly understand the culture and norms of our clients around the world.

That introductory handshake is the first physical interaction with the client, or potential client, and is certainly one of the key moments in a new relationship. Forbes magazine author Carol Kinsey Groman discusses that the first seven seconds when meeting someone are ultimately the most important, as the brain computes thousands of decisions at lightning speed to interoperate the person in question. Therefore, as the business world enters new global markets, understanding the key differences in various cultures is integral to ensuring that those crucial seven seconds contribute to the foundation of a long and prosperous business relationship.

In North America, we’re accustomed to simply looking each other in the eyes and exchanging a firm, but not too firm, handshake over simple small talk to the likes of “how are you?” and “nice to meet you”. However, bring that same custom to another continent and you may not be as well received. For example, in most West African countries, when meeting someone for the first time, it’s common practise to shake hands while going in for a pat on the back. As you step back, hands still interlocked, you hold your fingers and allow them to snap off each other. According to locals, this form of greeting shows comfort and instills comradery from the first meeting. Instead of discussing small talk, it’s completely acceptable and even expected to immediately inquire about family and health, where this might be seen as a more private conversation to us in the US and Canada.

In Asia, the norm is quite contrasted as greetings are much more formal. Presenting your business card with a bow is a standard way to show respect for the recipient. Where we might be used to simply passing over a business card between two fingers, it is important to present the “name card”, as it is commonly referred to in Asia, with two hands – name facing the recipient and easy to read.

In the Middle East, when shaking hands, you’ll find your hands locked for minutes until your initial introductions and some small talk have ended. Assuming you hit it off the first time around, it is not uncommon to hold each other’s shoulders while kissing each cheek side to side on the next meeting.

An increasing number of firms are beginning to emphasize the importance of their employees learning their clients’ culture before stepping into a meeting, sales pitch, etc. They are taking time, training sessions, culture calls, to build a strategic combination of understanding their clients’ needs as well as their cultural norms to further develop their business relationship. World markets have incredible opportunity and understanding the client’s business is certainly essential to forming a partnership. However, it’s the relationships that are developed and fostered that will allow cross cultural businesses to work together for years to come.

By: Jordan de Lima