“Everything I need to know about international business I learned from my mother when I was three years old,” said Lee Boam, assistant professor of organizational behavior and international business at the University of Utah, said recently. "You know what those simple lessons are: be nice, don’t hit, sit with your legs closed and all those other things that mothers teach you when you are 3.”
The occasion was a candid, bicultural panel discussion moderated by Overstock.com CEO Patrick M. Byrne March 11 in Salt Lake City. The panel, which also included three representatives from Hainan Province, China, discussed “The Human Factor in Asian-American Trade: Opportunities, Possibilities and Pitfalls.” Much of the discussion on international business and culture emphasized that, even though we may occasionally misstep when navigating international relations, what matters more is a good faith effort to treat your international associates as you hope they would treat you.
To initiate the conversation, Byrne joked that he was best prepared to contribute to the topic of pitfalls and recounted an embarrassing faux pas he committed while a student in China almost 30 years ago.
While studying in the region, Byrne learned that it was polite to address everyone in Chinese as “comrade.” Friends, classmates, neighbors and people on the street were all “comrades.” However, one day he addressed his teacher as “comrade professor,” and an uncomfortable feeling immediately came over the class. The Chinese revere their teachers so highly that putting them on one’s own level and referring to them as “comrades” is highly inappropriate. The mistake was clearly an innocent one, but it created an uncomfortable situation that Byrne said he wished he could have avoided.
Julie Dawn Anderson, president of XS Global Technologies, a broker of overstock electronic and technological equipment, recalled her own embarrassing experience. Before a dinner meeting with a Chinese delegation in New York City, she learned about the importance of appropriate gift giving in Chinese culture. In particular, she learned the importance of giving better gifts to those of higher rank. For example, the company president should receive the best gift, but the gifts to vice president should still be better than gifts to those of lower rank, and so on.
At the dinner, Anderson presented the gifts she had carefully chosen at Tiffany’s. The lower ranking representatives received very nice bookmarks, and the vice presidents received slightly nicer gifts. The president received what was supposed to be the nicest gift of all an ornate clock. Anderson had no idea that the Chinese never give clocks as a gift because they symbolize death, and she was mortified to learn that giving one was almost like giving a bloody dagger.
When Byrne asked the Chinese panelists, “What is strange about the way Americans do business?” the panelists exchanged glances but, out of respect, were reluctant to comment. Byrne again tried to coax an answer, but admitted, “Perhaps a very direct question like (the one I just asked) is an example of something strange about American business culture.”
Wang Zhen, associate section chief of the International Exchanges Division in the Foreign Affairs Office of Hainan Province, then diplomatically said that one cultural difference can be both a strength and a weakness. She explained that the Chinese admire how Americans work very hard, but perhaps they should place more emphasis on making friends first when doing business.
Anderson said it took her time to understand the practice of building relationships over long periods. After several meetings with a potential foreign business partner, she consulted with a colleague to find out what she was doing wrong, asking, “Why are they not ready to sign a deal, we’ve known each other for a whole six months.”
“Exactly," the colleague replied. "You’ve known each other for only six months.”
Byrne said after adapting to the Chinese way of building strong relationships, he has had a difficult time going back to the American way of doing business.
“All the elements of Overstock.com’s culture that might be considered ‘unusual’ in the United States can be traced back to my experience in China,” said Byrne. For example, he attributes Overstock.com’s flat organizational structure to something he learned in China. “It’s amazing how much everyone can be liberated when people don’t worry about typical hierarchical struggles,” Byrne said.
Boam said Americans are not the only ones who feel pressure to adapt to the customs of our international associates. While in China, he recalled standing up at the close of a meeting to say farewell to his associate. He immediately bowed, but his Chinese counterpart had extended his hand to shake as he assumed Boam would prefer. Then Boam stood to extend a hand while his Chinese counterpart proceeded to bow. This process repeated itself for a moment as they both did what Boam called the Tokyo tango. "They want us to like them as much as we want them to like us,” he said.
When asked about the best way to work through difficulties and disagreements without damaging international relationships, Boam noted that the answer is again much like basic principles we also learn in the United States. Boam said when he was working as the minister counsel for commercial affairs at the American Embassy in Beijing, he constantly helped others to resolve international difficulties. At times, U.S. business people would call Boam demanding that he “get the president of China to fix this problem.” However, as is the case in the United States, it's usually better to deal with problems “at the lowest level possible and with the least acrimony . Escalate very slowly, if you must.”
It all goes back to “the golden rule” he said. If we approach international business -– and all business -– with such an attitude, many problems will resolve themselves or have less negative impact than we fear. All the same, learning as much as possible about international customs and culture will help to avoid many negative situations.