Cultural Imperatives, Electives and Exclusives

Doing international business requires adaptation. No company will be successful if it tries to go international without adapting. Some American companies get angry about adaptation. Why do we have to be the ones to adapt? Why can’t they adapt to us? The truth is, most companies operating globally speak English, so they are already doing more than their fair share to adapt to us. No one is asking you to renounce your American culture completely take on the culture of the company you are doing business with, but make sure you know what customs you need to adhere to and what to abstain from. There are three groups of business customs that you should be aware of: cultural imperatives, cultural electives, and cultural exclusives.

Cultural imperatives are customs that you must conform to if you want to be successful. An example of a cultural imperative is relationship building. In many Asian countries such as China and Japan and Latin American countries, business understand the importance of building a relationship.  Businesspeople do not do business with companies, they do business with people. If you want to do business in these countries, it is a cultural imperative to spend time building that relationship before you even bring up business. Never underestimate the importance of building trust with your business partners. It will make or break a deal. Another cultural imperative for Asian countries is that you can’t cause someone to lose face. Never raise your voice or correct someone in public. If you aren’t aware of these cultural imperatives you will fail on your business venture.

Cultural electives are customs that you may conform to, but you don’t have to. There are many things in different cultures that can make you feel uncomfortable.  Be aware of what the cultural customs are so you won’t be surprised and you know how to politely decline. In the Czech Republic, liqueur is offered at the start of business meetings, even if it is 8 in the morning. It is to build friendship and trust, so politely accept and take a ceremonial sip. Arabs will offer coffee as a way to signal friendship, so you should also accept it even if you don’t intend to drink it. Most customs fall into the cultural elective category.

Cultural exclusives are customs that are only for locals. You will break a deal if you try to partake in these customs. If you are a Christian, don’t go to the Middle East and attempt to act like a Muslim because that is insulting their religion. Similarly, never joke about a country’s politics or criticize their customs. Just like here, you can joke about your own family, but if someone else does you’ll want to fight them. Be careful with cultural exclusives.

Have you encountered any problems with cultural imperatives, electives or exclusives while doing business abroad?


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