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How to communicate successfully in foreign markets: truisms, prejudices and practical tips

Mutual trust is often the real key to successful communication – like how you can understand a friend of many years without exchanging many words. When communicating with international business people, this is an ambitious but desirable goal. To do so, it is important to avoid pitfalls that can seriously disrupt intercultural communication. That’s why in this article, we offer tips on building trust and smooth communication across borders.

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Communication with and without words

Intercultural communication is more than just the right choice of words. Studies show that nonverbal communication is at least as important. This can already begin when you arrive at the meeting point: are you arriving in a limousine or do you use public transport? If there are certain standards in a country, then any deviation from them is already a statement – even if that’s not your intention because you feel that your behavior is the most normal in the world.

Careful preparation is crucial

If you are coming into contact with a foreign culture on business for the first time, it makes sense to do research in advance. This helps to avoid misinterpretation and – in the worst case – snubbing your counterpart. Misunderstandings that would make for amusing holiday anecdotes in private can have serious business consequences.

How deep this engagement with the foreign culture should be depends on the importance of the business partnership. If it is a one-off or sporadic contact, you can focus on studying the most important dos and don’ts, which give clear instructions for specific situations, such as how to greet your counterpart or what topics are best avoided in informal conversation.

Cultural values and norms

Behavioral tips often target the visible or explicit characteristics of a culture, such as language or rituals. Implicit characteristics, on the other hand, lie deeper into the realm of underlying values, norms and assumptions. Knowing them can be helpful if you are entering into a closer business partnership, so that you know and understand the real motivations of your partners. This allows you to build trust, and makes the behavior of the other person predictable.

Openness, flexibility and empathy

Since a foreign culture cannot be understood in a hurry, it helps to generally arm oneself with curiosity, openness, flexibility and a good dash of humor. You will most likely not be completely successful in anticipating or even avoiding all blunders. But those who are attentive and flexible can usually quickly clear up minor misunderstandings.

Most cultures appreciate it when interest and empathy is shown through active listening. The challenge is to find the right method. Pay attention to your counterpart and see how they behave and show empathy.

General principles

In general, it is a good idea to mirror the behavior of the other person. This should only be avoided if there is an imbalance, for example due to a cultural hierarchy gap or gender inequality.

Many cultures, in contrast to European culture, cultivate an indirect style of communication; they do not say exactly what they mean. A “no” is avoided, while a “yes” does not necessarily indicate agreement. Individuals may be treated unequally depending on their position and ethical rules may be adjusted accordingly. The distinct individualism of Western cultures is also alien to other countries, where the collective is first and foremost.

It is also important to take the various behavioral tips with a grain of salt. It may well be that your counterpart has also learned about the dos and don’ts for dealing with Swiss people and is now trying to imitate them.

Common pitfalls

Of course, it is very difficult to establish general rules of conduct that apply globally. In our country-specific business travel guides, you will find the most important dos and don’ts when it comes to dealing with local business people. This is why we limit ourselves here to listing a few situations where, according to experience, misunderstandings often arise:

  • Titles and greetings: As you know, the first impression counts. That’s why it’s important to express the right level of courtesy, closeness and formality right from the first time you’re greeting someone, whether in an email or in person.
  • Sense of time: In many countries, punctuality is not taken as seriously as in Switzerland, and business partners can show up for appointments very late. Surprisingly, however, the reputation of the punctual Swiss has become widespread. They will therefore be less forgiven for being late.
  • Clothing: It is better to be slightly overdressed than the other way around, because a lack of formality can be seen as disrespectful.
  • Business lunches: Since the term “business lunch” can indicate a variety of formats, it is best to ask briefly what is on the agenda and what is expected of you. If you are the inviter, please also inform your business partners about this.
  • Topics for small talk: As varied as the customs here may be, we recommend abstaining from politics and religion and resorting to the weather in case of doubt. Praise about the host country is also almost always welcome.

How to score points

Although the world is becoming increasingly globalized and most international business people know that different customs are practiced depending on the culture, there are still many advantages to be gained by respecting the culture of the other person and being able to participate in one or two rituals. This builds trust and helps you to strengthen personal relationships, without which business is impossible in many cultures.

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