Doing Business in Other Countries; the Missing Dimension

Theodore A. Klein, Jr.

Several years ago I attended a lecture in San Antonio, Texas by a Mexican national who was an expert on franchises within his country. The lecture was conducted in Spanish and simultaneous interpreting was provided through earphones for the benefit of non-Spanish speakers. The lecture was very-well presented and was upbeat on franchise opportunities available for foreign business persons interested in getting started in Mexico. After the lecture, questions were invited from the audience, which consisted mostly of persons interested in franchising. The first few questions, asked in either Spanish or English, were immediately and clearly answered by the speaker, who remained positive, articulate and well informed.

Somewhere around the sixth or seventh question, a gentleman rose and asked a question that didn't get such a clear response. We will call him "A" and the speaker "B." Although I didn't record what happened, I'm recreating in essence what actually occurred:

A: I'm thinking of starting a franchise in the Acapulco area. If I do it, I would like to buy some property there. Has the Mexican Government changed its long-standing policy of not permitting foreigners to own property in the vicinity of the coasts?

B: The present Mexican Government welcomes franchises and has become much more flexible than in the past regarding foreign capitol and expertise. You will enjoy many opportunities in the Acapulco area.

A: I'm not sure my question was clear. If I start a franchise near the coast, may I own property there?

B: Franchises are welcome anywhere in Mexico. There are opportunities for all parties involved and the future shows great potential for profits for all, both the U.S. American franchise companies and their Mexican partners.

The U.S. businessman rephrased the question one more time and continued to get an "evasive" answer. By this time, both parties were uneasy. Facial expressions and body language indicated that the Mexican felt overwhelmed and invaded. The U.S. businessman felt that the man,either didn't understand his question, didn't have a competent interpreter, or was lying. Persons in the audience familiar with both the U.S. and Mexican cultures felt uneasy and sorry for both of them. After one more try and one more unsatisfactory response, both parties quit. There was a sense of frustration and embarrassment on both sides.

What happened? Was it a language problem? Not really. Both sides were of good will to start with. The interpreter was competent and used all of the "right" words. However, communication was woefully incomplete.

What we have here is a completely different communication style that goes beyond language. This is why it is possible to become very competent in a foreign language and still not get along in countries where that language is spoken. What the Mexican gentleman was REALLY saying was-

1: I don't really know! (However in my culture, if I change the subject, that communicates what I'm telling you and neither one of us ends up embarrassed in public about my ignorance on this subject.)

or 2: No, the government still forbids foreigners from owning property within 50 miles of our coast. (However, I don't want to be rude and personally give you the bad news.)

or 3: Actually, there are ways to beat the system if you know the right people. (However, we certainly can't talk about it in our present situation in front of all of these people.

2. The North American Free Trade Agreement has removed many technical barriers and will most likely result in numerous opportunities for participation on both sides of our mutual borders with Canada and Mexico. However, it will NOT enhance communication until ALL PARTIES take the time to realize that they operate with very different culture-bound "rules." If participants realize this, and do what they can to make adjustments to each other, the future can be very successful personally and in business negotiations.

Since 1975 I have been doing informal research on how different cultures perceive U.S. Americans and how we perceive others. How we perceive another culture is just as important as how others ARE. Perceptions, accurate or not, determine how peoples deal with each other.

A fairly common U.S. American perception of Mexicans is that they are "dishonest and evasive." Based on the preceding incident, it is fairly easy to see how that conclusion is reached. Many Mexicans perceive U.S. Americans as "arrogant, insensitive to other persons' ways of doing things and pushy." Again based on the preceding incident, that is a rational enough conclusion. The reality is that we are dealing with two different value systems and that neither style of communication is right or wrong. Both persons from both cultures reacted "normally" to the situation according to the unwritten dictates of their systems.

In Mexico, saving one's own dignity, particularly in a public situation, is of prime importance and the type of "evasion" described is understood and respected by persons from within the system. Another Mexican would have changed the subject in response to indirect answers.

U.S. Americans take great pride in their "directness" and feel that anything less is either "a lie" or "beating around the bush." On a worldwide basis, U.S. American directness is actually more unusual than the "soft-landing" approach of Mexicans. In places as diverse as Japan and the Middle East, "let me think about it" as a response to a request, is a very polite way to say "no." If this response is not understood by the U.S. American visitor or negotiator, and the request is repeated, negative perceptions occur on both sides. We become the "ugly American" and others become "inscrutable", "sneaky," or "wimps."

What can be done to prevent incidents like the above from getting in the way of persons understanding each other? The first rule is to not assume that doing business in and living in other countries will be easy, because of the following two misconceptions:

"All peoples are really the same." They're not and different is O.K.

"The whole world is starting to do business just like us." That's also not true. We have had enormous impact in many places, but most humans still behave the way they do as members of the cultural community to which they belong.

The term "culture," in the anthropological, rather than the aesthetic sense, has been described as "the personality of a group of persons with a common history, value system and boundaries." Until one learns to deal with and understand the differences between the group from which we come, and the group we are dealing with, there is little chance for successful negotiation in business or interpersonally. We do NOT have to imitate our clients to do business with them. However, we are obliged to make every effort to understand their communication processes and adjust accordingly. If not we are programmed for failure.

Companies that have a consistent track record of successful business dealings in other countries are frequently those that are aware of cultural barriers and are doing something about it through employee training programs for staff who are doing business in, or living in other countries. Some companies are starting to provide both cross-cultural and language training for their staffs and families of persons going overseas. It is time and money well spent. It is much more cost effective to send persons who are prepared for total change and have the resources to face it, than to risk the embarrassments of potential failure. If NAFTA is to succeed, both sides have a lot to learn about each other.

Language teachers are going to have to spend a great deal of time communicating cultural, as well as language differences.