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Opinion: When a bow meets a handshake

On the difficulty — and the costliness — of doing business abroad.

Swiss tourists in China
Two Swiss tourists wearing Chinese-style hats are helped by language students wearing 'China Loves You' T-shirts in Beijing on Aug. 5, 2008. Try as they might, foreigners abroad — especially those conducting business — are prone to cultural faux pas. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — They tied the knot, and now there’s trouble.

Like a marriage, a business relationship is nurtured by good communication. Yet one of the biggest difficulties global companies face these days is the failure to communicate effectively with overseas workers, partners and contractors.

International miscommunciation can be costly — especially with revenues from foreign markets at several large, U.S.-based corporations, such as Coca Cola, Ford, IBM and Exxon-Mobil, exceeding 50 percent.

Companies that simply try to transfer their culture abroad are seldom fully embraced by the people who are making and selling their products. More often they are greeted with rolled eyes, hurt feelings and crossed arms.

This crisis of understanding became evident during a diversity and inclusion conference in Chicago sponsored by The Conference Board, a non-profit consulting group financed by corporations. Diversity officers are like the counselors of the corporation — trying to get workers who find themselves in a marriage of convenience — to make the most of it. But the situations they described just aren’t happy.

One company based in the Midwest that makes plumbing fixtures, and asked not to be named, called its Chinese manufacturers three times and asked them to change some of the processes they were using. The Chinese agreed, but nothing changed. Then the Americans began to have recriminations. Maybe they had been too blunt and maybe the Chinese were trying to save face.

To help them read the tea leaves, companies are hiring experts to teach international insight to their workers. GlobeSmart is an online solution that enables customers to log into its website and learn how to conduct business in 60 countries.

In a test run, users can sample information from three countries. GlobeSmart recommends a different method of resolving conflict for each culture.

In the Netherlands, GlobeSmart suggests addressing conflict in private, not in front of the group.

To settle disputes in the Philippines, the website advises using a “bridge” person as a conflict mediator. “Filipinos abhor direct confrontation. It’s scary to them. You almost never want to be confrontational in a direct way,” wrote one user of the site.

Resolving conflict in Argentina, however, may take intensive face time and diplomacy. GlobeSmart suggests meeting with the parties or subordinates in private first and then meeting with all of the involved parties “to create a mutually agreeable solution.”