Vegemite, meet natto, and other global business culture clashes

For those doing business in foreign lands, heeding cultural nuances can save you landing in very hot water

From taking a communal bath in Japan to sipping on fermented mare’s milk in Mongolia, getting a business deal over the line can involve some tricky cultural navigation.

By Michael Gebicki

You’re in Japan, you’ve just hosted a dinner for the corporate executives you’re wooing, you’ve handled the chopsticks like a praying mantis, sat cross-legged on a tatami mat for the past two hours, remembered to fill your new friends’ sake glasses in order of seniority while ignoring your own, and you’re getting along famously. Now comes your baptism by fire. 

The senior member of the Japanese team just invited you to take a bath with them. It’s a classic gotcha moment. Traditional Japanese baths are communal affairs, segregated between the sexes, and they involve strict protocols and taboos. Get it wrong and you will forever be known as “that guy who left soap in the bathwater”. Get it right and you’ll probably be doing business for a long time to come.

"If you see something on the breakfast table that looks like axle grease, that’s Vegemite.”

Dealing with the cross-cultural nuances of doing business in another country calls for a nimble mind and the antennae of a diplomat.

Brazilians have an up-close-and-personal conversational style that can feel like an invasion of your personal space to people from many other cultures; Russians might keep you waiting for an hour or more after the appointed time, show up without an apology and wring your hand with an iron grip; and never refuse an offer of tea in an Arab country.

Turks can be warm and hospitable once the ice is broken. At follow-up meetings, a cordial man-to-man business relationship might involve a bear hug with a slap on the back and close cheek contact. Not just one cheek but both sides of the face, and since Turkish men are often whiskery, this might not be a gentle rub.

In South Korea, China and most other parts of Asia, such close contact between business associates would be unthinkable.

Australians are not without their quirks and sensitivities. Nix the “Down Under” references, and don’t mention anything about convict origins.

If Aussies start calling you “mate” pretty much from the get-go, rest assured you’re on the way to winning them over. If they offer to take you to a barbie, don’t be alarmed: it has nothing to do with dolls and everything to do with the casual pursuit of eating charred meat and drinking beer (win friends by bringing along a six pack of beer).

“Footy” is Australian Rules Football, which is classed as a religion in Melbourne, and you’d better know something about it if you’re there on a Monday between April and September. If you see something on the breakfast table that looks like axle grease, that’s Vegemite. Whatever you do, don’t touch it.

Numbers are tricky the world over, whether it’s people seated in a meeting room or the number of courses served at a banquet. While you might feel a twinge of apprehension if you were allocated room 1313, for an Italian 13 is a lucky number; it’s 17 that’s shunned.

Some Chinese are acutely sensitive to the negative association that some numbers convey. Tales are still told of the foreign CFO who organised a dinner for four at the exclusive China Club in Beijing. When the two Chinese guests showed up, they refused to sit until a colleague was summoned to join them, since the number “four” in Mandarin sounds close to the word for death.

For the hosts, there is also the matter of trial by fire, the temptation to see just what the other side is made of. In an early age, this might have involved jousting or all-in wrestling, but in the more polite corporate climate of the modern era, the action is more likely to revolve around the dinner table.

In Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and any of the other former Soviet states, this can take the form of a succession of vodka toasts, with the high probability of a nuclear hangover for the uninitiated the next morning.

In other parts, it might involve sitting down for a meal with your foreign business contacts, a sure sign that things are advancing but also an opportunity to test the stamina of the foreign guest with a culinary challenge. Doing business in Mongolia might involve a cup or two of fermented mare’s milk, the drink of choice for Genghis Khan and his horsemen. And better keep a straight face while you down it and smack your lips afterwards, since a grimace could send the wrong message. A traditional meal might well include boodog, a marmot or goat roasted from the inside with hot stones placed in the stomach cavity. The outer hair is singed off using a blowtorch and it’s not a pretty sight.

“In Kazakhstan, this can take the form of a succession of vodka toasts, with the high probability of a nuclear hangover the next morning.”

Every business traveller knows about Korea’s kimchi, the fiery fermented vegetable dish and national addiction, while an after-hours meeting in Japan might involve a sinister product that goes by the name of natto. Made from fermented soybeans, natto consists of small brown pellets floating in a gooey paste that forms strings as you try to hoist it into your mouth. The smell is distinctive, the taste not easily forgotten. Natto is the Vegemite of Japan. You don’t have to be born there to like it, but unless you were, chances are you won’t.

In Kazakhstan, table manners are rather informal. If a boiled sheep’s head lands on your plate – served by a traditional-minded host – you’re an honoured guest. Feel free to rip into it with your hands and you’ll demonstrate your appreciation for the time-honoured traditions of the Kazakh table.

The exchange of gifts demonstrates a budding relationship between foreign business partners, but whatever is inside the wrapping paper, express nothing less than surprise and delight. Although visitors to China are advised against giving clocks since they carry the suggestion of time running out, the Chinese themselves have no such compunctions.

After spending many months in China working on agricultural projects, a CSIRO agronomist was given a lavish send-off at a banquet and presented with a large plastic Garfield wall clock, complete with a tail swishing to and fro in time with the seconds.

While those on the receiving end might be tempted to dispose of unwanted gifts, take care. In the UAE, a visiting hotel executive was presented with an elaborately worked and fierce-looking silver dagger, an essential component of any Omani male’s wardrobe. Fearing a starring role on the Border Security TV show on his return to Australia, the executive abandoned the dagger in his hotel room, but a thoughtful staffer tracked him down at the airport and made a great show of reuniting him with his gift – in front of the local business contacts who’d come to see him off.

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November 2015
November 2015

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