By Nicole Edry
With today’s technological innovations and inter-connectivity facilitated by the Internet, it is inevitable that in order to truly succeed you need to be at ease on the global stage.
Traveling and doing business in foreign countries is never easy. There is a vast array of cultural barriers, pitfalls, misunderstandings and frustrated efforts that lie along the way.
However, if you can somehow move past all those obstacles, you’re rewarded with an amazing experience and community-building creation.
Each country and collaboration is clearly different, but there are some steps you can take to help ensure success instead of being stymied.
First of all: do your research! This may seem obvious, yet you can never underestimate how important preparation is. And I don’t just mean looking into the host company’s business model and researching their executive staff.
I mean learning about their culture, their traditions, their dreams, their ways. It may affect your planning to a degree you’d be surprised by.
For example, Spain is populated by an incredibly vibrant, passionate people who strongly believe in the power of the siesta. Come midday, there’s a mandatory 2-hour window where everything shuts down. Every store, every cafe, every tapas bar, every post office… you get the idea.
Some places it’s 1pm-3pm, others it’s 3pm-5pm. Combine that with the fact that going out to lunch is usually a minimum 2-hour venture, it can be incredibly frustrating for outsiders to make headway with a traditional business schedule like we have in the U.S.
However, if you are willing to open up your mind and your day planner, you’ll find that you can accomplish just as much with this seemingly unorthodox model as you can with the expected one. Yes, taking a 2-3 hour lunch instead of 15-30 minutes we usually get snatched between meetings may seem like an improbable path to productivity.
If you truly pay attention, you’ll notice something about these lunches. The dynamics between people gets played out on a larger, more in-depth scale than back at home, and result in much stronger relationships.
Coming from a Marketing background and the belief that networking is the core to success, I soon learned more about my lunchtime companions laughing and chatting while sipping sangria than I did behind a desk conducting official matters.
Went from hearing company policy to truly listening about the vision for the future of their company and kids alike, about their true values and not just the ones espoused by their PR officers, pre-approved and branded on their website.
Had the privilege to share and mix ideas, learn from each other the best ways for their business to succeed internationally, as well as challenges I might face in Spain– and how they could help me get around them.
I left Spain with the knowledge that sometimes, slowing down is the only way you can ever hope to speed up.
Lesson Two came from the depths of China. My friend, along with a Chinese counterpart, created a startup educational company in the heart of Hunan. Today International offered tutoring services along with intercultural meet & greets along with open forum “salons” where students and foreigners could interact.
The unfortunate fact is, Westerners are considered treasures in Asia– and no, I don’t think we particularly deserve to be treated any better because of our nationality. Personal preference aside, we offered exactly the kind of services that would appeal to everyday citizens craving knowledge and elevated status due to connections with us Wàiguó rén.
We thought the company would sell itself, and that my title as Head of Marketing would be largely for show.
Oh, how wrong we were.
While it’s true that there is a certain reverence for Westerners that seeps through the everyday market to appear in print ads with Western faces and smartphones hawking Western-style apps, this does not translate to the average citizen.
They have a much lower income and cost of living than we do, and deviation from the highly conventional and rarefied atmosphere of what’s been approved by the government as educational… isn’t undertaken lightly.
This a country that has cherished it’s traditions for over 5,000 years. We were already battling– er, debating– our school liaisons and political officers to allow us more freedom in our second jobs teaching at a local university.
We wanted our students to enjoy learning, to take it from rote institutionalization and elevate it into something that could be cherished by all.
But we were expected to adhere to the accepted model of limited interaction with students, no critical thinking and no debates or discussions, ever. Trying to transcend those barriers within– and sometimes outside– the university resulted in warnings (for very good reason) not to go up against the Chinese government.
Essentially, we realized that trying to market according to how it’s done back home was getting us nowhere.
We considered posters and print ads, magazines and leaflets, business cards and expos. We ended up creating brochures with our faces and credentials on them, and resolved to work with pop-ups and activations at local malls and markets to promote ourselves.
We split up into teams, and my awesome partner Jason and I headed towards the mall. Little did we know that we’d end up smack dab in the middle of an exhibition of our own creation!
The morning passed normally, albeit uneventfully. We passed out brochures and smiled, took a million pictures with curious shoppers stopping to see what the foreigners were doing. We could only persuade a few to actually take our brochures and fliers, especially once they heard the price (about $5.00/hour in USD).
We were failing, and failing hard. The cheerful Chinese music continued to gambol around us while we, sweaty and worn out with exhausted smile muscles, couldn’t really see how to turn this day around.
All of a sudden the music changed into something uptempo, and without conscious thought or agreement, we both started jamming along. Probably helped along by the fact that Jason and I both loved to dance and would take any excuse to do so, we started dancing around the plaza in front of the mall.
Laughing, kicking up our heels, segueing from the Cotton-Eyed Joe to the Soljah boy Tell ‘Em to our newly invented RunningMan/Electric Slide combo, we soon drew a crowd. A quick call to the others on our mobile, and shortly we had a peer passing out fliers and answering questions while we made complete fools of ourselves.
We gave the people what they wanted, which was a spectacle. In China, or at least in our corner, there is an expectation that all Americans are grandiose, larger than life, so that’s what we became. We drew them in and swung them around, cheered and fake-cried and hammed it up as much as we possibly could.
In later weeks, we learned that many of the people who came to Today International’s salons as prospective clients talked about their curiosity piqued by the “awesome foreigners doing their special dance outside the mall!”
Jason and I looked at each other and cracked up, still unbelieving about the success of our gambit born out of boredom and desperation.
This isn’t a lesson I could ever have learned from doing research. What actually resonated with the locals isn’t something I could read in a business book, comment thread or expert guide. The only reason Jason and I stumbled across it was a willingness to do whatever it takes, include making a complete fool of ourselves.
The word “foreign” has so much meaning, at it’s core both alien and familiar. Opening yourself up to experience another culture often reveals things about yourself you may not realize. That applies in the business world as much as the personal one.
So take chances, take risks, do something you’ve never heard of before. Learn from my lessons and be prepared while embracing the unknown and unexpected. No matter if you’re on a business venture or backpacking around with friends and family, you need to follow Robert Frost and the Road Less Traveled.
Realize that as you travel abroad, you carry within you worlds colliding. No matter how we quantify it or break it down, there is magic within that.