Don’t Let Cultural Faux Pas Ruin Client Relationships

foreign language

Technology has given rise to opportunities to expand legal services businesses globally – all without ever leaving the office. And, as solos know, it is no longer just for Big Law.  Solos and small firms are jumping in with both feet, as they should.

Solos and small firms are now dealing with foreigners in nearly every practice area: in deals involving money being exported from this country not just from traditional corporate investors but from new, smaller investors growing their home-based business by establishing manufacturing plants in overseas countries with cheaper labor; in negotiations over new avenues of distribution; in the importation of products from foreign countries, in the purchase of exotic real estate; and much more.

Solos have always harnessed the power of technology to improve their practices and efficiencies in ways that increase their productivity without actually increasing their overhead.  Now, as they seek out more and more business, they are going to be bringing their legal acumen overseas.

Bu with globalization one needs to acquire a new skill set – cultural translation.  How do you gain business from foreigners and not inadvertently offend them and lose not only their business, but their ethnic and cultural community’s business as well?

Let’s face it.  We have a well-deserved label of “ugly American” for a reason; whether through arrogance, ignorance or naivete, we go into other countries expecting everyone to speak English. “Well, it is the international business languague, isn’t it?”

This may be true, but it does not change the culturally acceptable behaviors we must learn when going overseas or dealing with foreign clients.  We wouldn’t appreciate it if others came here and expected us to speak their native language, would we?  You know exactly what I’m talking about.  I, personally, have done a significant amount of travel outside these borders, for both business and pleasure, and have watched the “ugly American” in action.  It’s not pretty, it’s embarrassing.  I believe each American who travels abroad serves as an ambassador of this country representing the American people.

If you are conducting business with people of another culture, it is important to take the time to learn their customs as a sign of respect.  And, in general, learning about a potential client’s likes and dislikes, as well as their background, is just smart business.  If we are to build up trusting relationships, it is important to show respect regardless if your clients are German, Muslim, Hispanic or Lithuanian.

As an aside, back in the late ’60s my father traveled to Japan on business.  My mother joined him and loves to tell this story.  They were invited to have dinner one evening at the home of the President of the Japanese company which engaged my father’s company.  It was a lovely meal.  At the meals conclusion, the hosts burped. They then looked to my parents with disappointment.  My parents thought, ‘how disgusting’. As they escorted my parents out the wife said, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy our hospitality or the dinner.’  My mother, mortified, said, ‘of course, we did.  It was delicious and you have a lovely home.’ The hostess replied, ‘but you didn’t burp after the meal?’ Whether it’s true today or not, back then burping after the meal was a sign of satisfaction and appreciation!  Had the wife not mentioned her upset over this ‘faux pas’ on the part of my parents, who knows how it would have impacted their future business dealings?

While BigLaw can afford in-house training seminars, online courses and cultural translators accompanying their lawyers overseas, solos will not necessarily be able to go that route.  Nor do they need to.  Sue Fox, author of Business Etiquette for Dummies , provides a valuable resource for non-travelers to address what she calls the “etiquette learning curve” geared toward etiquette relating to new technology. “The electronic devices that permit instant communication also open the door to offending people in other countries,” she warns.

There are also many informative sites to teach you what you need.  One exceptional site is “The Executive Planet,”which will truly help those who wish to learn the customs of another culture and do so in depth.  The topics it addresses include: how particular cultures negotiate; culturally effective use of body language; how to profit by entertaining correctly; the etiquette on everything from appointment setting to gift giving; how to address people in a particular culture; proper business dress; proper and improper topics of conversation; the appropriate tone of voice; and when to offer someone of another culture a compliment.

Yes, solos who choose to expand their presence overseas have to add a new skill set in their ever increasing arsenal of skills necessary to run a competitive and profitable legal services business. But there are very cost-effective  and efficient ways to do so.  If you are inclined to do business overseas in any capacity, however, this skill set is not optional.  It’s a necessity.



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