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Knowledge of culture essential to success overseas

Obviously, those wanting to conduct business overseas need a good grounding in business and language skills before they embark. However, an understanding of an area’s culture, it’s etiquette and protocol required, even religion, can be just as important to successful business dealings abroad. A social misstep can be detrimental, perhaps even a deal-killer. So where can businesses turn to acquire the cultural knowledge they need?

There are programs and services offered through such entities as the Mississippi World Trade Center, Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), the state’s institutions of higher learning and others that can provide this education. There is also online assistance and information offered in language books for self-help. No matter where or how these skills are gained, all contacted for this story agreed that learning the cultural nuances of a country is critical to international business success.

One hand or two?

Barbara Travis, executive director of the Mississippi World Trade Center (MSWTC) in Jackson, knows full well how important an understanding of protocol and etiquette can be to overseas business dealings. And, her beliefs were backed up by a recent study conducted by the MSWTC.

“We have just completed a needs assessment of 1,000 companies, mainly manufacturers, to find out what barriers they faced when doing business in foreign countries,” she said. “I was even surprised at how many put culture and protocol.”

Travis added that the MSWTC tries to incorporate cultural and protocol training in all its seminars. One program that has been successful is a luncheon where one particular country is spotlighted. Food from that country is served, country-specific entertainment is offered — attempts to ground attendees in all aspects of the country’s culture.

Travis often calls on Bill Dodson to help. A longtime school administrator, Dodson is retired now, though he has started his own educational consulting service. A dedicated world traveler and “shutterbug,” he now has time to pursue his passions, and he has been tapped often by Travis to bring his overseas photographs and experiences to share with luncheon attendees.

“Etiquette and protocol are extremely important,” Dodson said. “This is especially true in the Asian countries. For instance, when you’re in Beijing, if you hand your travel card to a person, it should be done with both hands on the card. To use one hand shows a lack of respect and is an offense.”

Dodson, a former history teacher who at interview time was planning a trip to the Holy Land, said he spends three or four months studying a country’s or region’s culture before he leaves. He said language books offer cultural tips, and he has found that the best way to get up to speed on a country’s culture is to do the homework himself.

Formal training

According to Adam Murray, international trade specialist for Europe, Africa and the Middle East at the MDA, the state’s lead economic development organization does not offer a formal training program centered on cultural differences in doing business internationally. However, the MDA understands, and goes to great lengths to make client-companies understand, that another country’s culture and business etiquette in essential to success.

“MDA subscribes to CultureGrams (http://www.culturegrams.com/), which gives us access to various cultural and etiquette information for any country in the world,” Murray said. “Prior to trade missions, we brief each participating company on cultural etiquette for the countries that are being visited. MDA also works with the Mississippi World Trade Center to offer various language and culture classes each year.”

More formalized, ongoing cultural training is available through Mississippi’s colleges and universities. As example, Jackson State University offers its Division of International Studies, whose Office of International Programs (OIP) “is inextricably linked to global cultural, societal, political and economic evolutions.”

Dr. Ally Mack is dean of the OIP, and also sees cultural knowledge as crucial to successful dealings. She has also seen how the seemingly most insignificant thing can cause problems abroad, including body language.

“Here in the United States, we shake our head up and down when we mean ‘yes,’” she said. “But in India, and also Bulgaria, they shake their head from side to side when they mean ‘yes.’ I remember one person who was in India and talking with someone, and they kept shaking their head side to side. She finally stopped and asked, ‘Why are you disagreeing with everything I say?’

“Most people are hesitant when going overseas. A knowledge of cultural differences gives confidence, so that when they step off the plane, they are prepared, whether it’s a business dealing or just social interaction.”

The Croft Institute for International Studies, situated on the campus of the University of Mississippi (UM), strives to ensure that its students, jointly enrolled in the institute and in UM’s College of Liberal Arts, are prepared for leadership in business, public service and other fields in an increasingly interdependent world. Established eight years ago, the institute focuses on East Asia, Europe and Latin America only.

“Our program includes one semester of study abroad. Some students elect to spend two semesters abroad if they can afford it,” said Dr. Michael Metcalfe, executive director of Croft, which currently has an enrollment of 142 students. “We feel like that in order for our students to be prepared, they have to know the rules of the road. That includes everything from how to greet people to body language and movement.

“The university offers a pre-departure course, which we recommend that our students take before leaving. It is not required, and we haven’t done any studies here, but national research has shown that there is a real advantage to taking the pre-departure course. Those that take it are more successful overseas.”

Metcalfe added that Croft was looking to market its students to businesses, including Mississippi-based entities. He said the institute wanted to let businesses and other groups know about the quality of the institute’s students, and the skills and knowledge they could bring to those organizations.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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