Many years ago, I attended a dinner for several hundred lawyers from around the world who were in the United States to learn about the U.S. legal system. I was seated at a table that included a few Americans, some Europeans, and a delightful lawyer from Algeria named Omar. Like most foreign lawyers who are not familiar with “the American way”, Omar was amazed by how litigious we are (“you sue over everything”), and by the multi-million dollar jury verdicts that are sometimes awarded in personal injury lawsuits. He went on to observe:
“In Algeria, if you ran over my wife with your car and killed her, you would certainly be expected to compensate me for my loss, just as you would if you had destroyed any of my other property. But it would not be multi-millions of dollars, because it would not have happened anyway, if Allah hadn’t willed it.”
There was a collective gasp and recoil reaction from the two women at the table, who couldn’t restrain themselves from sharing their judgments about what they perceived as his culture’s degrading view of women and its abuse of women’s rights. Others were less judgmental and more fascinated by his observations. In just two sentences, he had revealed a radically different world view than what is typical in most Western countries . . . a paradigm that would obviously produce a much different approach and outcome to an issue that is common to all cultures—loss due to personal injury.
These types of experiences are what makes international business such an adventure. Figuring out our similarities and differences, and how those may impact our approach to a business relationship, is a fascinating journey of discovery. “Culture” encompasses such a wide range of components, including languages; religious beliefs on destiny, purpose, and suffering; expectations from personal relationships; societal structures and unspoken “rules”; laws regarding property ownership and attendant rights; perceptions of time; decision-making processes, and common understandings of when it is appropriate for individual rights to be subordinated to the good of the community. All of these factors (and many others) are collectively reflected in the thinking, judgments, motivations, and laws of the people within that culture. If you are not familiar with and sensitive to such cultural factors, you may fall into the trap of assuming that you understand your foreign counterpart’s point of view and motivations.
Getting to know your foreign counterparts will be key to enhancing your effectiveness in your engagements with them. For example, my Algerian friend’s beliefs on the role of Allah in determining one’s fate would very likely inform his views of what would be appropriate contractual remedies when nonperformance results from changed circumstances. Knowing that would help reduce the friction when negotiating such issues.
We Americans typically try to rush through the “get acquainted” phase of a business deal so we can get on with the negotiation, close the transaction, and move on to the next deal. I have found that investing time in getting to know your potential business partner will make the negotiations much easier and efficient. Although you cannot possibly grasp all the nuances of another culture during a single dinner meeting, getting acquainted in an informal social context may be very helpful to understanding your counterpart’s expectations and motivations when it comes time to discuss the business deal.