One of the potential challenges people entering the international business arena for the first time is adjusting to a new culture. Whether your business is expanding into one or multiple countries, you will be operating in a world that is foreign to you. Whatever your life experience up to this point, your overseas business venture will of necessity expand your world view in ways you may not imagine. One of the things many first-time overseas businessmen (and even some seasoned pros) forget is that, although not a part of the U.S. diplomatic corps, they are in fact a U.S. ambassador. For some people, you may be the only American with whom they will come into serious contact. As such, you have the power to shape their image of Americans. If their existing perception is largely positive, then you have the opportunity to reinforce that. If their existing perception is largely negative, you have the opportunity to show them that not all Americans are like what they think. But regardless, being successful in your own business venture will require that you not fit the negative American stereotype; namely that Americans are insular and know next to nothing about the outside world. In short, rather than being the stereotypical provincial American, you will have to be culturally knowledgeable individual.
So how does one become a culturally knowledgeable individual?
The first thing to know is that becoming a culturally knowledgeable individual is a lifelong process. It helps to have a curiosity about the world in general, and then to feed that curiosity with books, articles, and YouTube videos over many years. But given that you are likely moving into the international arena now and don’t necessarily have the time to become a global expert, the way that you can come across as culturally knowledgeable to your new business associates in Country X (let’s call it Egypt for purposes of this article) is as follows:
1.) Brush up on Egyptian History.
Thanks to the internet, it is very easy to get all the information one could ever want about almost anything in seconds. At the very least, go and read the Wikipedia page for Egyptian history. There is a lot there, but becoming familiar with more than just the pyramids and the name of King Tut, can help you understand the country better. Specifically pay attention to more recent Egyptian history of the last 200 years or so. Being familiar with this period as well as the recent leaders such as Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and al-Sisi will make you stand out from the average American. While intense political discussion is to be avoided, being familiar with these figures and some of the things that they did will bring you up in the eyes of your Egyptian associates.
2.) Familiarize yourself with Islam.
While terrorism in the name of Islam has dominated headlines in the West for almost a generation now, Islam is a religion that is followed by almost 1 billion people worldwide and roughly 90% of Egyptians. They aren’t all terrorist sympathizers, aspiring suicide bombers, or Kalashnikov owners. A stable society simply couldn’t be constructed if everyone was like this. Given the large following, clearly this religion provides meaning and comfort to a sizeable segment of the human race. Consequently, learning about Islam will give you a deeper understanding of Egypt and its people. Although it is useful to read articles on the subject, sometimes the authors biases can enter into the writing. It is important to be aware of that. If you have the time, I would recommend reading the Quran. This isn’t to say that it is something you have to agree with or adopt. But if you want to gain a solid understanding of the culture, it isn’t a bad source. If someone was trying to understand Western culture, developing an understanding of Christianity and the Bible would not be a bad strategy. And just as there are many interpretations of the Bible, there are many interpretations of the Quran. While you don’t need to become a theological expert, having some real knowledge of the basics of Islam as an American will help your understanding of the culture. And it will set you apart from your American competitors who don’t.
3.) Understand through the eyes of an Egyptian.
Doing some reading specifically on how Egyptians see the world, written by Egyptians, will further cement your understanding. It is important to research Egyptian sources yourself, rather than just the views of Westerners who have experience in Egypt. While useful, Western sources can only help so much, as they will of necessity be writing about Egypt through western eyes. Egyptian sources will likely give you a clearer sense of how they view the world. It doesn’t mean that you have sympathize with their worldview or adopt it, but it will help you when doing business if you understand it. By understanding their worldview, you will also gain an insight into what they see when they look at you. And as successful business practices require understanding what the other person is thinking, understand their view can only help you.
4.) Understanding local business practices.
By this I don’t just mean understand “Egyptian” business practices, but also understand local business practices. Egypt is not a small country and has a population of over 100 million, which puts it at the 14th most populous country in the world. A country of this size is likely to have local business practices as well. Are business practices in Cairo different than those in Alexandria, Giza, or Port Said? I don’t know, but there is a lot of information on the internet that can help you understand the intricacies of doing business in these different places.
This is not an exhaustive list of course, but taking these and other actions to become a minor expert on the country (or multiple countries) that you are doing business in will help you come across as culturally knowledgeable. Not only will understanding their mindset help you in negotiating with them, but being able to intelligently converse with them on subjects pertaining to Egypt will help you build rapport with them. In doing so, you will not only be building relationships, but you will be giving them a positive image of Americans. In my experience, most folks overseas have very low expectations for Americans that we will understand anything about their country. (Even being able to locate it on a map can sometimes impress.) Being a minor expert in their country will go a long way to making you “their” American, and that in turn will go a long way towards a successful business dealing.