The Cultural and Language Divide: Practical Tips for Starting a Business Overseas

When most of us think about starting a new business abroad, one of the most common considerations is usually whether the business will turn a profit, which is quite understandable. We worry about the ease of doing business, government regulations, and living costs, which in some countries can be the biggest barriers to working abroad.

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Many, however, often forget about the language and cultural differences that come into play, especially in a country that doesn’t speak your native language.

Culture and language play a huge role in communication and interaction, which is why many businesses that don’t figure out these aspects fail even when they have an awesome product or service offering to back them up. Culture determines customers’ behavior, thinking patterns, and decision-making, making it an important consideration for individuals looking to set up shop in another country.

So, for those thinking about making some foreign dough, here are a few tips for navigating the cultural and language divide.

1. Prepare adequately beforehand

While starting a new business abroad may be an exciting prospect for any entrepreneurial mind, don’t rush the process. Take the time to connect with your host country’s culture on a personal level before packing your bags.

The internet is your best friend here. Take the time to scour Facebook pages, blogs, news articles, and other online platforms that connect people from the host country to help you understand the local culture.

It also pays to link up with one or more contacts from the host country beforehand. You can always find someone via travel blogs, social media or professional networks such as LinkedIn. In addition to helping you set up the business, they can be a vital link to understanding the culture and language of the host country.

2. Mingle with the locals

When Zoe Cohen’s yearlong training contract ended back in 2014, she’d fallen in love with Nairobi.

The U.S graduate extended her stay in Kenya and started a part-time business selling hand-crafted fashion bags – called Zoko Bags – to local and international customers, an idea that blossomed into a successful venture.

One of her biggest lessons was the value of connecting with and befriending the locals, which she says made all the difference when it came to acquainting herself with the foreign culture and language.

Zoe got her raw materials from a local market where she often took the time to talk to suppliers and other local traders, helping her build the business around a culture that she gradually understood.

Zoe’s story offers a valuable lesson for budding entrepreneurs looking to set up shop in foreign countries. Building close friendships with local people rather than expats and other foreigners is one of the surest ways to learn about the culture and language of your host country.

3. Learn the basics of local language and cultural mannerisms

Even with a local contact, a wealth of information about the host country, and all the research in the world, you must still acquaint yourself with the local dialect and cultural mannerisms.

Even the poorest language skills will still help you navigate your way through meetings, workshops, interviews, and other business communication platforms. There are a ton of helpful resources you could use to hone your language skills, including physical and online classes, apps, or your local contact who you can use to hone your skills.

Familiarizing yourself with the local cultural mannerisms and characteristics is also crucial for success overseas. Paul Gian, a jewelry consultant and founder of Beyond4Cs, says customers in different parts of the globe will often have different reactions to the same product and service, usually because of cultural differences.

For instance, while Japan may consider gift-giving a sign of proper business etiquette, others in parts of Europe may consider them inappropriate or even as bribes. In fact, Gian says, some parts of Africa may consider diamonds and other exquisite jewelry as conflict gifts because of the chequered history of mineral mining in many African countries.

Bottom Line

Starting a new business venture in a foreign country is a decision that must start as a financial/economic idea but one that is supported by a sound strategy to integrate foreign culture and language within the business.

By preparing beforehand, learning the culture and language of the destination country, and maintaining a good relationship with the locals, your sound business idea might be the next big thing on foreign soil.


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