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Understand the Language of Foreign Trade
By: Twain Wang

For centuries, business people have traveled the globe importing and exporting trade. A special talent and technique is required for successful transactions when dealing with foreign and diverse cultures.  Clear communications and understanding the cultures you trade with are essential. Marco Polo surely mastered this talent while negotiating imports centuries ago, and it is possible for any businessperson to have positive and successful importing experiences today. First, you must understand the nuances of working with diverse cultures and understanding the language of foreign trade.

It’s all in a day’s work, for those who understand the nuances. The novice, however, might not consider the fact that culture, language, and expectations differ when “cutting the deal,” and those important elements should be included in the equation of the trade.

One U.S. branch manager of a German trading company finally figured out the bug in his communication code when dealing with his Chinese vendors. His company had over one hundred years of experience engaging in extensive import and export activities in China, but he could not understand why his experiences brought him so much grief.  He finally discovered that when people at a factory responded to his requests by saying, “No problem,” they really meant, “I think I know what you want, I will do the best I can to fill your order the way you want it, and I hope you will be happy with what you get.”  The branch manager began to understand that when he heard the words “No problem” he should take an extra step to be clear in his communication and expectations. 

Another American professional who worked in the hardwood lumber business for over 30 years once complained about two containers of maple flooring he ordered from China.  The samples mailed to him looked beautiful, and the mid-production samples he saw during his inspection in China were also good, but the final products shipped to him in containers were “disasters!” Filling the entire order with quality product within the specified timeline was most likely unfeasible from the beginning. Proper communication and definitive expectations while negotiating the order might have curtailed the problem. 

Many cultures go to extremes in an effort to be courteous and satisfy their customer’s requests. Therefore, it is important to remember that when a buyer negotiates hard on a price, the supplier might eventually say, “No problem” in an attempt to fulfill the buyer’s request. Unfortunately, even if the supplier knows the budget constraints are unfeasible, he might say, “No problem” to keep the buyer happy and not lose the order.

Clear communication is essential, and one business owner recalls a seminar he attended thirty years ago where he heard a story based on the speaker's own experience emphasizing how a cultural gap can create misunderstandings. In one Middle Eastern culture, the businesspersons would nod as a gesture of courtesy while listening to their client, but the nod did not necessarily mean that they agreed with the client's suggestion. The nod was a cultural affirmation to acknowledge his words, but a nod is not always an indication of compliance.

It is important to understand the cultures, the body language, the laws, and the practices of the country with which you plan to trade. Anyone contemplating new business horizons with other cultures should find a reputable Chamber of Commerce or should join an import/export association. It would be a good idea to hire a business consultant who specializes in foreign trading. It is also a good idea to organize a domestic team to work with you, until you build up your confidence and knowledge. Outsourcing your consultancy in the United States is a good place to start.

For information on  Twain Wang