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Building Lasting, Successful Relationships Internationally


Albert L. Linderman, Ph.D.
Albert L. Linderman, Ph.D., President, Interpersonal Business Solutions, Inc. 13828 Essex Trail, St. Paul, MN 55124, 612-423-3533,

83rd Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1998 

Successful interpersonal relationships are a prerequisite for doing business internationally. Increasing international competition requires business professionals to have skills in interpersonal communication in order to gain competitive advantage. The best prepared are the most successful. Certain approaches are preferable. This workshop gives you the framework for developing these skills. In the process of building this framework you will learn that the value of cultural bonding and friendship building (not acquaintance building) are indispensable parts of successful international business relationships. Professionals with finely tuned interpersonal skills are the best marketing tool any company can have.

Introduction. Most companies engaging in international business have a high regard for U. S. goods and services. However, they have concerns. One concern involves their wish to connect and bond to one long-term contact. As Dr. Marianne M. Jennings reported in Purchasing Today, "a critical part of contract negotiations in other countries is assuring the suppliers they will remain with the company and be a contact point (1997:38)." Many international business persons are, in effect, looking for friendship, and the trust this brings.

Whether or not you tap into international markets and get the best price for the goods you seek depends in part on how you build these relationships. In most nations, particularly those in Latin American, the Far East and Africa, developing relationships with international business agents requires patient friendship building. Long term success for your company may depend on it. This does not mean you will never have a successful transaction unless you make friends first; it means that ongoing success requires it. You can separate your company from your competitors by developing long-term relationships which allow you to have the inside track to limited resources.

Factors for Developing Relationships Internationally. Specific attitudes and approaches are more effective in developing successful international relationships. These lead to certain behaviors. Unfortunately, most Americans are used to focusing on the behaviors needed in a new situation. But behavior learning alone will not succeed. In international relations, it is certain attitudes and approaches which leads to appropriate behaviors. These include:

  1. An approach which demonstrates a learner's posture Recognize that your goal is building relationships. By being an active learner a person automatically communicates an interest and care for the people.
    1. Always be observing. When opportunities arise, seek to understand what you have observed by asking questions.
    2. Ask questions about the country and culture (attached is a list of 30 questions you can use to guide your learning about this).
    3. Always be reading and learning something new about the country and culture - customs, history, religious practice, political situation.
    4. Learners behave in child-like ways, asking questions, seeking for information (to do so is not child-ish).
    5. Be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.
    6. Your resources are people inside the culture, rather than just books.
  2. An approach of vulnerability and humility which leads to knowing when and how to ask for help. Most of the world's peoples enjoy helping someone who is trying. By trying, and subsequently, willing to receive help from people demonstrates the qualities of vulnerability and humility which may be the most prized traits you can have.
    1. Learning to speak their language is best done socially. You can find someone who speaks English who would be happy to record (on your microcassette recorder) brief helpful sections of their language, such as appropriate greetings, leave-takings and sentences such as "What is this object called?" and "What do you say that I am doing?" while you are demonstrating an action.
      Your helper can record each sentence one or two times. You can make sure and leave some space after each sentence so that you can practice the dialogues in your room by listening to the tape and practicing what you hear. When you get a chance, ask the person if you are saying it correctly. Sometimes you may think you are saying something correctly when you may not actually be hearing what is being said. With patience you can get it right.
    2. Be able to laugh easily at yourself. When you try to speak their language people will naturally find your attempts amusing. Smile and laugh with them. Though you may feel awkward your are, in fact, building a high level of credibility with people.
  3. Respect for the local culture
    Take an investigative approach to the culture.
    1. Observe, participate and learn. Don't be afraid to take notes (discreetly) about your observations. These will lead to further questions which will help your understanding.
    2. Learn appropriate greetings and leave-takings (ways of ending a visit or conversation. It may mean saying "Good-bye" or something like "Til we meet again."
    3. Always consider yourself an active learner of the language. It may be inappropriate sometimes to interrupt and ask for language tips, but those times are rare. There is no better way to demonstrate your respect for someone's culture than by using their language.
    4. Be will to adopt local customs; local foods, ways of eating, manner of sitting, standing, responding.
    5. Learn about the appropriate use of personal space in differing situations.
    6. Learn about the culture's use of time, color, numbers, light, and touch.
  4. Care about the friendship
    You are building the relationship to facilitate your business. Do not, however, allow that motivation to prevent you from doing the very thing that will make the business relationship stronger, building a friendship.
    1. While most businesses do not encourage friendship building, it is a natural part of business. With international business it can be even more crucial. You are in a more dependent, trust-requiring setting working overseas. Friendship can make the difference in success or failure.
    2. Seek for culturally appropriate ways to enhance your friendship.

Means of Developing These Attitudes/Approaches. The attitudes and approaches listed above do not come easily for many Americans. Success in American business has a way of working against these since we do not tend to grow up developing these kinds of skills. Some individuals who could become excellent international business professionals need training to redirect their attitudes and approaches to doing business. There are several means for developing these.

The best method involves attending international training seminars which include culture learning activities and role playing. These can provide accelerated opportunities to readjust your relationship building approaches. Attention in these seminars/workshops should focus on helping you do the paradigm shift necessary to begin to see the world from the point of view of someone from the other country. This is the key to begin to build meaningful friendships. Learning a few obvious cultural characteristics about a certain country which can be found in an article or a book is not enough. Everyone can learn that Japanese people bow a certain way. Not everyone knows how to make close friends with a Japanese person.

In addition to seminars you must also recognize the roles played by your cognitive processes and your experiences. You may, for example, have already begun to think differently about this subject after reading this article. You may have imagined what some of this would look like should you try some of these suggestions. You also may have thought that some of these actions are too difficult for you. Do not underestimate the role of your imagination. You can do role playing in your own mind, envisioning how you would successfully go about interacting in these ways.

Also, your mind has been open to new approaches. As you proceed in developing international relations you can be more aware, keeping some of these suggestions in mind and putting them to practice at appropriate times.

Journal article:
Jennings, Marianne M, J. D., "Pitfalls and Minefields in Purchasing Agreements." Purchasing Today, September 1997, 36-38.

30 Basic Questions

  1. How do people greet one another? How do they leave one another? What does any variation from the usual greeting or leave-taking signify?
  2. What are the special privileges of age and/or sex?
  3. If you are invited to dinner, should you arrive early, on time, late? If late, how late?
  4. How do people organize their daily activities? What is the normal meal and rest schedule?
  5. What are the favorite leisure and recreational activities of adults? teenagers?
  6. On what occasions would you present (or accept) gifts from people in the country? What kind of gifts would you exchange?
  7. Do some flowers have a particular significance?
  8. Who are the prominent people in the political, athletic, religious, and artistic affairs of your country?
  9. Who are the countries national heroes and heroines?
  10. What are the most common forms of marriage ceremonies and celebrations?
  11. What is the typical process for someone finding a marriage partner?
  12. What is the attitude toward gambling?
  13. What is the attitude toward drinking?
  14. Is education free; compulsory?
  15. In schools, are children segregated by race, caste, class, sex?
  16. What kinds of schools are considered best?
  17. How are children disciplined at home, at school?
  18. How does this society observe children's coming of age?
  19. How are children disciplined at home?
  20. Are children usually present at social occasions? at ceremonial occasions? If they are not present, how are they cared for in the absence of their parents?
  21. What is the status of women?
  22. What is the predominant religion? Is it a state religion? Have you read any of its writings?
  23. What are the most important religious observances and ceremonies? How do people participate in them?
  24. What are the important holidays and how is each observed?
  25. Who has the right of way in traffic?
  26. Is military training compulsory?
  27. What other languages are spoken besides the dominant language? What are the social and political implications of language?
  28. If, as a customer, you touch or handle merchandise for sale, will the storekeeper think you are knowledgeable, inconsiderate, within your rights, completely outside your rights? Other?
  29. What kinds of options do foreigners have in choosing a place to live?
  30. How do mass media operate?

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