A recent court ruling ... just how blind ... and ... to local culture can land you in jail. Business leaders are well advised to pay close ... to how things are done overs
A recent court ruling highlights just how blind arrogance and insensitivity to local culture can land you in jail. Business leaders are well advised to pay close attention to how things are done overseas – adopting the attitude that what works at home will work overseas will get you into trouble.
There is a small community in Britain and the Benelux that prefers to indulge itself in a curiously eccentric pastime called “plane-spotting”, a hobby best described as the photographing or noting of aircraft registration numbers, normally from an airport perimeter fence. Some avid enthusiasts even tune into radio frequencies so that they can note down aircraft call signs. But this sport recently resulted in the arrest of 12 British plane-spotters in Greece. 8 of them were subsequently found guilty of espionage and sentenced to three years in a Greek jail.
The Greeks were baffled – even miffed! Firstly, this pastime was more than odd to them: they simply could not understand it. In their eyes, why would anybody want to spend hours on the edge of a military airbase photographing planes? Secondly, how could foreign guests, in their country, simply overlook the huge warning signs telling them clearly that photographing in the vicinity was a punishable offence, and still carry on photographing regardless? Thirdly, the Greeks were becoming increasingly impatient with the constant jibes that were being made in the British press about the Greek military, their justice system and their fear of spies.
The accused Britons were equally angered and confused, charging their Greek hosts as well as the Greek legal system with the same level of pompousness and naivety. “We were just there indulging in our hobby – we weren’t harming anybody!” Or, “Why on earth would one NATO country want to spy on another?” Or, “Huh, as if we needed to learn the military secrets of the Greeks!”, Or “Who will now risk taking a vacation in a country where an innocent mistake can result in a three year prison sentence?” Or, “This is a blatant miscarriage of justice. So much for the Greek criminal justice system!”
So who’s right and who’s wrong? What this case shows is simply how a cultural gulf between two countries can land people in trouble – on both sides, for three simple ingredients: pride, naivety and a failure to do your homework. And in the business world, clear parallels can be drawn, where the same 3 ingredients can lead to potential disaster, for sometimes even the most simple and innocent motives.
There is the case of the US International Business Development executive, tasked with finding new business in Spain, trying desperately to meet prospects without any success. It was by chance he discovered that breakfast meetings in Spain just weren’t the norm. He changed his meeting times, and up went his response rate.
Then there is the famous case of Korean firm Kunja Industrial Co. that had a knitting mills subsidiary in the west. A European employee innocently “crooked” his “pointing finger”, trying to catch the attention of his Korean boss and bring him closer. The employee succeeded in getting attention all right. However, he didn’t succeed in gaining any favors from his boss. In fact he was almost fired. The western finger-moving gesture for asking someone to come closer is considered a vulgar gesture in Korea.
If your business is becoming increasingly international and global in nature, then a sound basis for success overseas starts with the following: (i) Respect for how things are done overseas: you are after all in a host country, no matter how ridiculous the laws and customs may seem. (ii) Be aware of the differences in relation to how things are back home. Don’t ever assume that works best at home will bring you success overseas, and finally (iii) Prepare and train yourself and your people for doing business internationally.
Trevor J. O'Hara, is the founder and president of Renarc, a consultancy that specializes in helping firms with international expansion. O'Hara is a seasoned internationalist, having lived and worked internationally for the last twenty years. Educated in Dublin, Oxford, Paris and Berlin, and with fluency in German, French and Spanish, O'Hara now speaks and writes internationally on how to achieve global success.