Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Getting down to business...

Doing business in a foreign country has some challenges, but foreigners often have challenges understanding and doing business with Americans as well.  Often this is due to misunderstandings rooted in cultural values and differences.

Some years ago, Bill’s company did business with a factory in Japan.  Bill very wisely decided that he and I should take some Japanese lessons, to learn how to communicate ever so slightly, but thereby show honor and respect to the Japanese factory representatives, and to learn about the business culture in Japan.  Indeed, the officers of the Japanese company were pleasantly surprised, because we were the first Americans with whom they had done business, who bothered to learn how to speak (albeit very little) Japanese.  We also learned that in their society, as in many other societies, it is more important to follow certain social norms of politeness, say pleasing things to guests, and always imply “yes” out of respect.  It can be considered insulting to outright say “no” to guests (even if a “no” is exactly what is meant).  Understanding this turns out to be very important, if one does not want to end up very disappointed because of not just a language misunderstanding, but also a cultural misunderstanding.  It did not happen to Bill, but one of the other American companies which also dealt with this Japanese firm had exactly one such disappointment.  The American salesman was pleased that in his meeting with the Japanese company representatives, it seemed all was O.K. for a signed deal for a big order that he felt had been negotiated; the Japanese had smiled, shook hands, nodded “yes,” and the American went home, very pleased with himself.  Once home, he found out that he did not have a deal at all, and that no contract was going to be signed.  He was angry and felt deceived.  Lesson learned:  in many cultures around the world, it considered too impolite to say “no” directly to a request from someone; within the society, one might well-understand and accept this, so that one does not necessarily expect that which, out of politeness, was only superficially implied.  People in parts of Asia, as well as in this region of the world, realize that “saving face,” being polite, and not out-right refusing someone by saying directly “no” is so important, that people here are not necessarily offended or surprised, when an arrangement doesn’t materialize, as an American might expect.  An American business person might take such offense and even exclaim that he/she was lied to—but this attitude makes American business people in return seem ruthless, heartless, and certainly not in tune with the fine nuances of being polite.  Ah…lots to learn.

We’ve been trained to expect and show understanding for these cultural differences, but the challenge is great, when it happens to you personally.  Some months ago, I thought some local friends had arranged for a taxi ride for me for an agreed upon price.  They told me, each time I pressed for a definite commitment, oh, Mary, don’t worry, it will work out--this taxi will take you and charge you what you are expecting.  Day came…the taxi was not arranged for, at least not for what I thought was the agreed price.  Quickly, I had to make other plans.  Culturally, it was simply not polite to flat-out tell me “no,” when I ask specifically, and it was considered culturally appropriate for them to help the taxi driver (a neighbor) also “save-face.”

One obvious cultural difference here is also the concept of individual privacy that we Americans value.  This is very prevalent at the ATM’s, which is how most everyone here gets paid—money is deposited into one’s account, and once a month one draws it out in cash; since this is totally a cash society (outside of Baku), everything must be paid for in cash, no credit cards.  So, as one is accessing his or her account at the ATM, half a dozen or more people may crowd around, watching, even offering to help enter the pin numbers!  I think the idea is, some people are just too slow, and it would speed things up, if the individual would just get some friendly help from one of those watching and waiting, huddled around at the ATM machine; they truly hover over people who are at the machine, and the concept of waiting in line or queuing up does not exhibit itself very often.  Personally, it makes me uncomfortable—and I have had people ask if they could ‘help’ me enter my information and pin!  I huddle close to the key-board, and certainly do my own info and pin entering, but I have seen some others gratefully accept this help, unconcerned about this as possibly an invasion of privacy or worse, identity theft.

This is country of very gracious people, well-known for their hospitality, especially to guests, and as a foreigner, great kindness has been shown to me.  However, uncommon for an American are all the personal questions one is asked, and from an American point of view, sometimes bordering on an invasion of privacy.  For example, a stranger, or someone I just met, might ask me right off the bat how old I am, what  my family status is, how much do I weigh (!), and many other personal questions about myself, my family, my living conditions, etc.  But these kinds of questions imply here a kind of compliment, because they indicate that you are interesting, interesting enough to warrant further information.  And, furthermore, as an American, I draw an inordinate amount of attention and curiosity.  I am frequently greeted by people on the street, by name even and by people I do not even know, because I have become somewhat well-known, and, well, I definitely look foreign—so I am an object of curiosity.  However, even understanding this, I cannot help but sometimes feel the curiosity goes too far…like the time recently, when my personal letters and sensitive mail from Peace Corps were delivered to my work and were opened, taken out of their envelopes, examined and read.  I realize even the educated people at the university where I work curiously find me extra-ordinarily interesting (or perhaps even view me with some suspicion). But even here an invasion of private mail and sensitive correspondence is probably not acceptable!  And further, the explanation that I was given—‘they were all opened by mistake’—was also not very satisfactory, since that was simply not true (from my American point of view, a lie even); all the mail was clearly address to me, Peace Corps Volunteer, it was impossible to have been a ‘mistake.’  Sometimes it is almost too challenging to accept the fact that such an ‘explanation’ is meant to save-face and protect the perpetrator, whose curiosity could be locally considered understandable, even if such curiosity was also too great.  Protecting the communal values does supersede the independence and individual rights that we Americans come to expect… It is particularly challenging to know when to accept with understanding the cultural differences, and when such differences are outright unacceptable.  This challenge is especially great in developing countries where knowledge of the outside world and Western cultural values may be somewhat limited, and therefore mutual understanding cannot be expected.  To succeed personally, or on a business level, and even on a diplomatic level, it is often necessary to extend an inordinate amount of tolerance and understanding for cultural differences.  But also know when things have gone too far.  Opening and examining sensitive and personal mail from Peace Corps qualifies as the latter, I think.

Of course the main way I conduct business on a daily basis is at the bazar—the outdoor markets, where just about everything is sold.  Bartering for price is the norm, and even though, thanks to my great language tutor, I can express myself in the bartering process, it still feels odd—prices are never marked, because you are supposed ask the price and then negotiate down from there.  It takes some getting used to.  Some more interesting views of the markets, etc:

 Random cow and geese on my street
 Apple truck in the apartment housing area...bringing the produce to the buyer
 At the Butcher's...hooves on the table and hanging from hooks on far left, head on ground by pole lower right, the rest hanging in the middle
 Washington State apples...well, they're Delicious at any rate

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