Imagine the scene. The stars have finally aligned to put you within running distance of that all-important first meeting with a new overseas client. You have been putting the time in to learn some new language skills and understand the nuances of local culture to help you form a personal connection when you first meet.
Maybe your conversational dexterity could do with some work, but you have covered off the basics and you feel that, with time and experience, your new language should become more familiar. All that you need now is a meeting date.
At this stage, you might be feeling pretty optimistic – you are prepared, and all the signs look positive. But what happens if the proposed meeting is not in the location you anticipated – the one that you have been preparing yourself for?
If a new, neutral location is thrown into the mix, this does not necessarily mean that all your hard work has been in vain – far from it, in fact. In this article, we look at how you can navigate cross-cultural differences effectively and helpfully when you are in new and unfamiliar terrain.
Research the Basics
You may be thinking that you have a whole new set of preparations to make if you realise that you are on neutral ground. The reality is that although it may be neutral for you and your future business partner, it is still a new location that may have its own rules, risks, and rights and wrongs. However, while it does make sense to be travel-smart, your client is still your number-one focus. If you are already aware of any interpersonal cross-cultural differences that require some awareness and accommodation on your part, these will apply wherever you meet.
Yes, it makes sense to do a little research on the new location to be sure there are no culturally specific pitfalls you need to avoid, but this is as much for your own benefit as it is about respecting your client. If it helps you to avoid an unpredictable embarrassment (such as not being aware of a local holiday or religious custom), this is a win-win for you both!
A Little Preparation Goes a Long Way
If you think you might venture out of your neutral meeting spot (which may be a hired meeting room or a business-oriented hotel’s restaurant, for example) and into the local area, it would be polite to have a few useful nuggets of local information up your sleeve. For example, if your client suggests you follow your meeting with a bite to eat or a drink to celebrate your successful negotiations, it could be helpful to have a few well-reviewed, culturally agreeable suggestions in mind. This is where your knowledge of your client’s culture will help you narrow the field to somewhere suitable for you, your client and the cultural climate of your location.
In an indirect way, this careful foresight is an additional show of respect for your client, because you are thinking around the meeting and to what might work well for them. However, this is unlikely to require the commitment of time and energy that you may have already invested in understanding your client’s local language and culture. A little extra effort should go far in this concentrated encounter.
Who Holds the Advantage?
While in an ideal world it may seem advantageous to host a meeting yourself, there are some compelling arguments for either visiting your client or finding somewhere neutral instead. For one, a neutral location is less distracting – you are somewhere that is effectively ‘bland’ (a hired meeting room, airport or hotel restaurant, perhaps) and so no one can be perceived as having the upper hand.
Another compelling argument for not hosting the meeting yourself is that it can be a lot of work.. and it may impact on the quality of negotiations. Yes, you might feel more comfortable in your own office – but so will the rest of your colleagues, so you risk interruptions and distractions regarding everyday issues. You may also struggle to focus on preparing yourself as a result – have you ever sat down to read an important document before a meeting and found yourself still dealing with emails, passers-by and phone calls 20 minutes later?
Whether you are welcoming visitors to your office or travelling to a client’s location, there are pros and cons on each side. If things turn sour and you are hosting a meeting, it could be awkward to draw things to a close; equally, if you are the visitor, you might respectfully suggest that you reconvene the next day to reflect on next steps.
With a neutral location, you can focus on the business at hand and not worry too much about what is happening outside the room. You can leave when you are ready (or perhaps when you have to, if the room is booked out for a set period or one of you has a flight to catch), and you can still build rapport with your new client through the care and attention you give to developing your relationship. It may be the case that in neutrally located meetings, everyone is a winner.