Let’s set the scene:

Your boss calls you into his office to tell you that the company has decided to start “expanding its horizon,” and has decided to try exporting goods to Uruguay.

Uruguay.  Uruguay??  Wait a minute, where the heck is Uruguay??

Oh right, South America.

You may say automatically, “But I don’t speak any Spanish…I don’t even really eat Mexican food!  How am I supposed to go there and handle a business deal?”

I was asking myself the same questions when I was thinking about how to answer my International Business professor’s question, “How do you incorporate informal institutions – especially language and culture – into your global business?”

I found that the best way to try and answer this was to put myself in the situation; I mean really think about what I would do after the initial mini-panic of being told I was embarking on an international business trip.  Looking up big, broad tips for doing business in a foreign country may not cut it.

After doing to some research on related business press articles, reading over some helpful text (that I will mention at the end for aid in your future global endeavors), and reading the responses to the previous question from my classmates in Fundamentals of International Business, some common, helpful themes popped up.

These can be helpful even if you are not physically traveling; globalization has already integrated the U.S. with places all around the world.  There’s a good chance that you may have an interaction with someone from another country, even if it is just via media like GoToMeeting.  Even so, better understanding of a foreign country’s informal institutions (like language and culture) can help expedite the communication process, convey respect and seriousness to the other party, and at least stop you from offending someone!

That said, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • English is not really the language king around the world
    • ‘Broken’ English is often spoken, but many can’t fully understand fluent English
  • Do not rely on electronic translation devices for interpreting important things like marketing slogans.  Often times the translated version can come out offensive, incorrect, embarrassing, or nonsensical.
    • Have a laugh: Gerber is a leading baby food manufacturer in the U.S., and everyone knows the Gerber baby picture on the packaging.  Gerber started selling baby food in Africa with the same packaging.  In Africa, food packages usually feature pictures of what is inside the container.   It must have been very disappointing to open the can and find strained peas!



  • Do a little research (from credible sources) and learn a few phrases in the language of your country of interest, and the pertinent cultural norms
    • Don’t forget non-verbal language!  Invest in a book such as, Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands (The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More than 60 Countries) by Terri Morrison and Wayne Conaway.  Each chapter includes helpful facts like handshake styles expected, typical times for business meetings, conception of time, polite conversation topics, cultural values, etc.


P.S. – Please feel free to comment with any helpful/interesting tips or links!  Many times lessons are learned from experience, and I would love to hear some stories about these business language barriers!