Learning local customs, whether by app or in person, eases travelers’ way

On a sales trip last fall to Seoul, South Korea, Josh Udashkin, founder of the smart luggage company Raden, quickly realized he’d better leave the matte-finish suitcase samples in his hotel room. 

“The retail displays, the street fashion, shoes, purses, headphones, showed me that shiny surfaces were definitely popular in Seoul,” he said. Instead, he brought only the shiny-surface samples to his meeting at a Korean department store. The visit was successful, and the store plans to stock Udashkin’s wares this fall.  

The lesson was simple. Putting in time to understand the local culture is key to success abroad, Udashkin said. “If you think, ‘My product was so successful in New York or LA, of course it will sell here,'” he said, “you are setting yourself up to fail.”  

Business travelers hoping to improve their professional prospects by understanding local culture and business customs can take a path similar to Udashkin’s and spend time observing the culture firsthand and asking colleagues about their experiences. They now also have a panoply of other choices, including websites, apps and business-focused tour guides.  

To prepare for his trip to Seoul, Udashkin said he learned some common phrases using the Duolingo smartphone app, looked at Korean fashion websites and read up on the local news. He also asked friends from Korea about business practices. They advised him to study up on business card exchange etiquette.  

“The more you can prepare in advance,” said Manny Cowan, head of global mobility services at the World Bank, “the sooner you can get to your mission and why you are there.”  

Preparing for the way a business meeting is conducted can be as important as what is presented there, said Ruihua Dong, who leads intercultural training at the World Bank. Hierarchical communication, gender norms and attitudes toward punctuality can differ widely, and knowing the traditions can help visitors avoid misunderstandings, she said.  

“If you show up on time to an important meeting and the local person comes 30 minutes late, it’s not necessarily an insult,” Dong said. “They just may have a different definition of what is punctual in their culture.”  

Jeremy Podeswa, who directed six episodes of “Game of Thrones,” travels the world to film the HBO series, managing hundreds of people on sets in three different countries. For him, he said, it was important to know beforehand which cultures don’t mind working overtime and which expect a shorter day on the set. In some cultures, he said, “There is a little more of a feeling that we ‘work to live’ as opposed to ‘living for work.'”  

Dong said some countries’ business dealings are more task-oriented while others are relationship-oriented.

“A business partner may want to share a meal when you arrive, and you may be thinking, ‘I need to get to work,'” she said. But the social interaction during the meal may set the stage for the tasks ahead.  

Expert-led tours are becoming more of an option for business travelers seeking to soak up local knowledge. Context Travel, an American tour company, introduced two-hour sessions in some Asian and European cities called “Welcome to ...” about three years ago. While the program was originally designed for tourists, Paul Bennett, the company’s founder, said he’s seen a significant increase in session bookings by business travelers over the past year.  

Each “Welcome to …” session begins with a one-hour introduction to the city and includes maps, basic phrases in the local language and cultural information based on the traveler’s needs. A neighborhood walk follows, including instruction on how to use public transportation if needed. “It sets the traveler up,” Bennett said.  

Recent clients booking a “Welcome to ...” session included a group of American doctors coming to Shanghai for a medical conference. By learning a bit about cultural customs, local news and the history of the city, the doctors felt they could “accelerate” their conversations with their Chinese counterparts, Bennett said. They had only a few days to interact on important medical issues, and they hoped to minimize the usual introductory awkwardness and “go deeper and make the most out of their time,” he said.  

Each area of the world has its own particular practices. Along with personal consultations and regional support teams, the World Bank offers its employees a website with information on how to live and work effectively in 120 locations. “We do it for people coming to the U.S. to work as well,” Cowan said.  

Bennett, of Context, said some of his business clients were feeling more self-conscious recently about traveling as an American abroad. The “America first” stance of the White House puts them in a defensive position when they go in to negotiate a business deal, Bennett said. “Business travelers are coming to us to learn about the culture they will be working with because they want to be viewed as partners,” he said.  

Udashkin, of Raden, said he liked to absorb the local culture in person. In addition to Seoul, he has traveled to Paris, Milan, London and Hong Kong in the last 18 months to show his suitcases to retailers. He said he would arrive in each city a day or more before his meetings and walk around looking for local taste indicators like the popular models or hues of products like iPhones and Beats headphones.  

“I’m not looking for the outliers,” he said, “I want to know how to fit into the local mainstream.”

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