Our waiter proudly served our dishes to us. We looked at each other and then took our first tentative bites as our waiter stood waiting for our endorsement. Not wanting to seem like “the ugly American,” we told him just what he wanted to hear. It was wonderful! How did they pull this off? He beamed and then left, leaving us to figure out what to do next. The food wasn’t what we had expected at all, despite the earlier assurances. A burrito was an enchilada, an enchilada a torta. And the contents inside were nothing like we expected. Boiled meat, vegetables and potatoes in virtually everything, and we weren’t quite sure what they were boiled in. Needless to say, we did the graceful thing as quickly as we could and then left, laughing all the way (mostly at ourselves) and planning our next adventure.
OK, that may be a silly story, but it is also a metaphor for the experiences many have when doing business globally. Sometimes, it seems, nothing is as you expect. It looks good and all the signals are the right ones. You’ve done your validation checking and still….it isn’t what you expected it would be. When dining it may be okay to graciously look the other way and move on to the next restaurant, but when something goes sideways in a business venture it is another story. Now you have to find out what when wrong, redress the issue, and do so in a manner (hopefully) that restores the business relationship so that all can walk away from the experience looking forward to the next. Take a look at the restaurant story again. We were naïve and bought into the prospect that we would get something we liked and did not expect to get originally. We were excited because it was something common in our culture. We saw all the signals, thought we asked the right questions, and were still surprised at the outcome.
When dealing internationally understand that you are on someone else’s home turf. Their culture is different than yours. Words may have different meaning(s), culture may dictate a response you interpret incorrectly or naively. All of which add up to one piece of critical advice. Don’t assume anything, don’t take anything at face value. There is an old rule of thumb in the conduct of foreign relations between governments that applies directly in this circumstance. Trust, but verify. As any good project manager will tell you, “I know it’s true when I see it with my own eyes, smell it with my own nose, and touch it with my own fingers.”
If my friend and I had simply asked to see the kitchen we would have known. Take a lesson from us and make sure you don’t just talk to the cook. Watch him cook first and then decide.