March 31, 2021

Tips for Communicating with International Business Contacts

By: Sarah Larson

by: Suzanne Milshaw, Food Export Contractor


If you are a U.S. company that is looking to export and work with international importers, or if you already are an experienced exporter, there are many nuances and things you should consider when communicating with business contacts from different countries and cultures.

In the blog below we highlight some of the most important issues to keep in mind when you communicate with your international contacts.

Language/Word Choice

  • Write or speak with awareness that non-native English speakers and non-US audiences may be reading or listening
  • Keep abbreviations, jargon, and slang to a minimum
  • If giving a presentation that is being translated, be mindful of pace and whether interpretation is simultaneous or consecutive


Abbreviations and Acronyms

  • Before using an acronym, the full term should be spelled out in its first use with the acronym in parentheses following the mention.
  • All subsequent mentions in the piece may use the acronym without parentheses.
    • Example - “Thanks to the helpful market overview we received from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) while on a recent trade mission we were able to understand the local retail landscape better than before.  The USDA has many helpful programs for U.S. suppliers looking to expand their international presence.
  • Avoid using U.S. State abbreviations which won’t be widely known to those outside the U.S.  (ex. use “Massachusetts” versus “MA”)


Names and Titles

  • In some cultures, the person's surname (aka last name or family name) is written first and a person's given name (first name) written second (ex. China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam).
    • This is the opposite of how most people in the U.S. write their names.
  • Some cultures traditionally have two surnames (Spanish-speaking countries).
  • Some indivudals may ask to be called by a preferred English name, ex. "Daisy" over their give name.


Addressing New Contacts

  • It is recommended to try to ascertain the preferred honorific (title) of new contacts so as to avoid any embarrassing assumptions; providing your own title may also be helpful in certain settings.
  • Many cultures outside the U.S. are more formal in how they address business contacts in writing and in person.  Start off addressing new contacts more formally (ex. Dear Ms. Greenfield/Mr. Greenfield) and follow their lead for when to relax to a more casual form of address.
  • When handing out or being handed a business card, do so with both hands; this is particularly important in Asia.


Dates

  • When communicating with anyone outside the U.S. dates should be formatted as follows:   Day-Month-Year, rather than Month-Day-Year.   
  • To avoid any potential miscommunication, it may be best to spell out the month and include the day of the week – Tuesday, January 12, 2021 or Tuesday, 12 January 2021, rather than using all numbers.


Times

Some countries utilize the 12-hour clock (am and pm) and some use the 24-hour clock (military time).  Therefore, it is best to include am or pm if using the 12-hour clock.

  • Time Zones

    • When scheduling a call or meeting with people across different time zones, be sure to check the time of all participants (World Time Buddy is a good site for this.) When sending an invitation, clearly state the time in all participants time zones.  If the time zone spans days, be sure to include that information.
      • Ex. 8am Chicago/9am Philadelphia/2pm London/4pm Cairo/5pm Moscow
      • Ex. 8am CST/9am EST/2pm GST
      • Ex. Thursday July 1st 9pm Chicago/Friday, July 2nd 11am Kuala Lumpur
    • When joining the call, recall the time of day for the other participants and greet them accordingly to the time of day in their location, rather than yours.
  • Daylight Savings Time
    • The time changes to reflect daylight savings time do not happen uniformly on the same day worldwide.  When scheduling an international call or meeting in late February/March or October/November, check when the time change will happen in the relevant countries to avoid confusion.

Currency

  • When referring to U.S. currency, use the U.S. abbreviation before the dollar sign – US$ to avoid any confusion between other dollar currencies.
  • In many English-speaking countries, the comma is used as a place holder between thousands and the period used to separate decimals. $1,234,567.89   While in most non-English speaking countries the comma and period are reversed.  €1.234.567,89


Telephone Numbers

  • Telephone numbers globally likely have a combination of prefixes for country codes and city codes, in addition to the telephone number.  In a telephone number such as +52 998 123 4789, the +52 prefix indicates the country code for Mexico which must be dialed first. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list; it is intended to aid suppliers in avoiding common areas of miscommunication.  Overall, in working with international business contacts, it helps to operate with the Platinum Rule in mind (“Treat others as they would like to be treated”), rather than just the Golden Rule (“Treat others as you would like to be treated.”)  Keeping differences in mind will help to make the best possible impression with buyers.