For me, business has always been an international affair.

A native Canadian, I spent the early days of my marketing career working for a large multinational company with its head office in the U.S. Nearly five years ago, I made the leap across the Atlantic to the U.K. and just recently set up shop in the Middle East.

While all the countries I’ve worked in are westernized and more or less English-speaking, working across different cultures has taught me a thing or two about business – and life in general.

Coming to America

Photo by lululemon athletica via flickr

Don’t underestimate the differences between Canada and the U.S. The laid-back attitude of my Canadian management team was actually made fun of by our American sister team. They joked that we did most of our business on the golf course. When I relocated, I realized that our Toronto office’s casual dress code was not going to fly south of the border; in America, it was all stern suits and serious faces.

Island life

About five years later I moved to Jersey, a tiny island in the English Channel. Here, I would be in for a completely different experience.

Coming out of a meeting in the U.S. you knew how to move forward – issues were flagged and debated there and then. Sure, you were often put on the spot but you got used to it.

The U.K. was different. I came out of my first big management meeting and thought that everyone was on side with my suggestions. There were hardly any comments or questions. I started moving forward with my proposed recommendations. I soon found out that I had a lot to learn.

Turns out the managers did have questions but no one voiced them. They were flagged by management in a separate meeting so they could approach me at another time. How British.

Bargaining power

Photo by austinevan via flickr

By the time I got accustomed to the British way of doing business I moved to a place on the other side of the cultural spectrum: the Middle East.

In Israel, most people speak English, so not speaking Hebrew didn’t pose much of a problem. But the culture of negotiation is deeply embedded in this part of the world.

In one meeting, I agreed to the terms of a contract on the first go and was met by a confused client’s face. He told me that he expected me to come back with a counter-offer and really didn’t know what to do when I agreed right off the bat. Lesson learned.

So, what lessons have I learned over the past decade as an international marketer?

Adaptability is key

The best way to adapt to a new place is by doing research up front. Before you go, try to seek out people who grew up in these cultures and understand what it’s like. Once you arrive, listen to people and don’t expect them to adapt to you – you are in their country now. Making the effort to adapt really helps in understanding local clients and gaining trust.

Use your expat existence as a career promoter

It can be easy to think of yourself as the underdog when you arrive in a new country, especially if there is a language barrier. I really felt this way when I came to Israel but I realized quickly that my international expertise was actually what made me different. Take this as an advantage, not a negative. It makes you more marketable as a marketer.

When in Rome…

Get out and experience life in your new surroundings. If you’re in America, go to a baseball game. Indulge in some after-work drinks at the pub with your new British colleagues. In Israel, check out the local musicians at one of Tel Aviv’s numerous free concerts. This helps you pick up cues on what makes local people tick, which will help you be a better marketer.

More and more, technology is enabling us to work across linguistic, cultural and geographic borders. But when it comes to understanding global customers and addressing unique cultural needs, there’s still no substitute for living like the locals do.

Of course, these are my own personal experiences and, as such, generalizations. I’m curious to hear what you think: Have you learned any surprising cultural lessons in the business world?