You know when you ask at an Indian restaurant if a particular curry is “too, too spicy?” and the waiter says “no, just a little”, you just don’t quite trust him? You know, deep in your heart, that your concept of “spicy” might not be quite the same as that of your interlocutor. The same happens with people in your family (“I’ll be ready in a minute” makes the concept of a minute incredibly relative) and at work (we’ve all had grumpy colleagues fighting over open windows and radiators every winter with clearly different concepts of coldness and warmth). When we talk about exports and add cultural and language differences, and large financial risks, those misunderstandings can be truly costly and frustrating. The key is to be aware and open to these differences and to be as specific and precise as possible, without imposing our way of doing business in cultures with less, let’s say, “precision”. Here are just 5 (talking about precision) examples from my experience of doing business between Latin America and the UK. I hope you find them useful and please leave your comments below!

1-      “Our new range will be launched this Autumn”.

I see this again and again. That’s probably September/October to you, but that’s March/April to us in the Southern hemisphere. It probably doesn’t matter too much if you don’t export to the other hemisphere (or to equatorial countries) but it doesn’t sound terribly sensitive to overseas customers (and that includes Argentina and Australia, so it’s not a question of language).

Winter? For you, maybe, not for us in the Southern hemisphere!

Winter? For you, maybe, not for us in the Southern hemisphere!

 

2-       “And you need to add shipping and insurance to that”.

OK, that’s what Incoterms are for. Be precise or you could be exporting at a loss. I am not an expert in Incoterms, but I know that Strong and Herd are. If in doubt, give them a call, book some training or use their enquiry service. Worth every penny.

3-      “Importing? Yes, it’s pretty straightforward here”.

Ha. You think your goods will get to the port, then add a couple of stamps and they will be with your distributor or client? Maybe not. “Pretty straightforward” in Latin America is not the same as within the EU. To give you a sense of relativity: “tough” means 10 months stuck in a container in a port in Argentina, 20 forms and lots and lots of taxes (before the goods are returned to origin). “Pretty straightforward” might mean a few days or weeks, a few headaches, some coming and going, and then eventually the goods are out. Check what people exactly mean by something being “straightforward”, especially if the public sector or the banking sector are involved. From experience, VERY few things in Latin America are “straightforward”, to the point that when things are too easy, we all get suspicious.

Customs House, Montevideo, Uruguay (not the worse, at all, actually)

Customs House, Montevideo, Uruguay (not the worse, at all, actually)

4-      “We’ll get onto it just now”

This is the one that I find hardest to live with in Latin America. As I recently read, “the Latin American may seem to lack a sufficient sense of urgency”. That’s a bit of an understatement in most cases. Mexicans have their “ahora” and “ahorita” (ask any Mexican to try to explain why “now” means “never”) but all through the continent, “right now”, means “at some point in the future”. I admit finding it hard to get used to this again, after 13 years in the UK. The problem is, it is not easy to get more precise, without being rude and counterproductive. Speaking to some Uruguayan businessmen recently, they all thought that British businessmen were “too precise, too rigid, too inflexible”. You see? It’s all relative. Try to get to some degree of accuracy, and then relax, and let it flow.

"Right now" meant after the match, right?

“Right now” meant after the match, right?

And, finally, and back to our curry…

5-      “We’ll meet back at the hotel at around dinnertime”

Oh, dear. I think my English client meant we’d meet at about 6pm. I’d say 9pm. And you? Maybe we all need to be more precise. Oh, and make sure your watches are on the same time zone. Just checking.

Tea at 5. Dinner at 9, or 10, or 11. Roughly. You know...

Tea at 5. Dinner at 9, or 10, or 11. Roughly. You know…

4 Responses to We don’t speak the same language: spelling it out in exports

  1. Great article, Gaby! Language and the cultural aspects of international business definitely add some hurdles to the process; some which can be overcome and others that just need to be taken in stride. But I think we can all agree that those same hurdles are what make international trade fun, exciting and enlightening.

  2. Raul Pazos says:

    Precise, funny, real and useful. Good job.

  3. Gabriela says:

    Thank you, Raul! A real compliment coming from you!

  4. Gabriela says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Daniella! I think all of uf working in international trade share that feeling that it’s all worthwhile in the end.

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