When the Dutch do business abroad

5 Tips for the Dutch to have effective meetings abroad

I still recall very well my first customer visit in China, where I presented our product portfolio to a potential Chinese customer. I was quite nervous (this was an important meeting) and tired (the long flight had its impact). I delivered my presentation, explaining enthusiastically what was on the numerous powerpoint-slides. After about 10 minutes, a Chinese person interrupted me, and raised a question in Chinese to the man sitting next to him. A lively discussion in Chinese erupted, which lasted for more than 90 minutes. Our sales people vividly jointed that discussion, and I did not have much to do (my Chinese was not that good). This lasted very long, and I just waited. Finally, the Chinese man got up, and I expected him now to give me feedback on my presentation. I was wrong. He stood up, and said: “Lunch!”.

A very frustrating event for me: I could not finish my story, I did not understand their objections and did not know what the status was, now that we went for lunch. I later learned from our sales people it had been a very good meeting, and that I should not worry. The lively discussion indicated they were enthusiastic about our products, the long discussion in Chinese was a clear manifestation of the Chinese collectively discussing and deciding on their response, and the announcement of ‘lunch’ was not an interruption of the meeting, but rather a sign of trust and willingness to build relationship for the long term.

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When the Dutch participate in business meetings abroad, they should be aware that there are differences between the Dutch way of running a meeting, and the way in which many other countries do. The key differences are very subtle, yet very impactful. We always think that countries like China, Arab countries and African tribes are difficult to communicate with, as there are obvious physical differences between us to be observed. But when visually we cannot see a difference, we should be most cautious. The communication differences between Holland and France or Belgium are bigger, yet more subtle to observe.

I have learned there are 5 things the Dutch should be aware of when they find themselves in a business meeting abroad:

1. The goal of the meeting

Dutch value an efficient way of working, and in our philosophy a meeting is good when is takes little time, everybody can contribute and a clear decision is reached at the end of the meeting (although we are known by other cultures for our willingness to change the decision again next day). In a country like France however, the aim of the meeting is to exchange information and contribute to deployment and consensus building: the real decisions are taken outside the meeting room. This is the case in many other cultures as well: preparing decision-making, taking a decision and building consensus is done outside the meeting room, the meeting itself serves different purposes.

2. Direct or indirect communication

The Dutch are very direct, and say exactly what they want to say. If we do not like a proposal made by our counterpart, we find it very honest to say so and tell him his proposal is bad. No so in cultures which have an indirect style of communication: many other cultures (UK, Japan, Philippines) will be focused on maintaining harmony, and they will use a much more indirect way of communicating. “Ah, your proposal is quite interesting, I think we need to study it much more for its practical applicability” is the indirect way of saying “It’s a bad proposal”.

3. Speed of progress

The interruption of my China business meeting for lunch is not uncommon; the speed of progress in many countries (Brazil, Japan, Italy) is much lower than the impatient Dutch would like to see. In the best case, we fly in for a meeting, explain and discuss, and then reach agreement and fly back home. This is not how most of the countries around us operate. One meeting is just one step in a long sequence of getting to know each other, building up trust and establishing a relationship. This process is very important, especially for countries where relationships of harmony and trust prevail, and where relationships are built up for the long term. Dutch have to learn to be patient when doing business abroad.

4. Role of silences

shutterstock_58170724When in a business meeting our question is followed up by a long silence at the other side of the table, we get uncomfortable. A silence should be broken as quickly as possible, and quite often we just start talking and explaining more, just to break the uncomfortable silence. When dealing with the Japanese, or more closer home with the Finnish, you’d better get used to long silences. This silence is used by the other side of the table to think, process your words and get familiar with the consequences of your proposal. Or it is pure tactic. The Japanese know very well that the best way to get a concession in a negotiation from the Dutch or American counterparts, is to create a long silence and just look at you. We’ll break the silence quickly with yet another concession.

5. Who is in charge

In a business meeting in individualistic countries like Holland and the US, everybody can speak and give his or her opinion. In collectivistic countries (like the majority of the world), consensus needs to be built, and the group needs to decide collectively what to respond. Especially in cultures where hierarchy also plays a big role, people have to make sure the collective opinion is the one of the highest in rank and power; this person will generally speak on behalf of the collective. An important lesson for the Dutch: spend time finding out who is the highest in rank on the other side of the table (or: find out who is the highest in rank anyway, even when he or she is not present in the meeting), and give the collective time to establish a shared opinion.

There are many more differences to be found between the Dutch and the non-Dutch way of dealing with business meetings, but I found the above 5 to be the most difficult to master for many Dutch. These are the ones that cause most confusion. So before your next business trip, spend some time after packing your suitcase for packing your communication bag: study what knowledge you need to communicate effectively with your business counterparts abroad, and do not forget to have that knowledge at-hand while in the meeting. It will help!

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