Expanding your business beyond the MENA region is a challenge. People in the know cite such a venture’s costliness, point out that you’ll have to build yourself a new network, add that you’ll need to learn new administrative and legal rules, and remind you that you’ll have to find a way to work in a language that is not yours. Most of these things you can teach yourself through Google, but there’s one you cannot learn from an article: a foreign culture.
People in Europe or North America sometimes think and act differently. How should you act when you enter a meeting? Are the rules to networking there different from those of the MENA? How should you present yourself?
At Wamda, we’ve asked people who succeeded in Europe and North America about what they wished they knew before they moved there, how to avoid faux-pas and misunderstandings, and how to negotiate life in these new cultures.
Understand the meaning behind the words
Words don’t have the same meanings in all countries. To share your ideas and get your opinions across without offending anyone, it’s necessary to understand how people in a given country tend to communicate and interact.
In the US, you'd better forget the word ‘bad’. Ahmed Mhiri is a Tunisian entrepreneur who founded Travelcar, a peer-to-peer carsharing platform, in France and expanded into the US. Mhiri noticed that when Americans criticize something, they often don’t want to sound too dismissive and thereby hurt anyone’s feelings. As a result, they adopt comparative terms, saying ‘not the best’ when they mean ‘bad’, or ‘not the brightest’ for ‘stupid’. Sometimes, to avoid sounding categorical, they begin a statement of fact with ‘I believe’ or ‘It seems’.
Similarly, you can’t convey interest in the same way in each and every country. In the US, people tend to be overly enthusiastic: ‘everything is awesome’, as the song goes. In Britain, people tend to understate things and retain an air of reserve: if you’re too enthusiastic, people won’t take you seriously. In France, investors don’t like people who brag. Thus, muzzle your zeal and let the numbers talk.
Decipher body language
Physical interaction also changes from one country to another. What is appropriate in one country might seem too personal or too cold in another.
Samer Wagdy, founder of online gaming community GBarena, recalled moving from Cairo to Marseille for the French Tech Ticket program.
“When I first came to the incubator,” he said, “people were so welcoming that they were too close, and I didn't know why, until someone came and told us whenever a lady comes to say hi it's normal to give a kiss on the cheek, which is not normal to do with someone you barely know in Egypt, so everything went okay until I came back to Egypt for a visit and forgot that I'm not in France anymore.”
Don’t give the wrong impression. Pay attention to the extent, if any, that people around you kiss, hug, shake hands, and keep their space. Then, act accordingly.
Figure out how to collaborate with people
Is the culture of the country you’re moving to individualistic or collaborative? Tunisian Emna Ghariani, CEO of Poindevster and global director for MENA at Founder Institute, has been living in Silicon Valley for two years. According to her, people there value what others bring to the table.
“Here in Silicon Valley, it's all about the teams, all about collaboration, it's all about being thankful for what you have and what people do for you," she remarked.
This means that engaging with people, even to ask for assistance, is the norm. "In our culture, we don't do that,” she claimed. “It makes you feel like a loser if you ask for something, whereas here, it's all about collaboration and asking for help."
At the same time, there is a feeling that, when speaking, you must not ramble. People will listen, as they love to hear about new companies and such, but only if you keep it short. It is not the same case in the MENA, where people tend to linger, and do not share much about their ventures.
Mhiri of Travelcar, said that in Silicon Valley, you need to “be straightforward and [get] to the point,” because “the concept ‘time is money’ is taken seriously in this business culture.”
Plunge into the culture
Other than just paying attention and asking questions, what can you do to absorb a culture? Mhiri suggested spending a year in academic study, to discover the culture and to make friends. For Wagdy, of GBarena, if you have no desire (or budget) to obtain a master’s degree, take it upon yourself as soon as you arrive to leverage the diaspora as they make for excellent guides.
“I was surprised when I realized that speaking English in France is something weird,” he recollected. “However, I was more surprised when I found a lot of people who speak Arabic.”
He was surprised but also heartened, as in his everyday life, this helped a lot; Wagdy could easily find a shopkeeper or client who spoke Arabic to help him translate. At the French incubator Belle de Mai, he and his Egyptian colleagues had to ask for help from Arabic speakers until they learned to speak French.
So, you shouldn’t be shy (a few missteps and mispronounced words along the way are virtually inevitable), neither should you remain oblivious to how things are done around you. With the proper combination of inquisitiveness and adventurism, you’ll be acquiring a new culture and language in no time.