Doing Business Internationally: What JFK Can Teach Us

June 26th marks the 50th anniversary of American President John F. Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in West Berlin.  Kennedy’s historically significant address came after the Soviet backed East Berlin had erected a wall to prevent ease of movement.  Although delivered on a German platform the speech was intended for the world’s stage.  So why are we still talking about this speech?  And better yet, what can this speech teach us about doing international business in a global company?

Kennedy successfully draws in his audience and creates connection with the West Berliners by uttering a few words in German.  Kennedy connected with his listeners by delivering a simple yet passionate message.  With his distinctive Bostonian accent, he is able to relate to the crowd by employing the language of his host country.  Although some believe his declarative is really a cry about his similarity to jelly donuts, he left the podium with cheering crowds.  Hence Kennedy provides an excellent model of what the visitor in a foreign country should thoughtfully replicate.

Quick Tips on doing business internationally:

  1. Learn a few words in the language of your host country.  When meeting with global business partners, an attempt at the local language can establish more rapport and trust than people care to realize.  A simple greeting and ‘thank you’ can go a long way.
  2. Know the name of your partner’s nationality.  Yes, you are communicating with colleagues and customers in English. Therefore, you should know that people from Prague are Czech, people from Amsterdam are Dutch and people from Athens are Greek.  And of course, citizens from Berlin are Berliners.
  3. Be aware of the local political, social, economic climate of the place you are visiting.  You might just be in the country for a few days doing business, but your business partner lives there and is impacted and influenced by their local landscape.  However this is not carte blanche to act like an expert and give advice because every language has a word for someone who is a Klugscheißer.

Moreover compelling communication is not about your agenda, your priorities or your end game.  It is about understanding the needs and concerns of your partner, appreciating their point of view and adding value and meaning to the relationship.

So, have you had your jelly donut moment yet?  Let us know, or if you have any other tips on doing business internationally in the comments are below.

2 replies
  1. Adan Juarez
    Adan Juarez says:

    Hi Lindsay,

    I think that your blog point is spot on. Regarding point number one, I would like to add that in my dealings with people in Asia, people respond with not just trust but interest. It makes for a good springboard into small talk. The discussion typically led to the topic of where I had learned the language and that in turn lead to further opportunities to exchange information about each other’s cultural experiences.

  2. Chad
    Chad says:

    Hi Lindsay,

    In my opinion, this is an interesting take on that speech. I agree with all of the points you made, especially the fact that it’s important to be aware of the local political, social and economic climate of the place where one is doing business.

    Not only will it keep the meeting smooth and prevent possible social gaffes, just a bit of knowledge and effort will help colleagues and clients know you care about their home culture and show you respect them.

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