The Business of Culture or the Culture of Business?

By Nicholas Gagnon
Director of Sales – Americas & Global Distribution


Conducting business in Canada is certainly different than in China, but it is also different than doing business in the USA.  Understanding and respecting cultural mores and local business etiquette are essential skills needed to cultivate strong business relationships.  This Blog will look at the lessons I have learned over the years that have helped to guide my career.


After a few trips to Asia, I was becoming not only accustomed to the culture, but I was also building strong business relationships with my customers, suppliers and distributors.

Scene: At a nice restaurant in Beijing, China, my distributor treated me to a special dinner of Peking Duck. The dinner would be memorable for more than just the food!


Lesson Number Three: Ask and Listen

When we arrived at the restaurant, I was presented with a beautiful plate containing two duck legs and a tongue. (See photo). I have always been a curious and adventurous person, which has served me well, especially on my trips to Asia.  However, in this case, I was a little skeptical, so I thought it prudent to wait for my dinner companions to receive their plates before tasting.  My distributor, noticing my hesitation, explained that as their honored guest, only I would receive these delicacies.  Upon hearing this and understanding the symbolism behind the dish, I dug in and thought of my mother always telling me to finish my plate.  Needles to say, there was a lot of laugher around the table. That dinner allowed me to show respect towards their culture and to gain credibility in the eyes of my distributor, and later, to clients when I shared the story. Between you and I, it really did taste like chicken!

What I have learned over the years in terms of the culture of business and business culture is simple: be yourself, show personality, be respectful of cultural differences and embrace them, ask questions and listen to the answers.  You go into any meeting accepting that you are now in a potentially new and different world.  Share your amazement at something you saw, heard or ate.  Highlight similarities or differences compared to back home.  When this is done without judgement and a true sense of curiosity, it is a truly effective way of building bridges and setting a foundation to a solid business relationship. You don’t need to be an expert on any topic to engage in conversation. You just need to be sincere and actively listen.  What you learn will help you on your next call or meeting, and that is a powerful asset.

Sales and business development are about relationships.
As much as business discussions are vital to success, so are personal discussions.
In Asia, going to a karaoke bar and talking about family, friends, vacations, pets and sports is part of the business fabric; after all, it can’t always be all business and no fun!

In the end, you realize that no matter the country of origin, people are not that different from one another.  People like people.  People respond well to interesting people who show appreciation and a child like curiosity, and relationships are built through dialogue and mutual respect.