How To Have A Successful Meeting Overseas

May 23, 2017
Myriam Siftar, CEO, MTM LinguaSoft
MTM LinguaSoft provides “made-to-measure” professional translation and localization services to growing businesses in the Delaware Valley.
twitter: @mtmlinguasoft

If your team is preparing to meet with a group from overseas, regardless of whether you are visiting or hosting, you should plan to overcome linguistic and cultural differences. Even if your foreign counterparts speak English fluently and are accustomed to dealing with Americans, preparation will boost the likelihood of a successful meeting.

Cultural training

Cultural training provides information about another culture’s business etiquette and prepares your team for unfamiliar social cues. In some cultures, inappropriate reactions or behavior can undermine the trust-building process. Cultural training answers practical questions like: How far apart do you stand when shaking hands? Who sits first, and who sits where? Who speaks, who remains silent, and how should you interpret that silence? Should you expect to socialize before talking business, or will you start talking about business matters right away? More importantly, training prior to the meeting helps your team interpret culturally different behaviors and expectations around negotiation, information sharing, authority, and conflict resolution in a business setting.

Scheduling a debriefing session with the trainer and your team after the meeting or event can also yield useful insights to help with the next meetings, and establish the groundwork for on-boarding and training additional team members as the relationship between the two organizations develops.

Interpretation vs. Translation

Many foreign business people speak English. However, operating in a second language creates cognitive strain that can interfere with information processing. University of Chicago researchers found that information provided in a second language creates “cognitive distance from automatic processes, promoting analytical thought and reducing unthinking, emotional reactions.” On one level, of course you want your overseas colleagues to think rationally. But on another level, establishing trust relies on emotional intelligence as well as rationality.

As Nelson Mandela put it,

“if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

To develop a trusting relationship, speaking the same language (to the extent that is possible) is important.

Translation and interpretation are terms used interchangeably in common parlance but they mean different things. Interpreting is performed live, either consecutively (the presenter and the interpreter taking turns) or simultaneously (as at the UN, where the audience hears the interpreter speaking simultaneously with the presenter). Translation, on the other hand, has to do with written documents and other media. Preparing for an international business meeting can require both.


An interpreter is an important asset. If you are traveling to the meeting, hiring a local interpreter can be more cost-effective than bringing your own.

Before the meeting:

  • Provide your agenda ahead of time along with presentation materials so your interpreter understands your goals and is prepared to interpret them.
  • Share names and job titles of attendees, if you can. In some cultures. The job titles mean a lot because of cultural beliefs about hierarchy. As your proxy, your interpreter should be aware of the relative status of the individuals in the room. If possible, provide background information on the individuals who will attend the meeting.
  • Hire interpreters who are well-versed in the specialized knowledge required by your business and/or the specific purpose of the meeting (i.e. technical meeting vs. contract negotiations).
  • Provide a glossary of terms that are specific to your process and products so the interpreter can have the right words top of mind.
  • Plan for multiple interpreters if the meetings are longer than one hour. For simultaneous interpretation, the standard is to be “on” for a maximum of twenty minutes at a time. Interpreting is very hard work, and breaks restore much-needed focus.


Translate your business cards, with English on one side and the target language on the other. Study up on the etiquette of business card exchange. For example, in Japan, one must present the business card with both hands, Japanese side up, and accept your counterpart’s card with both hands and take a minute to read it. Respect the card (and its owner) by putting it in a card holder. Don’t absently stick it in your pocket and for heaven’s sake don’t write on it!

For the meeting itself, if you plan to present slides, translate the content. This will enhance your audience’s understanding and make the interpreter’s preparation easier.

If you plan to share promotional materials (for example, if you are meeting with a foreign distributor), have these professionally translated. Pay attention to marketing copy: a slogan or tagline can sound ridiculous or even offensive when translated literally in another language (for example, Coors’s slogan “turn it loose” suggested Spanish slang for diarrhea in some Latin American countries). Chinese characters serve double duty as both words and as phonemes, so translating brand names into Chinese is particularly risky. A translation partner with a deep understanding of local culture and idioms will help you avoid embarrassment.

Plan for the future

As your business relationships in the country deepen, take steps toward making your web presence truly international. A foreign-language website (or landing page or microsite) will support your in-country sales team while strengthening your brand independently of your distributor. Your language service partner can store the translations and glossary of terms from the initial round of meetings in a translation memory to re-use for future projects.

International business meetings tend to feel particularly high-stakes, because so much effort has been put into setting them up. However, thorough preparation beforehand will lay the groundwork for a useful and productive event.

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