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Smiling at strangers in Russia is frowned upon, says Bernadette Wightman, president of Cisco Canada.

When she moved to Toronto to take over as president of Cisco Canada at the tail end of last year, Bernadette Wightman could afford to smile.

In her previous post as general manager of Cisco's operations in Russia, Ukraine and 10 other Commonwealth of Independent States countries, Ms. Wightman had discovered that smiling at strangers was frowned upon. Days into starting her 15-month stint there, a Russian colleague had pulled her aside to advise her that the only people who did so were rich men and idiots.

The reality of Russian culture quickly forced the Manchester-born Englishwoman to re-examine her interactions.

"It didn't actually stop me smiling, because I kind of can't do that," she says. "But it really did make me look at the other person and made me see, particularly with customers, was I getting the smile back and was that smile extending to the eyes?"

Her experiences in Russia weren't the first time that Ms. Wightman had been forced to make adjustments during her more than 15 years with Cisco. In her previous role as a Cisco managing partner responsible for emerging markets, including the Middle East and Africa, she found some equally challenging cultural differences.

Not allowed to drive

As a woman working in Saudi Arabia, for example, she was unable to drive a car, stay on the same hotel floors as the male members of her team, or go into a closed-door office with someone. Instead, she met with her team in a glass fishbowl office, so the meetings were highly visible.

"That willingness to learn new things, not just be aware of them, to actually learn them, I think is really important because you have to adapt and you have to adjust," she says now.

She also says she was also able to add some different values to her work there, such as being able to go and visit the Saudi princesses, a privilege forbidden to her male colleagues.

However, Ms. Wightman didn't necessarily agree with all the local rules, but as a businesswoman first and foremost, she was there to work and recruit the best new talent.

"In Saudi Arabia – it's an extreme example – but there are things I don't agree with," she says. "There are things right across the world that I don't agree with, the way that some countries treat sexual orientation and things like that.

'Respect' cultures

"But in the context of a workplace I think it's important that we respect a culture."

While doing research ahead of time is of paramount importance, it's only by experiencing a new culture, by doing business there in person, that full understanding can really be reached, say experienced business people.

"You don't know what you don't know," says Saul Klein, dean of the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria and Lansdowne professor of international business.

Having been born in Zimbabwe, studied in Israel and done business in the United States, Singapore and South Africa, Mr. Klein is keenly aware of some of the problems businesspeople run into when operating overseas.

"We tend to make assumptions about how other people are going to behave based on our own experience," he says. "It's only when we have some kind of a negative reaction or something doesn't work that we start questioning and realizing that the other people that we're interacting with essentially see the world differently."

As Mr. Klein explains, corporations use expatriate assignments to build that direct experience because an inability to understand local cultures and customs makes it difficult to decipher any reports coming out of a particular country.

In his opinion, the basic decision to be made when operating globally is one of standardization versus adaptation.

"So do we do everything the same way as we do it at home, or do we adapt and do it fundamentally differently?"

The reality, he explains, falls somewhere in the middle, as it becomes way too expensive to adapt everything.

The business of language

In the case of Cisco, the company functions in English in every country it operates in, except for Japan.

But making assumptions about a country that is perceived to be similar to the one of origin can be dangerous, too, leading in some cases to a false sense of security.

Nerella Campigotto, who runs international business development agency Boomerang Consulting in Vancouver, tells the story of an Australian woman who came to Canada in a management capacity. Though she was making a lot of the decisions that she felt were expected of her, she felt shunned by her colleagues.

"In Australia, the consensus [on a decision] is reached very quickly amongst some people and then there's action," she says. "Although a lot of people would say Canada and Australia are very similar, in Canada it's a longer process and you are expected to make decisions based on committee or teams that are involved so it's not as individualistic."

Having worked in Japan herself – where for six years she ran an executive training program for the European Union in Tokyo – Ms. Campigotto learned quickly from personal experience that some of the things that seemed natural to her growing up in Switzerland or at school in Australia would no longer fly.

"Sometimes when talking to someone I'd touch them on the arm as I was talking to them," she says. "It was a subconscious act. But that's a big no-no in Japan."

Learn three phrases

With regards to language barriers, she recommends learning three phrases. She says nobody would expect someone to learn every language businesses operate in, but three phrases show a certain amount of respect to locals in the face of the reality that business is being conducted generally in English.

In working overseas, Ms. Campigotto says she has learned not to apply her own cultural biases to situations she finds herself in.

Even if local practices were objectionable to westerners, such as different standards for women, her perspective was, "If you want to get things done, you've got to play by their rules."

It's a sentiment that is echoed by Ms. Wightman, but as she admits, there are limits. For instance, when it comes to operating in a country that revolves around a culture of bribes to get business done, that's a complete non-starter.

"That's not about culture, that's about running an ethical, well-governed business and that's non-negotiable, it doesn't matter which country you're in," she says.

But in doing business globally, Ms. Wightman has had her share of light-hearted cultural observations.

A camel out the sunroof

While in Dubai on business, she says she saw something that made her pause. "There was a camel sticking out of the sunroof in a small car," she says. "That was weird. You're driving down the road and suddenly a camel pokes its head out of a sunroof."

Follow Paul Attfield on Twitter: @paulattfieldOpens in a new window

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