Watching World Cup Can Improve Your Global Business Skills

This essay was written for the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Chamber of Commerce blog in June, 2014.

More than three billion people around the world are expected to watch a World Cup match some time in the next month, truly making it the world’s biggest game. Yet for all this global madness there is a major – and vocal – group in the United States who condemn soccer, or (gasp) football, by offering the following examples:

  1. There’s not enough scoring and therefore not exciting.
  2. All the fake injuries and flopping on the ground ruins “the beautiful game.”
  3. The U.S. doesn’t dominate football on a global scale.

It is clear these opinions stem from comparing America’s popular sports like American football, basketball and baseball to soccer.  True, many of our American heroes, both real and fictional, are derived from these homegrown sports, which shows what we value as a society.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you know what the difference between a striker and a fullback is but what others perceive as your response to soccer could say something about your mindset, personal character and global business skills.

The negative opinions on soccer above might reveal a bit of ethnocentrism and closed-mindedness, which is a major deal killer in global business.  Showing a bit of cultural appreciation and open-mindedness is a key factor in developing international relationships with your company staff, business partners and potential customers.

Knowing about popular sports in countries around the world could be an easy way to show your international contacts you are interested in what they might like and value, but it also creates bonds of overlapping interests and shared experience.  This could also be foods, music, literature, famous companies or brands, or local geography.  You don’t have to necessarily like any of these topics, but knowing who Lionel Messi is and what teams he plays for, or by the same token someone like  Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai or Brazilian musical superstar Tom Jobin, can demonstrate your interest in a part of the world where you might be doing business.

In addition, being able to eat or drink a famous locally produced food or drink, and the ability to smile when you are finished whether you like it or not, shows you are open-minded and good-natured. One famous example is baijiu, a rice wine in China both loved and reviled by locals and foreigners alike.  If you can understand a little history of it, maybe even sip it and smile, you communicate an appreciation that will certainly be noticed.

One definition for the word “culture” is “performed rules and rituals,” so in essence, understanding culture is learning the rules, how to perform them and when to perform them. For those who might think soccer is too boring or don’t understand the rules, try explaining the nuanced rules of American football or baseball in five minutes.

I recently went with a Chinese colleague to a Major League Baseball game and it took about two hours for him to grasp it.  The highlight was how positive and open he was to learning about the game and the enthusiasm he showed toward the game in progress.  All the American colleagues who joined us were impressed by this simple zeal, whether he truly liked baseball or not.

The key here is positive expression.  There is nothing wrong with holding your personal opinions on foreign cultural practices, but keeping those opinions to yourself and demonstrating your enthusiastic and flexible views shows curiosity and interest on your part.  Imagine for a moment that our Chinese colleague explicitly stated, “I don’t like baseball and I don’t understand the rules.” There’s a good chance the Americans at the game would perceive this as a rejection and might widen the cultural gap that already exists.  Instead, he showed high interest and even commented to us American colleagues, “This might be the only chance I get to see a professional baseball match in America.”

All it takes are some open-ended questions to learn the cultural history and rituals behind something like soccer, such as famous players, leagues, famous teams and historic moments.  While such specialized knowledge might not immediately seem germane to the business at hand, such common points of interest are invaluable in founding and furthering the relationships business is based on.

Preparation for such instances could be a travel book like Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide, available at the local library, which all have excellent cultural primers.  Another book worth mentioning is Livermore’s Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success.  Most importantly, people native to cultures will be happy to instruct you before you depart –local universities and chambers of commerce could help you there.  After that, some initiative and Internet research will take you far.

Living in China for seven years, I can attest that watching football matches with locals and expats made a world of difference in making friends and business contacts.  It took the focus away from the hackneyed “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” questions and allowed for more meaningful interaction. This, in turn, set up opportunities to meet again.  I knew I was making headway in developing rapport when I heard people give me the backhanded compliment, “He’s American but he’s OK.”  Even here in the States I have developed a varied group of wonderful international friends from many countries playing in the 2014 World Cup.  How’s that for global reach?

So go ahead, call it football, study the game and watch your international business contact list develop like America’s future football stars. After all, three billion people can’t all be wrong.