What Really Really Matters in International Business Relationships

International Mediation Seminar
Warren Hardy, August 12, 2005


I enthusiastically welcome you Third Siders to the Warren Hardy school. I acknowledge you for the time and energy you have put in to come here to discuss ways to help people resolve conflicts in efficient, caring and responsible ways.

William Ury in his book “Must we Fight” says that the motto for the Third Side is to Contain if necessary; Resolve if possible; best of all Prevent. My purpose in speaking to you today is to help you prevent conflict and develop trust in you cross-cultural business relationships.

How many Mexicans are there here today? How many Americans? On behalf of our Mexican friends I welcome you to our lovely city. Nuestra Casa es su Casa. We hope you enjoy yourselves.

How many are here to do business with Mexicans? How many students? How many work in mediation or plan to work in mediation?

Mediation excites me for many reasons; one is the opportunity to give people things they can’t get within the parameters of the courtroom. You can take into consideration what really matters to people.. you can be creative.

I want to share that I am not a mediator. I am not a lawyer or a judge. I am a Spanish teacher of 35 years. My students have always been people like yourselves, professionals wanting to work with Mexicans or live in Mexico. So as a teacher, it has been incumbent on me to help my American friends understand Mexican social protocol. Today more than anything I want to speak from my heart, to share with you some of the things I have learned about how to relate to Mexican people.

I want you to know that as a gringo talking to you about Mexicans, I would never want to seem presumptuous, You see, I am not a Mexican and I haven´t lived the Mexican history. Octavio Paz, Mexicos poet lureate and Nobel Prize winner said, “The only thing all Mexicans have in common is their history.” So because of my love of the Mexican people, I would never wish to mispeak or offend my Mexican friends.

Me, The Ugly American, Personal anecdote
You see, I have been the ugly American and I have made all of the mistakes. I have been ignorant without knowing I was ignorant. I have been arrogant and impatient. I have blundered along thinking I was doing good, when in reality I was not. Please allow me to tell a brief personal anecdote to illustrate what I mean.

In the seventies and early eighties I had a language school in Tucson Arizona. I was young, enthusiastic, and naive. The peso was strong and business was booming along the Arizona Sonora border. We taught professional adults doing business with Mexicans. As a part of the language school we offered a seminar on “How to Do Business in Mexico” and as an adjunct had a consulting firm that brought together American and Mexican counterparts in business relationships. Clients were a helicopter manufacturer that wanted aluminum parts made in Mexico. A soap manufacturer that wanted a factory in Mexico, a health company that wanted alovera, a horse breeder and a bookstore chain owner wanting a distribution partner. In 1983 I sold my school and moved to Guaymas, Sonora. Sometime later, I returned to Tucson and happened to run into one of the previous clients. He told me that the business went bad because the Mexican could not meet product demand, schedules, and never communicated when things went wrong.. I was surprised and chagrinned, but also curious. I wondered what had happened to my other clients. After a few phone calls I found out that several of the businesses had failed. The most successful client was the soap manufacturer. He had fallen in love with his Mexican partners daughter. He was personally involved.

At this point I wanted to hear the Mexican side of the story and made some phone calls. The Mexicans said that the Americans were “pinche prepotentes” (arrogant jerks) and that they were inflexible and made impossible demands. Both sides blamed the other. I was embarrassed. How could so much good intention and hard work turn out so bad? What had I done? What had gone wrong?

This was before I lived in Mexico. This was before I knew what I know today about the importance of cultural understanding in international relationships. I was ignorant then, naive, thinking that by simply putting together counterparts with mutual needs that the business would certainly succeed. I thought that because Mexicans and Americans lived side by side, they pretty much felt the same way about things. I couldn´t have been more wrong. You see, Americans and Mexicans are as different as Bears and Porcupines.

The Bear and the Porcupine
Jeffrey Davidow, the US ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002, wrote a book entitled: The US and Mexico. or The Bear and the Porcupine”. He tells this story.

“One day a porcupine was walking through the forest with his nose in the earth searching for seeds. He did not see the bear and the bear did not see him, because the bear was looking upward searching for berries. He almost stepped on the porcupine. They startled each other. The porcupine made its quills stand up and the bear laughed. “Do you think you can kill me with your little arrows. You are an unpleasant rodent and I am the largest animal in the forest.” “No, you blundering oaf, but do you think you can step on me without suffering the pain of my quills?” “No, said the bear, so I will not kill you. I will allow you to live with me and serve me.” The porcupine kept his quills up. “I do not wish to live with you or serve you, you are a blundering oaf. I will live next to you and watch out for you, but I will serve myself and protect myself with my sharp arrows.” At that point, the Bear and the Porcupine went there separate ways, living next each other and watching out for each other.” The blundering arrogant bear and the spiney porcupine, living side by side but being ever vigilant of each others presence.

Of course, the porcupine does not think of itself as an unpleasant rodent, and the bear does not think of itself as a blundering oaf. In their own minds, they see themselves as the eagles that are their national symbols. So why is this a problem? Well, the simple fact is that we not only live side by side in the forest, we share the forest. These misperceptions stand in the way of us creating better lives for ourselves and our citizens. So what is going on here?

Conflicting and Confusing perceptions
One the surface both Americans and Mexicans are conflicted and confused about each other. They view each other through the bifocal lens of opportunity and threat.

Mexicans want to be consumers of American culture and yet recoil from the threat of cultural inundation.

They want to participate in the American economy and yet are threatened by economic manipulation.

Mexicans want to emulate a democratic political system and yet fear political domination.

The same father who saves all he can to teach his son English and pray that he attends an American University worries about the influence of video games and fast foods.

Mexicans are convinced that immigrants are treated poorly in the U.S., but everyone has a successful cousin living in his own house and driving a late-model car in L.A. or Chicago.

Mexican intellectuals sniff at the barbarism of American culture but could not bear to live without frequent trips to New York.

On the other hand, many Americans think that Mexicans are lazy but they hire Mexicans to do the jobs they aren´t willing to do. .and on and on.

This is all public perception and it matters, but public perception can quickly change.

What Really Matters are Core Values.
What really matters to a people or a nation are the things that don´t change. Core values do not change quickly because they are created over time by history. You see, beyond and below public perception there is history and history is what defines us.

On your table you have 6 value cards. Pick what you think is the top value for an American. Pick the top value for a Mexican.

Ethnologists tell us that the way to understand the values of a country is to understand its history.

Lets take a brief look at the history´s of these two nations, and see what conclusions we come to about their core values.

American History
In the United States history seems to disappear…” I think its because Americans tend to look forward not backwards If you are like me, I remember that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. The declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and of course Texans remember the Alamo. There is more.

The Puritans came here in 1620. These first Americans left England in a time of religious turmoil. You will remember that the Puritans were religious zealots from the Calvinist movement. Their mission was religious freedom, to create a democratic body, and prosper. They believed that they were coming to a promised land and that. if they lived righteously, God would prosper them. The Puritan ethic stated “Work gives man moral dignity, and success gives him honor.” They believed that prosperity was a gift from God. Calvin said, “The more he hath, the more advantage he hath to do good with it.” These people created the American Dream. They declared that all people were intitled to certain inalienable rights: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. From the time they arrived in Plymouth they never looked back. Over the next 100 years the anglo population grew from the original 102 to over 4 million who now inhabited a political body called the 13 colonies. Americans were independent thinkers that believed in hard work and that prosperity was their birthright. Here are a few other key dates that I want you to look at.

You can see that from its inception, America went through a 400 year period of expansion and growth and continues to do so today.

America´s Core Values.
Based on this history, everyone please put in order what you think are American’s top three values.

Ethnologists tell us that Americans three most important values are:

  1. Financial opportunity - Americans seek financial opportunity and demand results. Americans have devised an economic system based on opportunity and free enterprise. Americans believe that a society which fosters competition and financial opportunity will progress rapidly. Material acquisition is the reward for hard work and serious intent; a reward they think that all people would enjoy if they were as industrious and hard working as Americans.
  2. Time and its control – Time is, for the average American, of utmost importance. Schedules are meant to be planned and followed in the smallest detail. Americans love it when a plan comes together. Americans are completely controlled by the little machine they wear on their wrists, cutting their discussions off abruptly to make it to their next appointment on time. In America it is considered rude to be late, even by 10 minutes, and if you are late, you must call. Americans language is filled with references to time, giving clear indication of how much it is valued. Time is something to be “on, to be kept, filled, saved, used, spent, wasted, lost, gained, planned, given, made the most of, and yes, time can even be killed.”
  3. Individual freedom - The pilgrims were entrepreneurs. They came here to build their own nation. In America each individual is seen as completely and marvelously unique, that is, totally different from all other individuals, and therefore, his individual freedom must be preserved. An American takes credit for what he has accomplished by himself or herself. The self-made man or woman is still very much an ideal in America and individual freedom provides the platform for Americans to manifest their dreams.

*1812 James Madison declares a policy of Manifest Destiny – He said “It was America’s manifest destiny to expand westwards to the Pacific Ocean, from sea to shining sea. Madison said, ”The right of our manifest destiny was to spread over and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty.” This became the rational for the Mexican American War.

*1848 Mexican American War – America annexed what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado. This was the first American conflict driven by the idea of Manifest Destiny. As Americans moved onto Mexican territory there was a need to protect them from falling under the rule of Mexico.

Mexican History
So what do the Mexicans value? Let’s look at their history.

First of all we must remember that México has been inhabited for thousands of years. First came the Olmecs, then the Toltecs: The great civilizations occurred in MesoAmerica from 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D. This was a relative peaceful period, and sophisticated civilizations arose. Millions of people interacted in ceremony, architecture, art, music and of course, commerce. There were the Zapotecs in Monte Alban, the Teotihuacanos north of Mexico City and the Mayas in the Yucatan. The Aztecs came into power 100 years before the conquest, about 1400 A.D. At the time Cortés arrived in the Americas in 1519, he encountered a civilization which numbered about 20 million people and 100 Indian nations whose economic, social and scientific achievements rivaled any similar advancement in Africa, Asia, or Europe. Then came the Conquistador.

The Conquest of Mexico
Historians tell us that the Spanish conquistadores were a driven people obsessed with lust for riches and glory for themselves, for Spain, and for the Catholic Church. They saw no evil in the death and destruction they inflicted on the people of Mexico. In fact, they perceived the Indians as subhuman and over several decades they systematically destroyed the political, economic, and religious foundations of what was a flourishing life for Indians living in Mexico. All people became slaves working to send Mexico’s resources back to Spain.

During this 300 year holocaust brought by Spain some 90% of the Indian population (17 million) was killed directly or by disease brought by Spaniards.

After 300 years of slavery came the revolution of 1810 when Mexico gained it´s independence from Spain. The problem for the majority of the people was that life continued to be pretty much the same. The aristocracy remained in power and most of Mexico’s people were relegated to a life of serfs working the great haciendas. This was to last for another 100 years.

Mexican American War – United States Intervention in Mexico
It is important to note here that after the revolution of 1810, Mexico’s new leaders had their own problems. Mexico found itself in a state of general anarchy, Its territory was huge, really more than the new government could manage or protect, particularly in the north. Slowly Americans moved into the Mexican territory and eventually a land grab occurred that was called the Mexican American War. America annexed what are now the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado.

Americans should know and remember that every Mexican child who studies the history of his country learns about the greedy Americans who attacked their nation and took half their land. Every school child in Mexico City visits the Museum of Interventions. In its pamphlet page 7. First paragraph it says: Intervencion Norteamericana In 1848 “Mexico lost more than half of its territory at the hand of the United States of America. The reasons? Territorial greed by the United States and the anarchy in Mexico. Now, almost 150 years later we are business associates and this border has become a permanent scar that reminds us of the turbulence of the nineteen century.” Between the revolution of 1810 and the revolution of 1910 Mexico experienced six foreign interventions. Three from United States.

Interventions on America – Let Us Not Forget
America has experienced two foreign interventions: Pearl Harbor, December 7, !941. We lost 2500 citizens, and the attack on the World Trade Center Sept 11, 2001 where 3000 lives were taken from us. We are sensitive about these attacks and hold the victims sacred. We tell ourselves that “We cannot forget what happened and we cannot allow that to ever happen again.” It is no wonder that Mexicans cannot forget about the loss of their civilization, the enslavement of their people, and interventions from the big bear to the north. Jorge Casteñada, the Mexican secretary of Exterior said, “The problem between the United States and Mexico is simple. The United States refuses to recognize its history and Mexico refuses to forget it.”

After 100 years of the great haciendas and serfdom came revolution of 1910 to 1921. The revolution of Pancho Villa and Zapata over land. Finally the great haciendas were broken down. For the first time in 400 years land was available to the common people. Lets keep in mind that this revolution only occurred 84 years ago. Some countries live closer to their history than others and no country lives closer to its history than Mexico.

Soul of Mexico
I am amazed that Mexicans are not more bitter and resentful than they are, and how despite such a legacy, the Mexicans are kind, thoughtful, generous, and have an extraordinarily sunny disposition that is expressed in art, literature, music, and song.

I believe that this is because the Spanish over-throw only partially succeeded. You can´t wipe out thousands of years of civilization in 400 years. It is true that Mexicans went from a nation of relative prosperity and a joyous civilization to a nation of slaves, then serfs, and finally servants. Most people experienced lives of fear, frustration, and sadness for generations.

But it is important to realize that the Aztecs and other Mexican indians had a rich philosophical, emotional, and spiritual life. Despite the destruction of his physical world, what the Mexican hung on to was soul.

Even so, life has been difficult for generations of people, this 400 years of authoritarian rule and foreign intervention has left its cultural imprint on the psyches and minds of the Mexican people. This powerful imprint is what forms the foundation for Mexican values and social protocol

Mexican Values
So when we consider Mexicos rich Indigenous and European history and mix it in with 400 years of authoritarian rule, what do Mexicans value? Please place you cards in order of what you think are the top three Mexican values. Again, ethnologists tell us:

  1. Pride, personal dignity and respect – When everything else was taken away the only thing the Mexican had control over was his personal pride and dignity. . Any lack of respect takes that away and a Mexican will not tolerate lack of respect. Mexican pride is a powerful force. In Mexico everyone is entitled to personal dignity, no matter where they work, what they wear, or what they drive.

    In the mid 1800,s a social movement took place to give all people a way of expressing respect and of maintaining personal dignity no matter the social class. It came from the Cortesía of old Spain. Today it is the basic social protocol that all Mexicans respect. Americans should know and use these courtesies if they live or work in Mexico. Being able to show respect is a key skill. It shows that you know how to act. It was based on the concept of acknowledging someone when you enter or leave their space. It consists of:

    • The formal greetings and farewells
    • Asking permission when entering or leaving someone’s space.
    • A blessing on the meal when entering someone’s space.
  2. Trust – From the beginning U.S. business relationships have generally been based on accepted practices and laws. Not so much in Mexico. Historically, the only protection Mexican business people have had is the personal bonds that have been established between them. The important thing is that once this trust is developed problems can be solved easily, quickly, and completely with the help of Mexican friends. Personal contacts in the right places continue to be the way things get done efficiently. This brings us to:
  3. Family and friends – Mexicans love their families. They venerate children and old people. They live in three generation households. Mexicans love being with Mexicans. They pass hours in idle chatter. Mexicans love music and all Mexicans know all the words to the classic Mexican songs. It is not uncommon to be in a group of 5000 Mexicans and everyone is singing to the music. The family is the foundation of Mexican society and Personal interaction is the basis of business in Mexico.

    Mexico is a dynamic country going through rapid change. The old politics with political connections is becoming the new politics of bureaucrats. However, even today trust and personal friendships play an extremely important role in the development and maintenance of good business relationships.

So that is what ethnologists say about Mexicans. I want to tell you what a Mexican is to me. The longer I live in Mexico, the more I see clearly the soul of Mexico, the enduring part that was never conquered through the conquest. Mexicans are of the earth from ancient civilizations. They are a race of people whose blood was spilled in its very creation. They are a solitary people, having been created and survived on this very spot. They are the porcupine. Their shamanic roots go deep. They have been a shamanic spiritual society for thousands of years. They live from their hearts. They love to play and celebrate all of life, there joy and their sorrow. In spite of their social class, their education, or whatever may differentiate them within their country, they stand in solidarity as a unique tribe and nation. They share the same history and the same blood. They can and do stand against the world as Mestizos, Mexicans, la Raza, indestructible and proud. They are a dynamic race of people who has recreated itself in modern times with its own identity, beliefs, and values.

Nothing compares to Mexican food and sauces with their combinations of spices and flavors. Mexicans have tequila and believe that tequila can cure everything from the flu to a broken heart.

I can tell you that my association with Mexicans has made me a better person. I used to be one of the type A guys who made a lot of demands and expected a lot of results. That was painful. Today I am more patient, more generous, and more kind. I will live longer and happier because of my association with Mexicans.

If you are an American doing business with Mexicans or working in mediation don´t be a blundering arrogant oaf. Be aware of history. Show respect and develop a personal relationship. Be patient.

If you are a Mexican doing business with Americans, Don´t be an over sensitive porcupine. Keep you quills in check. Show Respect and develop a personal relationship. Be patient and communicate when things go wrong.

Here is what to do. Get personally involved.

  1. Finding the right partner - In his book, ‘Mexican Etiquette and Ethics?, Lafayette DeMente says that, “the challenge for both sides is to find the right partner and then develop a relationship of trust.” Decide you are going to have a relationship based on respect and trust with you Mexican counterpart. Don´t let history stand in the way of your friendship. Take time to cultivate a personal relationship.
  2. Find out what matters – You might say: “I am excited to do business with you and I see great opportunity here for both of us. I suggest you tell me what matters to you, and I will tell you what matters to me.”
  3. Take time for serious play – Friendships are made over food and drink and so is good business. Remember: In Mexico, play is a ritual. In America, work is a ritual. At any social event be prepared to stay the course. Take a nap before you go out. Your objective is to get to know your client. Laugh together and have a bonding of the heart. Ask questions about families and interests. Express your appreciation for your family and life in general. Take gifts, photos, pictures of your family, and express your love of the Mexican culture.
  4. Never dismiss or talk down – Resist comparing one country to another. This usually turns out wrong.
  5. Learn Spanish and use the social protocol.

When Problems Occur
In a perfect world the parties involved in international business relationships would be sensitive and knowledgeable of the other party´s culture and traditional ways of life. But sometimes the blundering bear raises its arrogant head and the oversensitive porcupine throws its quills in the air. Then things go wrong so wrong that the individuals cannot come to resolution alone. That is when they need help.

And that is why we have come here today, to discuss ways to help our clients find practical and creative solutions to resolve conflict.

We will all agree that mediation is the practical way to resolve conflict, but I would like to close by saying that I believe that mediation is not only practical, it is also spiritual. It is the path of the peacemaker. Gandhi said: “When you have resolved conflict you have opened the door to peace.” Never in the history of our planet has peace been more important.

Please look again at your value cards and select the cards that you yourself value.

Now we are down to what really matters. Of course public perception matters. Core values really matter. But what really matters is realizing that we are all animals living in the same forest, some of us are bears, some are porcupines, we are unique but all the same.

We all want the same things. We all want to be respected and trusted. We all want prosperity in our lives. We all love our families and our friends. We all have much to offer each other. What really really matters is the human relationship and connecting through the heart. This connection will empower our businesses to weather the storms of change. Mexicans have a great toast that reminds us what really really matters. Please repeat after me. Salud, , Amor, , Dinero, – y el tiempo para gozarlos.

Much energy has been used by people with vision, talent, and good hearts to bring us together. Let us create the union between our groups that will serve many.

Gracias por su atención.

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One Response to “What Really Really Matters in International Business Relationships”

  1. Sharon says:

    Brilliant! From the opening sentence to the final word, I found myself thoroughly engaged, lingering at moments to take in the full impact of what was being said, smiling in some parts, heart broken in others. Your passion for people — for relationships… especially international — is evident in this piece. Truly, this essay, (speech?), is relational art. Thank you for sharing it.

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