Volumes have been written about the importance of understanding cultural differences when doing business across borders. Indeed, an unintended faux pas can instantly chill a potential business relationship.
Astute businesspeople will determine in advance the culturally appropriate greeting for meeting new colleagues, and they’d be wise to steer clear of sensitive religious or political issues. But it’s as important to affirm positive aspects of your host culture as it is to avoid those potential landmines.
Sports are often overlooked for their utility in this regard. Since the time of the Greeks, if not before, they’ve played an important role in the social fabric of various societies. Sure, not everyone is a sports fan, but in many places, national fever over a particular pastime can become sort of a backdrop for the broader society, providing a common conversation starter, if not a deeper bond.
In Bhutan, it’s archery. The Japanese are well known for their affinity for baseball. Football, or soccer as we Americans call it, has widespread global appeal in Europe, South America and Africa. In Canada, hockey is a consuming passion.
While much has been made of Americans’ need to adapt to foreign locales, it’s a two-way street: Investors entering our vast, diverse country should understand that in-depth regional knowledge can come in handy here too.
Basketball is the talk of the town in some places. In others, it may be baseball. The National Football League is certainly a force to be reckoned with nationally. But in the American South, home to an increasing array of German auto giants, Korean-owned factories, Belgian flooring firms and innovative Danish technologies, there is one undisputed key to owning the cultural landscape: understanding college football.
A way of life
The first college football game in the Deep South was played between the University of Georgia and Mercer University in 1892. A cultural phenomenon was born that for more than a century has unified men and women from all walks of life, incomes, ages, races and political persuasions through a common cause — cheering for their team in unison. The sport creates a common language and identity that both the the young and old share. And this doesn’t just happen when you root for the same team — fans of the sport have a common language, a collegial bond that allows common ground for conversation, even with rivals.
For many, college football is not just a game, it is a way of life. In the American South, the tradition of Southern Hospitality shows up in the ritual of the tailgating party, an outdoor dining and social experience before a football game, often just outside the stadium. Alumni of various institutions donate in the thousands of dollars for the privilege of landing a coveted on-campus parking spot for the occasion. At the legendary tailgating area known as “The Grove” at the University of Mississippi, they pride themselves in saying, “At Ole Miss we have never lost a party.” The rituals can be as important as the games themselves.
Whether entertaining at the game or watching at home, generations of friends and family use football as a cultural touchstone. This is increasingly vital in today’s world, where a fragmented media landscape has led to a loss of shared experience. College football fans have a collective consciousness around their team. More than that — a collective memory. Ask any fan where they were and who they were with when a great play was made or a great victory was achieved, most will be able to tell you instantly no matter how many years before. I still recall how the fried chicken tasted the day of my first game, when I watched my beloved Georgia Bulldogs win on a last-second field goal. I was 11 years old, and that memory with my father has never faded.
Timing and tact are everything
With games carrying this much cultural weight, you can imagine how important it is for the outsider to be respectful of these six to seven Saturdays per year. Many teams’ followers have certain dates circled months in advance on their calendar. Rivalry games as well of those of great importance to the outcome of a season are not to be missed. Every engaged couple in the South knows not to schedule their wedding day on the date of such a game. It is considered poor form and inconsiderate. Planning an event to promote your business? You need to consult the college football calendar as well.
Planning an event to promote your business? You need to consult the college football calendar as well.
The business impact of the game is huge, both interpersonally and on a macro level. German automobile giant Mercede- Benz understands the branding opportunity offered by both college and professional football. Both the Louisiana Superdome and the new $1.2 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta bear their name. Advertising opportunities for companies from both home and abroad are also utilized to promote their brands.
But it is on the personal level where knowledge of the game is most important. If you enter the office of a customer and see the paraphernalia of their favorite college team on display, an opportunity presents itself. Having the knowledge to pay them a compliment about their team will instantly allow one to build rapport. If you are fluent in the language of college football, a bridge can be built and the new relationship can start off on the right foot.
The same goes for gifts: Much more effective than sending a holiday fruitcake is providing a fan coveted tickets to a game they want to attend. Greater goodwill cannot be had, and the gesture won’t soon be forgotten.
On the flip side, never ask for tickets to a game unless you intend to use them. A European executive I knew once lobbied to get two hard-to-come-by tickets to a rivalry game, then returned them after the fact to a business contact who had worked hard to supply them. The donor was livid.
Simply starting with an understanding of how serious a cultural moment a Saturday afternoon can be will help you avoid such negative outcomes. As William Faulkner once wrote about the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For college football fans this is true. The history of their favorite team lives in their DNA. It is much more than a game to them. It is part of their identity. Those who understand this are more likely to win a friend and make a new business relationship. Those that do not might find themselves in a “fourth and long” situation.
Christopher N. Smith is an attorney who has been in private practice in Macon, Georgia since 1991. His practice maintains a focus on business and personal injury law. In addition to his Georgia-based practice, he frequently counsels and represents foreign subsidiaries establishing companies in Georgia. He has given over 20 lectures in Europe to promote inbound investment in the United States. He also serves as honorary consul of Denmark in Georgia. He may be reached at (478) 477-8145 or firstname.lastname@example.org.