Culture influences a variety of international business tasks. Foremost among them are negotiation practices, communication style and general business protocol.
Business and social etiquette are important attributes for success in overseas markets. Being aware of the different rules of intercultural etiquette will ensure more rewarding personal and global trade relationships.
1. Use names and titles correctly.
It is extremely important to learn the correct pronunciation of foreign names, even if they are difficult.
Sliding by or making a joke about a name is inexcusable in any culture.
Similarly, be prepared to accept that certain cultures care about proper titles.
The Germans and Swiss use titles and formal address. The Japanese place great importance on knowing a person’s title and position in the corporate hierarchy, and they want to know how a company compares with their own in terms of size and history.
2. Not all handshakes are created equal.
Shake hands with people for varying lengths of time and with varying intensity. For example, the Danes prefer a vigorous handshake. The Belgians find a pumping handshake to be unrefined. In Italy, everyone at a meeting shakes hands with everyone else.
3. Gender roles in business.
Be sensitive to the fact that businesswomen may be expected to greet their host or counterpart differently than men in certain cultures. For example, the practice of kissing women’s hands was common in Italy, Spain and Poland until recently. It has now fallen into disuse, though it may still be observed at social functions.
4. Adapt to the greeting style of each country or region within a country.
While Americans tend to move to a first-name basis quickly, other countries are less likely to do so. The British never use first names unless explicitly invited to do so.
In Switzerland, it is common to use a first name with a title, such as Mister George. In Japan, the name should be followed by san (e.g., Jones-san) to indicate the equivalent of “Mister.”
5. The use and significance of business cards.
Learn the use, presentation, hidden meanings and importance of business cards. Marketers should translate and print their business cards in at least one of the languages of the host country. In Belgium, French and Dutch would be useful; in Switzerland, German and French are appropriate.
In Japan, the business card is considered an extension of the owner.
The business card owner offers the card with the front side facing upwards toward the recipient. Presenting the business card with both hands grasping the top corners of the card shows respect to the recipient.
The business card is received with both hands, studied carefully and commented upon. It is extremely rude to put it away quickly or to stick it in a wallet or back pocket. A separate cardholder should be carried to collect business cards and this should be kept in a front jacket pocket.
6. Dress for your setting.
Find out what is appropriate attire for business and social settings. In Australia, dress codes are less formal for the warmer regions of the country, but in some tropical countries, a business suit may still be expected regardless of the heat.
Generally, it is not a good idea to wear local costume to business meetings, though it may be appropriate for some social functions.
If local attire is worn, care must be taken that it is put on and worn properly so as not to ridicule or cause offence to the trading partner.
7. Be aware of conversational styles and avoid slang or jargon.
There are conversational topics that are taboo in some countries, but not in others. Danes do not discuss personal incomes, whereas Greeks may wish to. The Danes would also find it odd to have someone comment on their clothes.
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Conversations about family are avoided in Germany, but encouraged in Spain or Greece. Business can be discussed over lunch in most countries but not at dinner in some (e.g., Britain and Belgium). Never compare the Swiss to the Germans. Avoid talking about Cyprus to the Turks.
Do not talk about the Second World War with Germans or Japanese. Do not offer opinions about poverty or foreign aid to Indians and avoid discussions of religion with Muslims. On the other hand, Greeks like to talk about politics and will do so in such an animated way that to an outsider it may seem like they are violently arguing.
8. Find out in advance about gestures or body language that may cause offence.
Indians and many Muslims do not use their left hand for food or greetings. In some countries, it is rude to show one’s hosts the bottom of one’s shoes. In some European countries, it is considered ill bred to use a toothpick.
Many cultures find it rude to keep hands below a table or out of sight.
The Danes smile automatically, but that does not necessarily indicate agreement. The Greeks will smile even if they are angry, and they indicate “no” with an upward nod of the head and a click of the teeth.
9. Check your calendar, and check theirs too!
Arrange the itinerary to avoid holidays, feast days and other special periods when businesses might be closed.
For example, this is true from mid-June to mid-August in many European countries. In Muslim countries during the month of Ramadan, work ceases and people do not discuss business after midday.
10. Remain patient—time has different meanings in different cultures.
If negotiating in Asia, be prepared to invest several trips and many meetings before getting down to business. And in Latin America, focus on building a strong relationship with your business associates as opposed to selling them on all the facts and details of your product or service.