When in Rome: International Business Do's and Don'ts

Proper etiquette in international business dealings is a critical factor in today’s global market. As trade continues to expand and bring people closer together, exhibiting an appreciation and respect for cultural differences is paramount to success. Having insight into the cultural dynamics of a country or region is essential to understanding why people behave the way they do, and it informs how you should act while in that country. The old adage "When in Rome" still holds true.

There are three primary dimensions in which to focus your research before traveling abroad:

1. Appearance—This dimension highlights business etiquette do’s and don’ts involving Dress, Clothing, Body Language, and Gestures.

Scenario: While on a business trip to Toulouse, France, I had some personal time. I changed to my normal summer wear of a t-shirt and walking shorts. As I proceeded to walk down the street all heads turned. My first impression was … is something torn … or … even worse? I then took the time to notice that all of the other women were wearing dresses of one sort or another. Hmm, I thought… I proceeded to walk into the first clothing store and purchased a skirt and blouse, put them on in the dressing room and did not turn another head while proceeding on my merry way. That was one of many lessons on this trip…

2. Behavior—This dimension highlights business etiquette do’s and don’ts involving Dining, Gift-giving, Meetings, Customs, Protocol, Negotiation, and General behavior guidelines.

Scenario: You probably all know this one – when given a gift, accept it graciously! When in Spain, I was admiring a trinket that my counterpart from the Madrid office was wearing. The next thing I knew, she took it off and was handing it to me. Without thinking, I refused to accept it. Mistake! She was mortified, and I was very embarrassed.

3. Communication—This dimension highlights business etiquette do’s and don’ts involving Greetings, Introductions, and Conversational guidelines. Here is where things really get interesting. I have highlighted several areas of communication that are paramount when working in the international marketplace:

The Rules of engagement to research before traveling to any country:

o Eye contact
o Gestures
o Jargon
o Slang
o Identity orientation
o Turn taking
o Pause time
o Space
o Time
o Touch
o Vocal patterns

Scenario: This actually happened at a university in the USA while teaching students from Mainland China. Background…When a language is learned, the nuances of the language are not part of the educational framework.

In teaching a course on "Leadership Dynamics in U.S. Businesses," I used the words "process" and "procedure" in the same sentence. As I continued to ramble on, there was a deafening silence – when the interpreters stop talking, you know you are in trouble. I asked, "Is there a problem?" I was informed that, in effect, I had confused the interpreters by using both words in the same sentence – a situation which involves "identity orientation."

Although process is defined as a flow, and procedure is defined as a written description, my using both words interchangeably lead to total confusion. Lesson – one must be totally literal. Jargon, expressions, slang…etc. do not have any place in professional communications.

In the same class, I was concerned that my students did not have direct eye contact with me. I later learned that in the Asian culture direct eye contact is considered disrespectful. Asian’s lower their eyes as a sign of respect and raise them only slightly when in the presence of elders and authority figures. Lesson – do your homework and know the rules.

Seven Rules for International Business Etiquette

Within the three dimensions, there are many "rules" in the realm of International Business Etiquette. I have selected these seven to share with you.

1. Hand Shaking—This greeting is somewhat universal with business people in most parts of the world. However there are different styles of which to be aware.

The American handshake is generally firm, two pumps, a quick smile with direct eye contact. Germans also offer a firm shake but with a quick pump. With the French it is more of a light grip and one pump. However, with Middle Eastern people the shaking may continue throughout the entire greeting. The Japanese may bow or offer a light handshake. Italian may offer a hand, but don’t be surprised if it is followed by a kiss and a hug if you have already established a relationship. These are cultural difference and are not based on personality or values. One note—gender is not neutral in European Countries…

Scenario: While in Europe on business, I offered my hand to an executive of a French company and was quickly embraced by two kisses; one on each cheek and a pat on the back. I could deal with the kisses, but I am still not sure about the pat on the back…

2. Relationships—Each culture has very specific "norms" associated with intercultural characteristics. Building relationships takes time in any culture. However, American norms reflect a more casual approach, which can develop quickly as opposed to regions such as Asia or South America. In these regions building a rapport and generating trust are the building blocks to establishing a relationship. This takes time, which is in direct conflict to a "norm" where the bottom line is the driving factor.

Scenario: While conducting business in Singapore with executives from Singapore Telecom, I quickly observed that rushing the agenda was in direct conflict with developing a level of comfort with one another. It was necessary to initiate a more personal and indirect conversation where we could get to know one another better before we started to discuss the business at hand. Lesson – understand that in these regions relationships must build over time – do not rush the agenda.

3. Decision Making—In doing business in India, decision making is hierarchical as opposed to Southeast Asia where group decisions are more the norm.

Scenario: In working on a project in India, I needed to revise the schedule for completion. My counterpart went directly to his supervisor who followed the chain of command to approve the changes required. However when the same type of situation occurred in Southeast Asia, it took several months before approval was granted because everything required a group decision, which delayed the process.

Lesson—Observe the hierarchy, know the decision making process, and be prepared for delays when doing business in Asia.

4. Business Attire—I mentioned dressing while on off time at the beginning of this piece. However, there really isn’t much difference when dressing for the workplace in most other parts of the world. The American Business culture tends to allow more casual attire. The lesson here is, when in doubt wear a suit.

5. Business Card Exchange—The business card represents you as an ambassador of the company you represent. An important thing to remember in any cultural exchange is to show respect for the other person. Here we can take a lesson from the Asian culture. Give your card as part of the greeting using both hands with the information correctly facing the person you are handing your card. When given a card, look at it and carefully put it into your card case or pocket while acknowledging its importance.

My first time in the company of executives from Japan, I extended my hand and was met by a bow in return. I slowly lowered my hand and followed their lead. Lesson – the largest compliment you can give to the people you do business with in the international world of business is to learn about their customs.

6. Forms of Address—Using titles and other forms of addressing individuals is most important when conducting business internationally. In the United States we are very quick to call people by their first names. When dealing with people from other parts of the world first names are reserved more for family and other personal relationships. Academic titles also become part of the address in countries such as Germany where a degreed engineer is addressed as "Herr Ingenieur" and a teacher or professor as "Herr Professor." I also learned this with the students from Mainland China.

Scenario: After over 30 years in the corporate world, I have now been teaching for approximately 14 years. As in all of my classes, the first day of class, I wrote my name on the board as I have always done. My students however had a different notion as to what I should be called. As I was not a professor, I did not write professor before my name. I quickly discovered this was not acceptable. So, for the entire term I was called, "Professor Missy Paula." Lesson—Don’t write your first name when teaching students from Asia.

7. Time Management—In the United States we value time as a commodity. We even have courses on Time Management. This is not the case in other parts of the world. Time has a different value. It is more about the quality of the time spent rather then the quantity.

I never realized how long it could take to eat a meal until I traveled abroad. I also never realized how to enjoy a meal until I travel abroad, and I never even gained a pound…because we walked everywhere. Lesson—time may be a commodity, however, building strong relationships is worth the time.

This, of course, is just a taste of International Business Etiquette. Remember to do your homework or it could cost you " a world of opportunities." For more on this topic, this site by Dr. Geert Hofstede is a wonderful resource: http://www.cyborlink.com