Going abroad on business translates into a quagmire of different languages, gestures and customs that can perplex even an experienced world traveler.
Take, for example, the wingtips or dress pumps you’re wearing. Shoes are forbidden in Japanese homes or traditional restaurants unless the owner insists. Accordingly, make sure you pack plenty of clean socks without holes.
Dress codes, tipping, gift giving and table manners are likely to be markedly different the farther you travel from the United States. When you’re planning a foreign business trip, doing some etiquette homework is nearly as important as making plane reservations or booking a hotel. It can mean the difference between clinching a deal and coming home empty handed.
Here’s a sampling of how different customs can affect business relationships abroad:
Business cards. Meishi, as the Japanese call them, are a way of life and key to establishing credentials in Japan. Therefore, you should bring a large supply. One side should be in English, the reverse in Japanese. Include information about professional organizations you belong to since the Japanese want to learn as much about your qualifications as possible. And then, there’s the ritual — business cards are presented after the bow or handshake with the Japanese side up. Spend a few moments examining it and then put it in your card case, not your back pocket. If you’re seated at a table, place the card in front of you.
Language. Be precise and don’t use American slang and jargon. In most European countries, for example, the bathroom is the room with the tub. Don’t ask for one unless you need a good soak. And don’t ask for a restroom or a powder room. They’ll probably tell you there is none. A toilet is a toilet and that’s what you ask for. Generally, you don’t have to learn the language of the country you’re in, but it’s appreciated when you take the time and effort to learn a few basic phrases.
Titles, names and respect. This can be confusing, particularly in many Asian and Pacific countries where surnames come first and given names come last. That is, until you run into an accommodating businessperson who has adopted the Western practice of first comes first to make life easier for Americans. Your best bet is to find out the customs in advance.
To avoid offending foreign business contacts, don’t use first names unless you’re asked. And show special respect for older people in Asian countries. Age is very important and you shouldn’t be surprised to be asked in Vietnam: “How old are you?”
These are just a few of the cultural differences you may face when traveling overseas on business.
Where can you go for information so you won’t be the brunt of jokes or lose lucrative deals? You can head to the library, check out our resources below or search online to get some insight. There are series of books like Culture Shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette for numerous countries around the world.
Remember to slurp your noodles in Tokyo, never give a Thai a knife and don’t handle food with your left hand in India. You’ll find out why when you do your homework and it will help you win some valuable business.
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