"It is not to culture that one must adapt, but to culture as
manifest and encountered in the behavior of individual foreigners." - Craig
Meetings, conventions and trade shows account for almost half of all
business travel according to a Survey of Business Travelers by the U.S. Travel Data
Center. With the globalization of business opportunities, these meetings increasingly are
held abroad. But, the moment you or your attendees board an international flight, the
rules of the game change. What flies in Peoria won't get you where you want to go in
Paris, Prague or Pago-Pago. There is a great deal of truth to that old adage, "When
To interact successfully with associates in another country, it's helpful to adjust to
the communication style of the other person's culture. It can take months or years to feel
completely comfortable and conversant in that culture, but it's possible with just a
little research to find the basic information that will eradicate the major faux pas and
grievances. FIRST GET GOOD is a simple anagram of the eight aspects of international
etiquette and the four guiding principles of international interactions to help you
prepare for an international business trip.
Forming Relationships: Only in the Germanic
countries will the people be as eager to get down to business as in the United States of
America. Almost anywhere else in the world, but especially in Asian and Latin countries,
it's important to first get to know the person with whom you're dealing to build a bond of
trust. Three F's of business in Asian cultures are family, friends and favors. If you're
not part of an extended Asian family or if you don't have close Asian chums from your
school days, find the time to develop a friendship with a well connected intermediary.
Relationships, once formed, are long lasting bonds of loyalty that must be respected.
Information and Communication: If you have no
idea how someone from another culture communicates either verbally or non-verbally, you
can't possibly negotiate effectively. All Asian cultures put a great deal of emphasis on
the concept of face. In order to save face, theirs or yours, you will seldom get a direct
answer, especially if it's "no". You will hear "yes" a great deal, but
that doesn't signify agreement, only acknowledgement. In the homogenous Japanese culture,
emphasis is placed on non-verbal communication, "speaking from the belly", to
understand someone. However, it's difficult to heed non-verbal clues when you're
uncomfortable with silence.
When you do speak, your style may be the staccato of a tabloid headline, while the
other person's may be that of a flowery, turgid historical romance. Even if the pace and
style are in sync, the amount of information conveyed in the choice of words might be
totally at odds. Americans are very direct in their speech and don't beat around the bush
with implied meanings and innuendos. As a result, Latins often consider us uncultured and
lacking in refinement.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our ability to toot our own horns. In
group-oriented cultures such as the Japanese, "the protruding nail gets hammered
down" according to an old saying. Not only is self-effacement practiced, singling
someone out with a compliment can be considered very offensive!
Pay heed to your volume, vocal quality, tone of voice and posture because they indicate
good breeding. Learn to listen and remember that, when in doubt, modesty is the best
Rank and Status: One of the first indicators
of rank and status in any culture is appearance. In most societies, people dress to
maintain their public image and their status rather than to be comfortable or to follow
the dictates of fashion. Your dress signals your self-respect, your respect for the
organization you represent and, most important, respect for the person with whom you are
negotiating. When in doubt err on the side of conservatism and formality.
Err, too, on the side of age and the masculine gender when in doubt about the rank
within a group. But, don't make the mistake of snubbing the younger members. In the group
oriented cultures of Asia, and especially Japan, decision making is by consensus from the
bottom up. In the Latin group oriented cultures, decision making is usually a very steep
top down process.
Greetings and introductions are a clear indicator of status, even in our culture when
executed properly. Who acknowledges whom, how deeply one bows, and how long speaks
volumes. If you haven't mastered the intricacies, stick to the handshake, but don't expect
to get the solid American type. It's gauche in France to pump more than once from the
elbow. Remember, too, to have plenty of bilingual business cards on hand wherever you go.
One of the most confusing aspects of meeting people with foreign names is not knowing
which is which. Learn which cultures place the surname first so you won't be addressing
someone with the Chinese equivalent of "Mr. Bob". Never call someone by the
first name unless you are specifically asked to do so; virtually nowhere else are people
as informal in the manner of address as in the United States. Don't forget the honorifics
or titles that go with the name. They are usually a point of pride. In Germany you might
use a whole string of titles to address someone, and in Italy it's an honor to be
addressed by your profession.
Space: Space is one of those seemingly inconsequential
aspects of human interaction that can have major consequences elsewhere. The American
personal bubble of space is much greater than that of an Arab or a Russian, but much
smaller than that of a Briton. Infringing upon another's personal space or inadvertently
backing away when they enter your bubble can send unintended negative messages. Touching
someone - a hand on the forearm, an arm around the shoulder, a pat on the back - is one of
the easiest ways to violate personal space. When touch crosses gender lines, the
consequences can be dire! Keep your hands to yourself.
Space in the business environment can also impact upon negotiations. Many Europeans
don't understand the American need for ample space, and all aspects of the space booked
for an event should be clearly spelled out, never overlooking any needed storage
facilities. More important, the way offices are set up in other countries affects
information flow. A great many more people than you can imagine may be privy to your
Time: Differing attitudes toward time are
the major source of annoyance in international interactions, yet few people give it much
thought. How far in advance appointments and bookings must be scheduled, and to what
extent punctuality is stressed or ignored are all important considerations to remaining in
control during negotiations. It can be totally unnerving when a task-oriented, linear
American, who considers time a commodity to be managed, is confronted with a
relationship-oriented Arab, Asian, or Latin, who considers time as flowing and flexible,
beyond human control, and to be accepted whatever happens and regardless of who may
interrupt and how frequently the interruptions may occur. It pays to develop some
flexibility to avoid angry outbursts.
Gift Giving: When going abroad, especially
on business, Americans worry more about gift giving than any other aspect of international
etiquette. Except in Japan, it is seldom as important as Americans think it might be. That
doesn't mean you can overlook your homework. Giving too much and too often can be just as
offensive. Always consider the basic questions: To whom must you give gifts, what should
you give or avoid giving, when should you give it, and how should it be presented? The
answers vary from culture to culture, so be prepared.
Entertaining: As a foreigner, you can
expect to be entertained, often quite lavishly. If you're dealing with the Chinese, you
are also expected to honor them by reciprocating before the end of your trip. In other
cultures the reciprocity may not be as blatant, but may be present none the less. Find the
answers to the basic questions involving who, where, when, how and how much!
While all this entertaining is going on, never forget that table manners count
everywhere; yours, however, may not be theirs. Eating with chopsticks or with your hands
can be the least of it. Slurping, burping and drinking from each other's glass may be just
a few of the acceptable behaviors.
Entertainment is seldom complete without toasts to honor guests and host. A few
well-chosen words can get you further than hours over the bargaining table, so give
thought to some appropriate toasts beforehand.
Taboos and Sensitivities: Taboos and
Sensitivities vary from culture to culture, sometimes without apparent rhyme or reason.
It's simply necessary to learn beforehand what they are. The most common taboos and
sensitivities stem from politics, religion, ethnicity, geography, gender or misunderstood
humor. Jokes don't travel or translate well, so as a rule, leave home without them, and
you'll be less likely to offend.
The New Golden Rule: The first guiding
principle of international interactions is the new Golden Rule, "Do unto others as
they would have you do unto them." That sounds simple, but the effect can be profound
because you no longer set yourself up as the arbiter of acceptable behavior for someone
from another culture.
Offense Given and Offense Taken: The second
and third guiding principles are opposite sides of the same coin. Do your homework so you
don't give unintentional offense through ignorance of the culture. More important, don't
udermine yourself by taking offense when none was intended, when the other persons were
simply behaving according to their cultural norms.
Difference: Every culture is different;
that's the fourth guiding principle. Even when certain cultural traits are similar, the
overall combination of behaviors and beliefs is unique to each culture. You can't expect
to be successful in the international arena by winging it or behaving the same way you do
on your home turf. Meetings in international settings are ideal opportunities to broaden
your horizons and those of the attendees. But don't depend on others to do their own
homework. Share the results of your research and enhance the success of your next event by
preparing participants to "act local". Include handouts, workshops, speeches or
interactive sessions to enlighten and entertain all the attendees about the culture
they're visiting, and your meeting will be truly global!