By Dawn Bryan, best-selling author of “The Art and Etiquette of Gift Giving” and “Elite Etiquette”, and founder of Qualipedia ™
It is very easy to unwittingly offend your international business prospects. Many global marketing efforts and contract negotiations have been destroyed by the unintentional blunder.
Being too late or too early for an appointment, using the wrong form of address, improperly receiving a business card, shaking hands, bringing wine to a home dinner, insulting with your choice of business gift, using a “hard sell”, or even eating everything on your plate could ruin your negotiation…and reputation. Americans most often make mistakes with meeting/greeting rituals; eating/dining; giving/receiving; and not recognizing significant taboos. And, when setting up or responding to a meeting request, remember that many Europeans and South Americans write the day first, then the month, then the year when using numbers.
Although handshakes are standard greeting gestures among Europeans, the gesture is generally more formal and more firm—except for the lighter touch of the French. Usually those of higher rank and women are expected to extend their hand first. Asians will often greet you with a gentle handshake; however, the bow is more traditional and more respected. Learning how to bow, including depth, eye contact, etc. is very important. Some South Americans can be effusive and take a long time to greet, believing that this conveys respect for the other person. In many cultures, it is good manners to shake hands with everyone in a group/room upon arrival as well as departure. Many European and South American women kiss each other on alternating cheeks. In Brazil, a third kiss between women bestows “good luck” in finding a spouse!
Be sure to use the proper form of address when meeting—or greeting: there are many different customs. For example, Europeans rarely use first names until they know the person well; unlike the United States, titles, especially academic titles, are always used. Asian names are usually listed in a different order from Western names. In Japan, use last names plus San meaning “Ms.” or “Mr.” The Chinese are very sensitive regarding status and always use official titles, such as “Committee Member”. Titles are also important in some Central/South American countries: in Panama the title Licenciado is used for anyone with a bachelor’s degree. In Norway, lawyers and clergymen do not use titles, although government officials do.
Learn the business card protocol for each culture. Your card should have the other person’s language printed on the back and that side should be presented to her/him. The presentation itself is important, particularly in Asian cultures where it is given with a proper bow. Do not just quickly stuff someone’s card into your pocket or bag. Always treat another’s card with respect, taking the time to read and appreciate it. When you meet with several people, be sure to give your card to each person lest you slight someone.
Whether you are a host or a guest, you should be familiar with the local food, drink, punctuality expectations (local time), when and how to conduct business, and appropriate seating. In some cultures, guests are expected to arrive late—don’t be offended at your Spanish associate’s late arrival. In others (Japan, The Netherlands, Sweden), tardiness is considered very rude. In Italy, the more important the person, the later he/she may arrive to a business meeting. Europeans are generally not fond of business breakfasts.
Learn when and how to correctly order and eat difficult or new foods. If possible, practice eating in the style of the other person—European, American, chopsticks.
In some countries, such as Norway, gift-giving is simply not a part of doing business, whereas in many other cultures (Japan) it is an integral part of the process of learning about the other person. In China a banquet is an acceptable business gift.
Some business gifts are not presented until negotiations have been completed (Latin America), others at the beginning (Korea).Some countries (Australia) have very strict quarantine laws regarding even wood products and many foods.
To avoid looking cheap, do not give logo gifts unless they are of excellent quality and the logo is subtle.
If bringing flowers to someone’s home, be certain that the color, number, or actual type of flower is not offensive: in many countries certain flowers and colors signify death.
Do not be impatient when dealing with cultures such as Saudi and Russia. Russians prize patience as a virtue and some regard compromise as a sign of weakness.
It is usually inappropriate for a foreign business woman to invite her male counterpart to a business dinner unless other associates or spouses attend.
Do not dress casually for a business meeting, and, if a woman, probably best to wear a skirt.
Never say “no” to the Japanese and understand their aversion to the word. (This maintains harmony and saves face.)
Arab World – Do not give or present anything with your left hand; give an alcoholic beverage or bar gift; or show the sole of your shoe.