When you travel abroad for business, you will probably dress to impress, right? You will probably smile a lot and be polite, yes? You will behave as your normally do, correct? Well, unfortunately all these efforts can be overshadowed by etiquette blunders arising from a lack of cultural awareness. Committing a cultural faux pas may not always be a deal breaker, but it can hurt prospects and damage relationships.
Cultural faux pas are best to be avoided, especially at the start of a relationship. When you meet people from different cultures, things like eye contact, handshakes, posture and dress can be even more important than what you say and if you show someone from a different culture that you’ve taken the time to understand the relevant culture, customs and etiquettes, this builds trust and in business it is very, very important.
In this article I wanted to let you know how to use cultural awareness to your advantage for international sales and offer some useful tips which will help you prepare for a business meeting away from home, avoid cringe inducing social faux pas and give you the best chance of sealing that all-important business deal away from home.
Business Etiquette: What to Watch
So, what do exporters and those working internationally need to know when it comes to etiquette? Here are a few examples of noteworthy areas you may want to watch out for.
Modes of address: Naming conventions and how you address people in most cultures are important and these tend to vary widely. In the US it may be first name terms, in Germany it’s a lot more formal. If in doubt go formal until you have been invited to do otherwise.
Introductions: Introducing yourself as opposed to being introduced by another can be seen as impolite in some countries. In Austria for example, it is considered polite to be introduced by another in a business setting, as opposed to introducing oneself.
Punctuality: Punctuality tends to be important in some cultures, in others not. Your German or Dutch client will expect you on time but in the Middle East or Latin America, allowances are made and timeliness isn’t that much of a priority.
Gestures: Hand gestures are often used in business settings but these can lead to confusion. Conversing with your hand in your pocket, for example, may be acceptable in parts of Europe, but in South Korean culture, greeting someone with a hand in a pocket is considered inappropriately casual and rude.
Gifts: In some cultures gifts are expected in certain situations, for example if you are invited into another person’s home in Austria, it is considered polite to offer a gift. In China, gift giving is part of the business culture; but what gifts are acceptable?
There are many other areas of consideration when it comes to etiquette and protocol abroad. How meetings are run, how you wine & dine, negotiation styles and even simple communication styles all encompass cultural coding.
5 Tips on Getting Cultural Clues
Being prepared is crucial when working abroad and cross-culturally. For those that want some guidance on what to do and where to go for this sort of information, here’s five ways of awakening your inner cultural vulture before a trip abroad and avoiding any embarrassing cultural faux pas:
Buy a book: There are lots of guides on doing business in foreign countries. Kiss, Bow or Shake hands is a well known book that’s easy to dip into. Check out Amazon for culture guides – some well known ones include Xenophobe’s® Guides and Culture Smart.
Research online: There are plenty of webistes with free information about culture and business. Culture guides, doing business in guides and countless articles on the topic can be found via Google. Try Executive Planet or the UKTI website as well.
Download an app: There are a few apps available now in the App store and for Android platforms. Mashable’s 5 iPhone Apps For Avoiding International Business Faux Pas is the best place to look as it covers the topic well.
Ask someone: If you are travelling to South Korea, why not ask a Korean before you travel what to expect and what will be expected of you? Who else knows the culture like a local? Never forget colleagues from other countries offer invaluable insight. If you don’t work with someone from that culture, look for local cultural groups, a business chamber or even a restaurant!
Get some training: If you’re serious about business in another country, set aside some budget and take some cultural awareness training. OK, this isn’t free, but how much does it cost to repair a damaged relationship or bad PR? If anything, cultural awareness supports a business’ goals through careful preparation and minimisation of risk.
So next time you go abroad, you have no excuses! Go do a little bit of research and you’ll soon realise the benefits.