When you travel to a business meeting abroad, you will probably dress to impress, right? You will probably smile a lot and be polite, yes? Well, unfortunately all these efforts can be overshadowed by simple blunders arising from a lack of cultural awareness.
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. Bill Gates' recent trip to South Korea was overshadowed by his show of poor etiquette when he met the President with hand in pocket and suit blazer wide open.
This article explains how to use cultural awareness to your advantage for international sales, and offers useful tips which will help you prepare for a business meeting away from home, avoid cringe inducing faux pas and give you the best chance of sealing that all-important business deal away from home.
Business etiquette: What is Important ?
So, what tends to be important in terms of etiquette when you travel for business? Here are a few examples of noteworthy areas of business etiquette.
Modes of address Naming conventions in most cultures are important and these tend to vary widely. If in doubt adopt a formal mode of address, or use someone’s surname as a mode of address unless 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 all cultures. In some cultures though a lack of punctuality can have social connotations. China is a good example. Keeping your boss waiting in China is seen as more disrespectful than keeping a subordinate waiting because seniority is so important to the Chinese.
Gestures Hand gestures are often used in business settings but these can lead to confusion. Conversing with your hand in your pocket, for example is considered very rude in Belgium. In the South Korean culture, greeting someone with a hand in a pocket is considered inappropriately casual and often 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.
Working hours Working hours are subject to considerable variation across cultures. In Argentina business hours can last until as late as 10pm and in general, Asian countries like Japan and China tend to have longer working hours compared to the UK and Europe.
Slang Slang terms can be misinterpreted across cultures. For example, in Australia the word “stuffed” (a common slang term in the UK to refer to feeling full after a meal) is perceived as a rude term and should be avoided. Different terms mean different things to different people so informal modes of address or description can be a minefield! One example is, in Argentina describing someone or something as ‘not serious’ is always considered a criticism, whereas the expression ‘not serious’ is frequently used in the UK as a neutral, generally inoffensive means of description.
Tips for using Cultural Awareness to your Advantage
1. Do your homework!
- If you are going away to do business, take the time to research the culture of the people you will be meeting.
- You can buy helpful guides on cultural awareness for business settings from Amazon or from most bookshops.Searching the internet for useful guidance and information on cultural awareness is also effective, but be sure to opt for reliable, authoritative online sources.
- You can even download apps for iPhones and Android phones, which are specially designed to impart those all-important cultural insights that help to leverage business relationships away from home.
- Asking questions is a very effective way to gain insight into how to behave in a certain culture.
- You can ask the concierge or receptionist at your hotel, someone you are travelling with or a business contact or colleague for guidance on how to behave when you meet people of a certain culture.
- When you travel to another country watch people. Look at how they interact and think through their behaviour and what you find different.
- If you find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of the etiquette, such as at a meal, the easiest thing to do is mimic people until you feel comfortable in your understanding or protocol.