Master international etiquette

Written by Karen Kelly

Different cultures have different business protocol. If you had to jet away to Europe or Asia for business dealings, would you be able to seal a deal without offending potential partners?

In today’s politically explosive climate, business owners need to watch what they say and do. A careless remark about a country’s political stance could have far-reaching implications for your business relationships. Combine that with misinterpreted customs or actions, and you’ll do further damage.

The first rule of foreign business travel: avoid political debates, says Judith Bowman, of Boston-based Protocol Consultants. While it’s tempting, resist the urge to push your views. If you’re on the receiving end of a rant, let it pass or deflect it with humor. “The less said, the better, and humor is a wonderful deflector,” she says. However, Bowman’s careful to add that some are more comically adept than others.

Beyond that, Bowman suggests researching to learn about regional taboos and how to avoid them. Here are some intriguing customs you probably never knew:

  • Throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, you risk huge insult by exposing the sole of your shoe. “To sit in a figure-four [a crossed-leg position where your ankle rests on your knee] where you can see the bottom of your foot, that’s a huge no-no,” says Bowman. She encourages business leaders to sit the European way: knee over knee, where the soles face the floor.
  • In North America, the cold call is culturally acceptable. Not so in many other places, such as Egypt and Korea. Says Bowman: “Rarely will a meeting be possible unless it’s prearranged by a mutually respected third party.”
  • Different countries do business at a different pace. For example, in some cultures first meetings are only for getting acquainted and socializing, so it’s important not to launch into a sales pitch right away. “The No. 1 rule is that it’s up to the host to initiate when the small talk stops and the business begins,” says Bowman.
  • Be careful to treat any business cards you receive with the utmost respect. In Japan, China and Singapore, says Bowman, “Something like writing a telephone number of the back of a business card might be misinterpreted as a huge insult.” Spend several seconds studying the card, and don’t put it in your pocket in the presence of the giver. If you’re serious about doing business in a particular country, it makes sense to have business cards printed in the official language.

Read other pointers on How To contribute to your business success!

© 2003 Karen Kelly

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com