Small Talk and Strategy: Etiquette Mistakes While Doing Business Abroad

Small Talk and Strategy: Etiquette Mistakes While Doing Business Abroad

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Traveling abroad for business usually means big profits. According to the U.S. Travel Association, 5 million Americans fly overseas every month, with business trips accounting for over half of those journeys. Some business men and women revolve their entire careers around meeting and negotiating with clients in foreign countries, generating billions for the major corporations that employ them. But these huge business deals can depend on very small things, and the art of doing business in the midst of a foreign culture is not the simplest thing to master. Throughout recent history, there have been plenty of examples of politicians and celebrities who commit glaring faux pas while traveling to Europe or Asia. These are the little details it’s very easy to overlook.

Dinner Problems

A majority of the cultural clashes you can experience overseas happen at restaurants, and it’s important to understand what’s expected of you before you get on the plane. Some of the biggest companies in America are tied to Asia, and yet every region and country has different dining etiquette than the last. China has different rules about chopsticks than Korea. Some countries suggest you slurp noodles loudly. Some make you take your shoes off. Left-handed business travelers can have a tough time in many Muslim nations because it is considered disrespectful not to eat with the right. And in Europe, especially France, you can be committing a serious cultural error by getting up before the meal is over, even just to go to the bathroom. Of course, the most common dinner table faux pas can be the aversion to local delicacies. Many a jet-setting executive has been faced with insect and rodent delicacies that they couldn’t and shouldn’t refuse.

Conversational Errors

There are literally hundreds of land mines you can step on when you’re dealing with foreign clients. Your research into rude hand gestures could be enlightening all on its own. Depending on which country you’re visiting, the OK sign and the thumbs up can be considered vulgar. And pointing at people is considered rude in almost every country – which should really include America. Next, you have to consider what you talk about. Americans are thought of as very direct and laid-back by most cultures, and you might offend a colleague by asking about their spouse and family even in places like Scotland. Still, sometimes the opposite can be true. In Thailand, it’s considered impolite to initiate a business talk, especially before a meal. You can also run into issues with personal space. Don’t be surprised if some Europeans are comfortable standing in yours.

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Other Faux Pas

One thing that can be intriguing when you’re traveling is local customs regarding lateness. In many countries, being late is actually considered polite. In Australia, you always give ten minutes, and in countries like Argentina, being an hour late is pretty much normal. Then there are countries like Germany where being on time is a strict necessity. There are other, wackier customs you will come to learn, such as the practice of not giving compliments in Arab and African households because they might feel like they have to give you whatever you’re complimenting. It’s much more common in foreign countries to see men behaving affectionately in public by linking arms or holding hands. But in places like India, all public displays of affection are taboo. There was once a warrant issued for Richard Gere’s arrest because he kissed and hugged an Indian actress during a charity show.

Businesses usually make it a priority to educate their employees about foreign cultures, but there are so many ways to make a mistake. Once you become one of those frequent overseas business travelers, you amass your own experiences and make your own missteps. Sometimes clients and colleagues are understanding, but a little effort to get things right will reflect your own professionalism and create the good will you need.

About the author: 

Brett Harris is a full-time business blogger. If you’re interested in business, look into the Top 10 International Business MBA Programs Online here

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