Business practices: The cultural exchange

Ten tips on how to clinch international deals without making a cultural faux pas.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

Business is about establishing a rapport and level of communication quickly and effectively. One common stumbling block those in business face is having a lack of cultural awareness. Whether it is confusion concerning whether you bow or extend a hand, or whether cleaning your plate at a corporate lunch is a compliment or an insult, something which is culturally acceptable in the West can mean the opposite elsewhere.

Whether you are taking part in a trade fair, applying for a job abroad, or trying to clinch that business deal, doing some research beforehand can ensure you appear respectful, as well as making the likelihood of committing a cultural faux pas less likely.

Gaining some cultural knowledge and awareness of different customs and traditions can give you the competitive edge to work successfully in an increasingly international marketplace.

1.) Be aware of national holidays or religious celebrations.

It sounds common-sense but it can be easy to miss -- to be met with coldness when you attempt to book a meeting on one of these days. In a worse-case scenario, the gesture can be considered disrespectful or insulting.

2.) Learn a few phrases if your potential clients have a different native tongue.

When an expat businessman or someone looking to close a deal makes an effort to either learn the language or at least attempt a few phrases, it can look favourably upon them. Prejudice can be an issue when conducting business internationally, and so learning a few phrases of the locals can promote a greater level of acceptance.

Be aware that some languages have separate 'polite' and 'intimate' forms for referring to someone -- using the intimate form inappropriately may not be acceptable, and more than being a simple mistake, could induce negative feeling. Use the polite form to stay safe unless you are invited to adopt the more personal approach -- such as the use of 'usted' (polite) and 'tu' (informal) in Spanish.

3.) Watch your gestures.

A gesture that is harmless in the West, such as the 'OK' sign (using your index finger and thumb to make an 'O' shape while the three remaining fingers point up) is not necessarily acceptable in other countries. Gesture use may be universally used -- but the cultural meaning attributed to them is not. If you use the 'OK' sign in Russia or Turkey, it is considered a grave insult.

Researching polite ways to eat, as it is such an important social behaviour, can also be crucial. In many countries, eating with your left hand is socially unacceptable, and in others, bringing a bottle of wine to dinner is perceived as a suggestion that the hosts cannot provide for you.

In many parts of Asia, including Japan, leaving food implements such as chopsticks within bowls is frowned upon.

In the Middle East, do not extend your hand unless invited to do so if you are a man addressing a woman.

The smallest gesture through body language can cause the biggest insults, as I found in Kyrgyzstan. Rubbing the outer corner of your eye is the same as wishing a man's wife to 'cuckold' him -- in Italy, the gesture is made by curling your thumb and two middle fingers into the palm of your hand and straightening the outer fingers.

4.) Language barriers? Fix it through your body language.

Verbal language is only a small element of communication. To give yourself a competitive edge, try to simply be viewed as friendly if there are language barriers. Demonstrating an open, honest body language can work favourably. Crossing your arms and standing in defensive positions can leave the wrong impression.

5.) The etiquette of business cards.

This can be extremely important and a way to demonstrate good manners in many cultural settings.
If you are in South Korea or Japan, exchange a business card using both hands -- especially within South Korea, it may be considered insulting if you exchange using only one hand.

Printing your business card in both languages will benefit you; and may be expected of you. Simply putting a business card you have received away in your wallet can be a sign of disrespect; make sure you examine it and treat it carefully. In many Asian countries, a business card can be considered an important extension of your client.

6.) Be aware of social hierarchies.

In a business lunch, is an elder or a guest served first? Do you address someone by their first name, or do you add an honorific if they are socially higher than you (such as the Japanese suffix -san?). Research these kinds of customs and save yourself a potential social faux pas.

7.) Ideas concerning 'personal space' may be different.

In my own experience, the Spanish and Italian have a smaller radius of what is considered 'personal space' in relation to the British; whereas in Japan little more than a handshake is exchanged in terms of physical contact.

8.) Be punctual.

Even if your client has a different cultural awareness of time, if you're late it can be taken as an insult -- especially in countries like China and Japan. The Middle East is generally more forgiving, if you have a justifiable reason for being late.

Business in Spain can no longer be stereotyped by 'maňana' but it is often the case that long lunches are taken to break up a long day -- and I often recall meeting business clients through a less formal lunch setting.

9.) Dress appropriately.

You may be accidentally disrespectful in some manners of dress if you're not careful. Rather than potentially blow a deal with a client, dressing in a professional and conservative matter is the safest option.

10.) Do your research and be prepared for 'small talk'.

Picking up a newspaper and being aware of current affairs within a country other than your own can be used as a tactic to make a potential client more comfortable. There are a number of countries that expect small talk before a business meeting, so you should prepare yourself for this.

It is also advisable to be aware of what topics are off-limits -- such as contentious political affairs. For example, in Spain you do not talk about the civil war, and it is not a good idea to bring up religion in the Middle East.

Image credit: Allen Sima

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards