How can you make your time in a different country enjoyable, productive and error-free? After all, many self-storage development companies are looking to expand their markets overseas. But what if you’ve never done business outside the United States? How do you work in a mixed-culture business setting? When it comes time for you to travel overseas, four practical preparations can help you arrive in a courteous frame of mind and start your trip on the right foot:
- Keep your passport, visas and other important papers up-to-date. If you plan to travel repeatedly to several countries, you may want to apply for a 48-page passport, which provides additional space for visas. Make two photocopies of your passport, and leave one in the United States with a trusted friend. Also consider whether you will need an international driver’s license.
- When packing, avoid any tags or luggage labels that scream “United States” or “American.” In this post-9/11 era, there’s no such thing as taking too many precautions. Tags and labels may attract the attention of thieves or terrorists.
- Know what the local currency is and have some on hand. You will need local currency for taxis and any emergencies (the equivalent of $25 to $50); but for most of your needs, plan to use traveler’s checks and credit cards, which sometimes get better exchange rates. Never travel without any local currency already in your possession; you do not want to arrive late at night after flight delays, find the airport banks closed, and be stranded with no way to get funds.
- It is especially important to have done your culture awareness “homework.” This is one area in which learning by doing is not recommended. By winging it, you could commit a serious faux pas from which you could not socially recover, and your business could suffer as a result.
There are three main areas to keep in mind concerning cultural awareness:
- Use of Names—When it comes to names, most cultures are more formal than we are in the United States. So always use a formal title—Mr., Miss, Doctor, etc.—not just a person’s first name in conversation. Always wait for permission to be informal.
- Awareness of Time—Cultures vary when it comes to the importance placed on punctuality. Latin Americans don’t emphasize timeliness as much as businesspeople in some European countries. You always need to arrive on time, but manage your expectations of others.
- Nonverbal Signals—This refers to body language. For example, a negative shake of the head in the United States means “no,” while this same gesture means “yes” in Pakistan and other cultures.
How can you increase your awareness of cultural differences? Study travel guides, attend an intercultural training seminar or speak to citizens of the country you are visiting. You can get additional information about the country from its embassy or consulate. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Public Affairs can be a valuable source of resource material through its series of background notes. These brochures can provide you up-to-date information on a country’s geography, government, economy and history, as well as the languages spoken there and the names of the principal U.S. officials, such as the ambassador.
It’s important you make the most of your time during your trip. You can use informal dinners to become better acquainted with business associates, read the local paper to understand issues of concern to area residents, and taste local specialties to get the true flavor of the area. Part of the success of your trip will come from its lasting effects on your outlook—what you learned as much as what you did. If you approach the trip as a sort of intensive educational seminar, you may benefit more.
But all journeys must come to an end. Before separating from your international host, thank him for seeing you—visitors, are, after all, a disruption. Determine the next business step—a reciprocal visit, further negotiations, a report? When you arrive home, send thank-you notes and any follow-up material promptly. You can send copies of business photos you took during your trip and any articles you come across that are pertinent to the discussions you had.
Another aspect of doing business with different cultures is when professionals from other countries come to the United States. Following are eight tips to make international business travelers feel less like strangers in a strange land, and make their visit a smashing success.
- Learn about the visitor’s culture. You need to know, in the literal sense, where the person is coming from. Imagine, for instance, if a foreigner asked you about life among cowboys if you come from New England—it would seem a strange question. It is just as important to understand a visitor’s home country. You want to be able to discuss any neutral, newsworthy events.
- Always have someone meet the visitor at the airport. While a greeter at the airport is an optional practice for U.S. business travelers, it’s a vital courtesy for international visitors. Again, consider how much more comfortable you would feel while visiting a foreign land if you knew you would have someone to greet you.
- Understand and use appropriate greetings and titles. This simple gesture can get you off on the right foot. It shows respect for the visitor and his culture. (See the section below on international greetings for more culture-specific tips.)
- Have foods or flowers delivered to your visitor’s room. This is a gracious, welcoming touch. If you can provide something to his taste, that’s even better. Remember that some flowers have symbolic significance in other countries, so make sure the arrangement is appropriate.
- Arrange for a driver and/or transportation during the visitor’s stay. This allows for safe exploration without your presence.
- Respect the visitor’s dining customs. If the visitor expresses an interest in trying local cuisine, that’s fine; but do not force unfamiliar foods on him. You’ll also want to show sensitivity—don’t feed a Muslim a pork-roll sandwich for lunch, for example.
- Plan interesting things for the visitor to do at night. He will want to enjoy as much as possible of the local culture. Remember what may seem routine to you—such as a dinner cruise—may be enjoyable to a stranger. If a visitor brings family members, arrange for appropriate activities.
- Show the visitor how Americans live. Invite him to your home. Provide materials about your city. Conduct a tour of your city if it is a first trip. You’re being gracious and helping the visitor understand Americans, including you.
In the end, the key to any business traveler’s success is to have and show respect for the other person’s cultural norms.
There are several forms of international greetings. Whether two businesspeople use a handshake, kiss and/or bow, for example, will depend on their cultural backgrounds. It is always a good idea to check with someone familiar with the customs of your host country before you travel or host international clients so you understand the acceptable and practiced forms of greeting.
Never make assumptions about people based on their handshakes, regardless if you are the visitor or the host. The variations indicate cultural differences rather than a person’s personality, as some Americans may believe. For instance, in Japan, a limp grip is the accepted behavior, not a sign of weakness. A Japanese visitor to the United States may not change his typical shake until he has become accustomed to the American method.
Also be careful about assigning too much significance to a handshake, particularly as a symbol of commitment at the end of business negotiations. In Italy, the handshake is an important gesture of trust; but, in general, doing business on a handshake is dying out in Europe.
To be safe, when shaking hands with someone for the first time, always extend your right hand. Be cautious with the left hand. In parts of Africa, Asia or the Middle East, there are taboos against using the left hand. It is considered “the dirty hand”—the one used for bathroom functions.
In Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden and most of the rest of Eastern Europe, you must shake hands with everyone in the party upon arriving and leaving—do not simply wave hello or good-bye. Start with the highest-ranking or oldest person. The most important person usually extends his hand first. In Asia, be cautious. You do not want to force a handshake on anyone. In Japan, take your cue about whether to shake hands, bow or do both, from your host. In South Korea, you will probably shake hands. In Arab countries, men may find themselves shaking hands several times a day, whenever you go apart and then meet again.
There are no longer established differences between men and women when shaking hands in the United States; but this is not always the case in other countries. In Europe, a man should usually not extend a hand until the woman does so first. Women should make sure they do extend a hand; they will lose credibility if they don’t. In some European countries, many of the old formal rules are loosening, especially among younger people. This means you will have to gauge the appropriate action by the specific situation.
In Asia, a man should usually wait for the woman to act before he extends a hand. If she doesn’t extend her hand, don’t extend yours. Women should be sensitive to this; it’s not polite to force it. In China and Korea, however, a woman can extend her hand first. In Japan, you need to judge by the situation. Generally speaking, Arab men and women do not shake hands with each other. A woman should be cautious about extending her hand to an Arab, though many Arabs are now familiar with U.S. customs and will shake hands with women.
Handshakes between men and women also are unusual in India. Hasidic Jewish men worldwide will not shake hands with women because a man is not allowed to touch any woman other than his wife.
Kissing and/or Hugging
Two other forms of greeting that vary from country to country are the kiss and hug. In the United States, incorporating a kiss on the cheek or hug as a form of greeting usually only happens between good friends, and rarely between two men. Keep in mind that in other countries, these actions are part of a polite and friendly protocol. What a kiss or hug from your international counterpart generally means is you are being officially welcomed. This kiss-and-hug “hello” has no more significance than a handshake.
Visitors from countries with kiss-and-hug greetings may use them reflexively when meeting people in the United States. If a foreign visitor kisses or hugs you in the United States, it’s appropriate to accept those gestures in the spirit in which they are offered. In Latin America, you may encounter “the abrazo,” a full embrace with pats on the back.
You also may be kissed and hugged in Russia. In the United Arab Emirates, men will kiss other men three to four times on the cheeks. In Saudi Arabia, a male guest may be kissed on both cheeks after shaking hands. In France, you might see people kissing alternate cheeks (actually, rubbing cheeks and kissing the air). Generally, in Europe, kissing occurs only after the relationship has become somewhat more personal. As the foreigner, it is a safe bet not to initiate the practice but let the other person start.
Another physical form of greeting is the bow. While most Americans associate “taking a bow” with receiving applause, to bow as part of a greeting is an act of humbling oneself before another, of showing respect. Bowing is just a gracious way to say “hello,” to acknowledge a person. There are three etiquette guidelines for bowing:
The bow is part of the ritual greeting in Japan. The Chinese may nod or use a slight bow. A slight bow also is used in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. While handshakes are used in most of these locations, adopting the local custom of making a bow shows respect for the individual and the culture.
Men generally bow with their hands at their sides, palms down on their thighs. Women bow with their hands folded in front. There are variations and subtleties to the bow based on the individual culture.
In Thailand, the wai (pronounced “why”) combines a bow with a sort of salute. It is done with the palms together, fingers up (not folded or clasped) and a slight bow. The hands are usually at chest level. When performing this gesture, you say, “wai.” The younger person does the wai first. In addition to signifying “hello,” it can be used to say, “good-bye,” “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” The higher the hands, the more respect you show, although eye level is the highest anyone goes.
In India, a similar greeting is called the “namaste.” It is done with palms together and fingers up and together, usually at the chin level. It is combined with a nod. You say “namaste” (pronounced “nay-mast-tay”), which means, “I bow to you.” It is a sign of appreciation. The host usually does it first, and it’s polite to return it. Do this also for “good morning,” “good afternoon” or “good evening.”
The bottom line is to know the traditions and practices of the nation where you are traveling or visitors you are hosting. Don’t lose business or a client—or, worse, embarrass yourself or your firm—by being labeled rude or ignorant of acceptable international greetings.
Marjorie Brody is a speaker, consultant and coach to Fortune 1,000 executives and the president of Brody Communications Ltd., which started as a part-time training company and is now a successful, multimillion-dollar venture. Brody is author of Professional Impressions ... Etiquette for Everyone, Every Day and Career MAGIC: A Woman’s Guide to Reward & Recognition, as well as more than a dozen other career-related books. She is a recognized media expert whose commentary on workplace/career issues is regularly featured on TV and radio shows, and in newspapers and magazines. For more information, call 800.726.7936 or visit www.marjoriebrody.com.