Minding Your Global Manners

    Jan 24, 2019

    By Lydia Ramsey

    To say that today's business environment is becoming increasingly more global is to state the obvious. Meetings, phone calls and conferences are held all over the world and attendees can come from any point on the globe. On any given business day you can find yourself dealing face-to-face, over the phone, by e-mail and, on rare occasions, by postal letter with people whose customs and cultures differ your own. You may never have to leave home to interact on an international level.

    While the old adage "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" still holds true, business clients and colleagues who are visiting this country should be treated with sensitivity and with an awareness of their unique culture. If you don’t do your homework and put your best international foot forward, your relationships and future business may suffer. One small misstep such as using first names inappropriately, not observing the rules of timing, or sending the wrong color flower in the welcome bouquet can be costly.

    There is no one set of rules that applies to all international visitors, so do the research for each country that your clients represent. That may sound like a daunting task, but taken in small steps, it is manageable and the rewards are worth the effort. Keeping in mind that there are as many ways to do business as there are countries to do business with, here are a few tips for minding your global P's and Q's.

    Build relationships: Few other people are as eager to get down to business as we Americans. So take time to get to know your international clients and build rapport before you rush to the bottom line. Business relationships are built on trust that is developed over time, especially with people from Asia and Latin America.

    Dress conservatively: Americans like to dress for fashion and comfort, but people from other parts of the world are generally more conservative. Your choice of business attire is a signal of your respect for the other person or organization. Leave your trendy clothes in the closet on the days that you meet with your foreign guests.

    Observe the hierarchy: It is not always a simple matter to identify the highest-ranking member of a business group. To avoid embarrassment, err on the side of age and masculine gender, if you are unable to discover the protocol with research. When interacting with the Japanese, it is important to understand that they make decisions by consensus, starting with the younger members of the group. By contrast, Latin people have a clear hierarchy that defers to age.

    Understand the subtleties of a handshake: With a few exceptions, business people around the world use the handshake for meeting and greeting. However, the American style handshake with a firm grip, two quick pumps, eye contact and a smile is not universal. Variations in handshakes are based on cultural differences, not on personality or values. The Japanese give a light handshake. Germans offer a firm shake with one pump, and the French grip is light with a quick pump. Middle Eastern people will continue shaking your hand throughout the greeting. Don't be surprised if you are occasionally met with a kiss, a hug, or a bow somewhere along the way.

    Use correct titles and proper forms of address: Americans are very informal and are quick to address a person by first name. Approach first names with caution when dealing with people from other cultures. Use titles and last names until you have been invited to use the person's first name. In some cases, this may never occur. Use of first names is reserved for family and close friends in some cultures.

    Titles are given more significance around the world than in the United States and are another important aspect of addressing business people. Earned academic degrees are acknowledged. For example, a German engineer is addressed as "Herr Ingenieur" and a professor as "Herr Professor." Listen carefully when you are introduced to someone and pay attention to business cards when you receive them.

    Exchange business cards: The key to giving out business cards in any culture is to show respect for the other person. Present your card so that the other person does not have to turn it over to read your information. Use both hands to present your card to visitors from Japan, China, Singapore, or Hong Kong. When you receive someone else's business card, always look at it and acknowledge it. When you put it away, place it carefully in your card case or with your business documents. Sticking it haphazardly in your pocket is demeaning to the giver. In most cases, wait until you have been introduced to give someone your card.

    Be flexible about the value of time. Not everyone in the world is as time conscious as Americans. Don't take it personally if someone from a more relaxed culture keeps you waiting or spends more time than you normally would in meetings or over meals. Stick to the rules of punctuality, but be understanding when your contact from another country seems unconcerned.

    Honor space issues.  Americans have a particular value for their own physical space and are uncomfortable when other people get too close. If an international visitor wants to get close, accept it. Backing away can send the wrong message. So can touching. You shouldn't risk violating someone else's space by touching them in any way other than with a handshake.

    Whether the world comes to you or you go out to it, the greatest compliment you can pay your international clients is to learn about their country and their customs. Take the time to understand differences in behavior and honor them with your actions. Likewise, don't take offense if foreign visitors behave according to their norms. These simple efforts will reap great rewards for your business and will play a small role in improving international relations.

    Copyright © 2005 Lydia Ramsey.

    About the Author(s)

    Lydia Ramsey is a business etiquette expert, professional speaker, and corporate trainer.  She is the author of Manners That Sell—Adding the Polish That Builds Profits.  For more information about her programs, products and services, contact her at lydia@mannersthatsell.com or visit www.mannersthatsell.com