20 ways to embarrass yourself around the world
When the Sherman brothers wrote "It’s A Small World (After All)" in 1962, they had no idea how true that sentiment would become. Technology and ease of travel have made international enterprises out of almost every business. Today, if you’re going to succeed in advertising, you need more than a plane ticket and directions to the conference room. You need to know the customs and etiquette of the places you’re visiting because running afoul of either can have dire consequences for your career. Some of these conventions may seem minor and others may contradict everything we’ve been taught about the right way to do business. But ignore them at your own risk.
In Japan, gift-giving is a traditional opening gesture in a prospective business partnership. Four and nine are considered unlucky numbers there — so, if you’re giving sets of glasses or silverware, keep that in mind or watch the deal evaporate.
‘Possibly’ means no
"The word ‘no’ has harsh implications in India and is considered dismissive and insulting," Zoey Cooper, head of content and media at Wordbank, explains. "Listen out for phrases like ‘I’ll try,’ ‘possibly’ or, ‘That may be difficult.’ "
You’re not at the improv
"Instructors and speakers are held in high respect in China, Japan and much of Asia – and laughter is not expected during the proceedings," Cooper says. So if your presentation in the Far East is full of jokes and nobody laughs, there’s more to it than just the possibility that you’re not funny – you’re not supposed to make jokes during your presentation at all.
Cooper says that, in Japan, prolonged eye contact is considered impolite. Outside of Asia, the reverse is true. In Italy, constant eye contact is expected and, in Russia, "don’t be surprised if you are actually being stared at." Stuart Friedman, CEO of Global Context, says that, in Sweden, looking directly into someone’s eyes while toasting over drinks is a must.
Wait to be seated
In the US, the general rule of seating states that the most important guest is seated next to the host. Not so in China, according to Cooper. "In China, the least-important guests sit next to the host, and the second- and third-most-important guests sit to the right and left of the guest of honor," she says.
Please silence your phone
Emily Porro, an American corporate communications consultant currently working in Spain, says that on weekends, holidays and weeknights after 8pm, you shouldn’t expect to conduct much business, if any, in that country. "You will rarely have an e-mail answered or have any sort of response during these times, regardless of profession or position," she says.
Don’t eat lunch at your desk
"French people are very uncomfortable speaking to someone eating lunch at their desk," according to Lynnet Conley, the chief financial officer at the Boston-based Radius, who spent ten years working in France. John Stratton, a telecom-munications sales director in Manchester, UK, agrees.
"Whereas Yanks and Brits might just grab a quick sandwich at their desk and crack on with their work, the French insist that taking the full hour, and perhaps an extra 10 to 15 minutes, be observed as a rule," he says.
Show up on time, even when they don’t.
Being punctual with your business contacts goes without saying. Be that as it may, Conley advises not to expect your French counterparts to always return the favor. "Often, I would be the only one showing up for meetings on time and would wait 20 to 30 minutes for the others to join," she says.
Silence is golden
Sometimes, the best thing you can say is nothing. This is the case in Japan, where your silence is not just appreciated but required, unless you’re the highest-ranking member of your team. Only that person talks – no one else in the group makes a peep.
In India, the left hand is considered unclean, so always shake hands with your right. If you wish to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, don’t. It’s not allowed.
In South Korea, body language during a handshake is very important, as Microsoft’s Bill Gates found out in 2013. "He shook President Park Geun-hye’s hand while keeping his left in his trouser pocket," Cooper says. "In South Korea, the right forearm is propped up by the left hand and maintaining eye contact is essential."
Don’t forget to bow
It’s well-known that bowing is an important social convention in Japan. But there are many variations, and all are important. "Men bow with their hands at their sides, women clasp their hands in front of them," Cooper explains. "A junior person bows lower than a senior executive."
Bonus tip: Avoid placing chopsticks straight up in a bowl in Japan.
Gimme that old-time religion
Violating local etiquette is bad. Disrespecting someone’s religion is worse. Alice Kaushal, the managing director at the Singapore-based consultancy Refine, recalls a friend who hosted associates from the Middle East in Hong Kong and overlooked the guests’ dietary restrictions.
"In most Chinese restaurants, even the vegetables are cooked with a meat broth that generally contains pork bones," she says. "So, at this sumptuous banquet, the guests could not eat most of the food."
Cooper says that certain rules regarding business cards apply everywhere: present them at the beginning of the meeting, don’t write on them and so forth. Japan has several other rules as well. "Never offer a bent, dirty or less-than-perfect business card," she suggests. "Always start with the most senior member of the Japanese team. Present your card with two hands, Japanese side up."
"Socializing over a meal is fraught with potential cultural faux pas, and you can be sure your hosts will be watching your every move," Cooper says. "While your fork is generally in your left hand in France, Italy and many other European countries, never turn it round to shovel your food, and don’t wave it about. Do not begin until everyone is served and the host invites you to eat."
"The Chinese will decline a gift three times before finally accepting so as not to appear greedy. You will have to continue to insist," says Stephen Flowers, president of global freight forwarding at UPS. "Once the gift is accepted, express gratitude. You will be expected to go through the same routine if you are offered a gift."
Up close and personal
The issue of personal space varies from country to country. In France, kissing is an accepted means of greeting a colleague and not viewed as intrusive. Not so in Japan. "Make sure you don’t touch, hug or attempt to kiss anyone in a work environment," Conley says.
The reverse is true in Brazil. Flowers says that, in that nation, being a "close talker" doesn’t have any Seinfeldian negative connotations. "Brazilians stand very close and use physical contact during conversations," he explains. "Closeness inspires trust, and trust inspires long-term relationships."
Keep your feet on the ground
Gayle Cotton, the author of Say Anything To Anyone, Anywhere, says that showing the sole of your shoe is offensive in the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Leave the blue scissors at home
Darcie Connell, the founder and CEO of the travel resource Trekity, recommends avoiding "clocks, straw sandals, knives, scissors, a stork or crane, handkerchiefs or anything white, blue, black" in China. These are all associated with funerals there.
In China, green hats could mean pink slips!
Global Context’s chief executive, Stuart Friedman, has extensive experience with business-related international travel. In more than 25 years, he has travelled to more than 30 countries, including Japan, Russia, Malaysia and India.
Each of these countries has its own unique customs, and even the most well-read foreign traveller can’t be expected to know them all. However, Friedman recounted a cultural transgression unwittingly committed by a client during a trip to Macau that was truly mortifying.
The client had arranged a yearly worldwide sales meeting, and spouses were invited. The company’s vice president of worldwide sales had also brought lots of green baseball caps printed with the corporate logo to give out as gifts to all the guests. So far, so good. The dinner ended, the caps were distributed and the vice-president asked each sales rep to put theirs on. Most of them did so, but the reps from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan politely refused.
"The VP, thinking they were just showing a cultural inclination to not at first accept a gift, walked over to where they were seated with their wives," Friedman says. "He then specifically asked those reps if they could show that they shared the same interests as the rest of the sales team and, please, just for a minute, could they wear the cap for a group photo. He was surprised, if not dismayed, when many of the Chinese reps still declined to do so."
Friedman says that the executive, on his return to the US, began venting about the experience, saying that he couldn’t understand why the Chinese reps hadn’t just co-operated and put the damn hats on.
"Imagine his surprise when I informed him that, in Chinese culture, a man who wears a green hat symbolizes that he knows his wife is cheating on him," Friedman says.
Watch how much you drink
Stratton recalls a Tel Aviv business trip when his former boss let himself go. The boss — a chief executive — disappeared the night before a big meeting, then reappeared at the meeting clearly still drunk from the night before. "No one is shocked that we never did business with that company," he says.
However, had this meeting taken place in Finland under similar circumstances, it might have been a resounding success. "Few other nations, as much as they might brag they can, can keep up with the Finns when they’re drinking," Stratton says. "It’s a sight to behold. And if they really like you? They invite you to have a sauna with them. Naked."
Don’t walk in cold
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed on one thing — do your homework. "Try and learn a little bit of the language, even just the numbering system, how to ask for directions, a taxi, order from a menu, greetings," Stratton says. "You’d be surprised how much these little touches will be appreciated by your hosts."