International Business Etiquette: It’s a Small World

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If you have ever been to Disney World, you are probably familiar with the attraction, “It’s a Small World.”  If you have taken the short boat ride, you can no doubt recall the words and hum the melody.  Now that I brought it up, I have already started humming the tune and will probably be doing so for the rest of the day. In the business world as well as fantasy land, it is definitely a small world.

Our interactions with people from other counties and cultures used to be the result of travel.  Now we interact with people from all over the world on a daily basis because we live and work side-by-side.  We have become a blended society.

Business people are flying all over the world these days on a regular basis, meeting themselves coming and going in airports, hotels and work sites all over the world. Knowing, understanding and practicing international business etiquette is essential for them and for those who stay at home.

If you want to be successful, you need to recognize, respect and appreciate the differences you encounter. If you are currently in business, you must be knowledgeable about the customs of your clients and contacts, sensitive to their traditions and respectful of differences.

No matter the quality of your product or level of your expertise, if you are unaware of the business practices and social customs of others, your business will suffer. One small misstep such as using first names inappropriately, ignoring the rules of timing or sending the wrong color flower to your client, can cost you the relationship, the deal or the sale.  On the other hand being knowledgeable about international customs can improve your business relations and boost your bottom line.

In the 1970’s when Nissan was looking for the site for their first plant in the U.S., competition among the states was fierce.  In the end, Tennessee won.  It wasn’t just the location, the labor force, and the special incentives.  The negotiating teams from Tennessee took the time to study the Japanese culture.  They sent their top people, including the Governor, to the discussions.  By doing so, they showed honor and respect, highly valued by the Japanese. They also matched the naturally slower pace and personal touch of the Japanese, and abandoned the American way of “Let’s get right down to business and get on with it.”

It’s easy to make blunders that can cost you business without ever knowing what you did. Here are a few examples of mistakes that can cost you when you overlook the importance of the rules for international business etiquette.

  1. Immediately using first names with people from another country
  2. Ignoring the dietary rules of Hindus, Jews or Muslims.
  3. Flashing the “OK” sign to someone from South America
  4. Giving  a clock to a person from China
  5. Slapping  a Japanese businessman on the back.
  6. Skipping the small talk in Latin America.
  7. Not using both hands when exchanging business cards in China and Japan.

If you want to be successful doing business with people from other cultures, learn all that you can about them. Do the research.  Start by focusing on greetings and handshakes, business dress, gift-giving, appropriate conversation, gestures and body language, punctuality and styles of negotiating.

There is an old Japanese saying, “The protruding nail gets hammered down.” You don’t want to be the protruding nail that gets hammered down because you didn’t take the time to learn the customs, traditions and business styles of your clients or because you failed to be sensitive to individual differences.

Two great resources for learning about international etiquette are my book, Manners That Sell – Adding the Polish That Builds Profits and Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands.

Do your homework whether you are traveling the world on business, entertaining international business clients on your home turf or working side by side in your office. Every thought, word and deed counts.

If you have ever made any international business blunders, I would love for you to share them with me. I’ll include them in a future article–anonymously, of course.

professional speaker

Photo from Savannah magazine

Hire Lydia to work with your staff to improve customer service and employee relations through the use of those priceless and often over-looked soft skills called manners. Lydia is the “unstuffy” business etiquette expert who helps individuals and organizations add the polish that builds profits. We’re talking about your bottom line here.

Since 1996, countless people have benefited from her wisdom through keynotes, seminars and conference breakout sessions.  Her Southern charm and sense of humor have made her a sought-after speaker and consultant.

Based in Savannah, Georgia, Lydia is available for national, regional and local speaking and training engagements. She has suitcase; will travel.

Contact her via email at lydia@lydiaramsey.com or call 912-598-9812. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter and visit her website, lydiaramsey.com.

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