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How to avoid offending your international business partners

I grew up in Belgium and Greece. As son of a Greek maritime officer I have been in contact with foreign cultures since I was a child. Some times traveling with my father. Other times impressed by the amazing stories he had to tell when coming back home from his journeys in the 60’s and 70s in countries like Canada, Argentina, the Soviet Union, Japan or China.

Intercultural communication is one of most ancient human activities. It is a form of communication that aims to share information across social groups with different values, attitudes and communication behaviors.

In the modern globalised economy, most enterprises operate in different countries and continents. Operating abroad expose companies to a large range of risks. It is paramount to learn how to navigate across different cultural landscapes. Developing a sound cultural intelligence is essential in communicating confidently across cultures.

Respectful and appropriate behavior is essential when doing business oversees. But what is normal in one country may be rude in another. Here are some top tips on how to avoid offending your international business partners:

Arab countries: In the Muslim world, Friday is the day of rest. There are several styles of greetings in use. I believe it is best to wait for your counterpart to initiate the greeting. Men shake hands with other men. Some women will shake hands. However, it is recommendable for a woman to wait for a man to offer his hand. A more traditional greeting between men involves giving each other’s right hand, placing the left hand on the other’s right shoulder and exchanging kisses on each cheek. Gifts are not necessary, but appreciated. If you do give a gift, it will be opened in private. It is better to avoid giving gifts like alcohol; perfumes containing alcohol; pork skin products; nude or partially nude art including images, paintings or sculptures. Ramadan Kareem is the correct greeting during the month of fasting in the Muslim countries.

Belgium: Always be polite and well-mannered. This includes shaking hands with everyone you meet, including administrative staff. Respecting time schedules is very important in Belgium. Missing a deadline is a sign of poor management and inefficiency. Negotiations are direct. However, pushing for a quick decision could be seen as aggressive. In Belgium there are two communities with different styles of doing business. In the Dutch speaking part of Belgium (Flanders), decisions are group or consensus focused. In the French speaking part of Belgium (Wallonia), business is more hierarchical and the top-ranking person at the meeting makes decisions.

China: At the age of 14, my son Strato decided that he was going to live and work in Asia. For the time being, he is studying East Asian Studies at the University of Heidelberg which is closer to Belgium. Nevertheless, we have been several times in China. Most Chinese believe that inequalities amongst people are acceptable and that people should not have aspirations beyond their rank. The most important member of an organisation should lead important meetings. Chinese value rank and status. Do not start to eat or drink prior to your stakeholder. As a cultural courtesy, I suggest you should taste all the dishes you are offered. The decision making process is quite slow. You should not expect to conclude your business quickly. Commercial agreements might be regarded as general guidelines and Chinese might be surprised by a Westerner’s refusal to renegotiate a contract or a price.

France: Some French companies have more hierarchical levels than firms of the same size in other EU countries. Higher-level staffs tend to have more privileges and are often inaccessible. In France, it is common for a man to say hallo to a lady by kissing her on the cheeks, even in a business setting. Nevertheless, some women prefer only a handshake and will stake out their hand. If you don’t speak the language, French will appreciate if you apologize for your lack of fluency. Displays of warmth and generosity between business associates are not the norm in French business culture. Giving presents is acceptable but with discretion.

Germany: In business meetings a handshake may be accompanied by a bow which can be perfectly reciprocated. That makes a good impression. I experienced this pleasant behavior when in Cologne for business meetings last year. However, humor is not very much appreciated in a business context. In Germany there is a strong belief in the ideal of self-actualization. Loyalty is based on personal preferences for people as well as a sense of duty and responsibility. Communication is one the most direct in the world following the ideal to be honest and by this giving a stakeholder the chance to learn from mistakes.

Greece: Be prepared to commit long term resources, both in time and money toward establishing strong relationships in Greece. Trust and personal relationships are very important. It is not common for Greeks to conduct business with someone they feel that they cannot trust. Greek people always prefer face-to-face contact rather than doing business over the telephone or internet. The first contact is critical in developing a relationship in Greece and appearance has an important impact on first impressions. Although business is relaxed, it is also serious. Acting informal before a relationship has been developed can be considered as disrespectful. Gifts are not essential to business relationships but are appreciated.

India: Work is paramount and visible symbols of success in the work place are essential. Titles are very important. Always use professional titles when in India. Business lunches are preferred to dinners. Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork. The use of leather products including belts or handbags may be considered offensive. Hindus revere cows and do not use leather products. When entering a residence you are supposed to take out your shoes outside. Avoid saying no during business negotiations. It is considered to be rude. You better use terms like we will see or I will try.

Japan: The country is one of the most masculine societies in the world. Japanese are always conscious of their hierarchical position in any social setting and act accordingly. Their companies are structured in a hierarchical way as well. However, the act of decision-making, even within large organisations is a bottom-up consensus-building process conducted in steps. Japan is a meritocratic society. There is a strong notion in the Japanese education system that everybody is born equal and anyone can progress and become anything if he or she works hard enough. Japanese prefer not to use the word no. If you ask a question they may simply respond with a yes but clearly mean no. Understanding this is critical in business talks. Bowing is the common greeting. However, you may be offered a handshake.

Russia: My son Leander has a passion for Russia and has studied East European Languages and Cultures. According to him, the huge social and financial discrepancy in Russia increases importance of status symbols. Behavior has to reflect and represent the status roles in all areas of business interaction. As a visitor, you are expected to be on time to all business appointments. However, your Russian contact may be late, as this may be a test of your patience. So do not demonstrate any kind of reaction if your business appointments begin one hour later than planned. Be sure to have plenty of business cards with double sides of information. One side should be printed in English, the other side in Russian.

Sweden: I have worked with Swedes at the European Commission and admire their efficient work culture and style. In Sweden hierarchy in companies is for convenience only. High-ranked staff is accessible and the management facilitates and empowers. Being independent is important. Control is disliked and professional interaction is informal and on first name basis. The communication is direct and participative. Swedes avoid arguing, especially with visitors. If a discussion appears to be turning into an argument, do not be offended if a Swede suddenly changes the subject. Do not get too personal. Topics like income and personal background should be avoided.

UK: The British are individualist and private people. Punctuality is very important when doing business in the UK. If possible, arrive ten to fifteen minutes early for a business meeting. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is becoming more and more important for businesses in the UK, where there is an important growth in consumer activism. British rarely retain eye contact during conversations and when dining out, toasting those that are older than you is not considered polite. Men should avoid to be dressed in shirts with pockets. Some companies are encouraged not to accept any form of gift and some are prevented from doing so on legal grounds.

USA: In the US, one of the most individualist cultures in the world, it is usual to do business or interact with people you don’t know well. Americans are not shy about approaching their prospective counterparts in order to obtain or seek information. Business meetings may take place over breakfast, lunch or dinner. Americans address each other very informally and on a first name basis. First impressions are important. Americans know how to sell themselves and expect others to do the same. Appearance should be healthy and energetic. Americans wish to do business as soon as possible and are pleasant to co-operate with.

There is more than language that separates cultures. By understanding those differences we can grow a cohesive community with a positive impact on individuals, entrepreneurship and the planet

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