International business travel makes me nervous. No, I don’t have a fear of flying or seeing new places; it’s the cultural interaction that makes me squirm. I never know what is appropriate and what is forbidden, so I’m usually left simply hoping I don't make a fool out of myself.
On a recent business trip to Spain, for example, I was greeted with a two-handed handshake and kisses on both cheeks. Fine with me. While in Nepal a few years prior, though, I was welcomed into a meeting with a nod and no human contact whatsoever. This was awkward only for the fact that I had to sheepishly retract my outstretched hand like it hadn’t been extended in the first place. Oops.
So what are a few things businesspersons should remember when traveling abroad?
To find out, I enlisted the advice of Terri Morrison, president of Getting Through Customs, and co-author of nine books on cultural guidelines in business. Her next book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, Sales and Marketing: The Essential Cultural Guide—From Presentations and Promotions to Communicating and Closing, comes out in November.
Here are a few of her tips for Europe and Asia.
Businesspersons here are known for their formality. When you first meet, shake hands with a firm grip and look them straight in the eye, Morrison recommends. Don’t be surprised if they introduce themselves by their last name only and refer to you the same way. “They rarely like to use first names unless they know you personally,” she adds.
Once introduced, skip the chitchat and get right down to business. “There usually is no conversation about personal lives or asking about hobbies,” says Morrison. “They like to get to business very quickly and go step-by-step through contracts. Everything is usually done in a very orderly manner."
Lack of chitchat extends to elevators. Unlike the U.S. where deals can be done during a 10-second ride, elevators are kept silent in Northern Europe. “It comes down to sense of proximity and Northern Europeans don’t like to be less than three feet from each other—it makes them uncomfortable,” she says. “The informality of talking in an elevator is completely foreign to them.”
The opposite goes for Southern Europe. Here, businesspersons tend to be very chatty and will discuss personal interests…which can make things all the more comfortable for the U.S. traveler.
What isn’t so comfortable, though, is the lack of regard for punctuality. “They are more likely to be late—could be five minutes, could be 30 minutes,” Morrison says. Yes, this can be frustrating, but the best thing to do is to plan for it and try not to get upset.
Attire is very important to Southern Europeans. Make sure you invest in your clothing, but don’t be flashy. “Don’t wear an all red suit; wear something subtle and well put together,” she says.
Eastern Europe and Russia
Consider hiring an interpreter when going to Eastern Europe because language can prove especially difficult.
“If you are in Hungry, for example, and your client doesn’t speak English, you need to get a really good interpreter, but remember that that person can only work for about two hours because the work is exhausting,” Morrison says. “Many high-level execs will prepare two interpreters and send information prior to the meeting to prep them—then switch them in the middle of the meeting to give one a break.”
Since Russia is the midst of an economic boom, there is an ever-expanding wealthy population. According to Morrison, businesspersons spend on items such as clothing and automobiles and like to conversate about such things in the meeting room.
“They want to know where you are staying, what you are wearing, and what kind of car you drive,” she says. “They are also very tough negotiators and will test you. And like in Southern Europe, they can be late but expect you to be punctual. The trick is not to get upset because that shows weakness.”
When doing business in Asia, remember to keep your emotions hidden. “The concept of harmony is very important in Asian cultures and you are disturbing that if you show your emotions—make sure to keep a poker face,” advises Morrison.
Relationships are integral to business in Asia. “Most people will work with those that they know, trust, or are related to,” she says.
So how can business owners develop trusted relationships?
“Contact world trade centers and ask them for contacts; you can also contact embassies and consulates for introductions to people in various locations to help you get an ‘in,’” she says.
When deciding on a wardrobe, stay away from bright colors. “Certain colors were once reserved for royalty such as yellow for the Emperor of China,” says Morrison. “If you are working with senior businesspersons, stay away from a yellow tie.”