Many executives traveling outside the U.S. on business will read every footnote in a company's annual report and ignore the culture of the host country.
A stand-up comedy routine could be written about the boisterous, direct "grab 'em by the lapels and get the deal done" American stumbling into a culture where things are ... different.
"I think a lot of first-time travelers take what they've learned locally and try to apply it globally," says Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, a spokesman for Montreal-based AskMen.com, a Web site that offers advice to men. "The biggest mistake many overseas travelers make is failing to research the culture they're about to enter."
Don't assume that globalization has erased basic cultural differences. The creation of DaimlerChrysler hasn’t blurred all differences between Germany and the U.S. Keep in mind that ketchup is more than a faux pas in Paris, and it's unlikely that snails will become snack food in Kansas any time soon.
If you're headed to a new country for the first time, learn about your destination. You won't be quizzed on key historical dates, but you need to know what makes your destination distinctive and what people are passionate about.
Start by chatting with people who have been there. A lot of what you get will be anecdotal: great beer, lousy elevators, excellent public transportation, low water pressure, knockout architecture, rude waiters, but great grub — that sort of thing.
But if you talk to the right people and ask the right questions, you'll get the outlines of how business is done in your destination.
Here's the type of thing you need to learn:
- In China, business cards are routinely exchanged at the first meeting. Be sure that one side of your card has been translated into Chinese. Consider printing at least the name of your company in gold because this is considered a felicitous color. Include your company's name, your job title and any special qualifications you have. When receiving a card from a Chinese businessman, put it in a case, rather than tucking it in your wallet or pocket.
- Business cards are handled in a similar fashion in Japan. Present your card to your host, Japanese-language side up, using your right hand or both hands. When receiving a card, consider accepting it with both hands because this shows deference.
- In India, English is nearly universal among the business and technical leaders. Still, one side of your business card should be in Hindi as a sign of respect. Use a formal title when addressing people, including those you know, such as doctor, professor, or sir or madam if you don't know their names.
Be aware of what's important in the host country. If you're doing business in Italy, remember that Gucci, Prada and Versace underscore the emphasis placed on style and appearance — so don't show up in a ratty corduroy coat. If you're in Paris, and your host asks if you have a dinner preference, it's a bad move to suggest McDonald's in a country famous for its cooking schools.
Punch "business etiquette" into Yahoo! or Google, and you'll find scads of Web sites offering tips to overseas business travelers.
Some of the information is basic to the point of banal, but keep digging, and you'll find what you need to know. A few sites will e-mail you a detailed county-specific report for a fee. Reading up on your destination on Amazon.com also might be helpful.
Don't assume that things are just like home in a familiar culture like Britain. For example, ExecutivePlanet.com, a business etiquette Web site, informs us:
"In some ways, the British often appear indifferent to both style and fashion, but there remains an almost snobbish awareness of 'quality.' Thus, senior bankers, civil servants, lawyers and accountants are still likely to shop at smart outfitters in London's West End: bespoke suits from Savile Row (pure wool, double-breasted, two vents, four buttons on the cuff of which two are functional and the other two decorative), shirts from Jermyn Street (pure cotton, full-cut, double cuffs with links) with silk tie and hand-made leather Oxford shoes."
Hmmm, guess that means sitting down to tea with the queen in duds from Wal-Mart or Target won't cut it.