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How to Succeed in International Business - Cultural Etiquette in Business

Business etiquette, international business etiquette, travel etiquette or social etiquette – depending on the situation and circumstance, you will have to read up, adjust and learn about each depending on your purpose.

In any case, you should not see etiquette as a set of rules, but rather as a notion of communication. Like language, we need to learn the customs of a culture we are dealing with or of the country we are living in. Growing up in a country, you learn it automatically, but as soon as you start working with other cultures, you will see, notice and feel the difference. Unless you have done your homework, you will not know, if what you are doing is the right thing or not.

Etiquette as a Language

If we learn and apply the right etiquette, we have a basis for a good relationship and know how to make a person feel good. As soon as we understand the expectation of a country and why it is expected, it gives us the opportunity to connect with people and build relationships – even between different cultures.

This can give you an incredible advantage as an individual or as a company, if you are aware of the local etiquette. As a result, you are likely to succeed a lot quicker than your competitors.

For example, a common misconception is that business etiquette is genderless. But how can it be genderless if it may be considered offensive for women in some countries if you hold the door open for them in a business setting when there are still enough countries which still have this practice and if refraining from doing so, would cause offense. Be cautious when you hear generalized statements about business etiquette or international etiquette. They can sometimes cause more harm than good.

Don’t Show All of You

The fine art of etiquette can be somehow seen as not to present all of who you are. Sometimes etiquette requires you to take parts of ‘who you are’ away to make the other feel more comfortable. It is about taking away what might not be necessary in that moment to avoid distraction.

And that is the beautiful thing about culture. Italians would not be able to talk if you tied their hands behind their back and in Japan they may think you are infringing on them personally should you not keep a certain distance. However, if you took these two cultural examples and put them elsewhere in the world, it may seem somewhat ‘distracting’ and confusing for people, thus leading them not to feel too comfortable with you.

Culture in Business

It would be wrong to say that etiquette in business is more important than in other areas of our life, but there might be more at stake in such a way, that deals could break, you will not get the market share you were hoping for and so forth.

Let us take an example of a Western woman travelling to the Middle East for business. Back in her home, in her board room, she can be outspoken, present her arguments and use the word “I”. However, that would not work in the Middle East. Not only is failure bound to happen, but it would also mean a complete disrespect to the country she is travelling to and the people she is dealing with.

In this case, she needs to ‘take away’ bits of ‘who she is’. Ideally, the woman should write down her notes and suggestions on paper and slip them to a male colleague from her team. From a Western perspective, this might seem downright degrading and humiliating for the woman, but that is only the case if this cultural concept is misunderstood – which more than often it is.

Same Job, Different Approach

It is not about minimizing the role of the woman as she is still doing her job which is to get the answers and find the solution – but the way she is approaching it is just a different one. The lady’s job is to get the contract, but she would have to do it in a way that the other party understands her approach. Obviously, you will not get far if you do not make everyone feel comfortable with you, if you do not treat them the way they would like to be treated and if you continue to insist on your way of doing things. They will not understand your way.

This is just one typical example, so if you are not savvy, have not done your research or understand a possible cue when in the given situation, do not expect walking out a meeting with an agreement in your hand.

It’s not the What but the Why

The basis is to not just understand what a culture does but why they do things the way they do. Why is it that in some cultures only the eldest in the room may present ideas? Why is it that in some cultures the women in the room should hand their input on notes to the gentlemen? Why is it that in other cultures everyone in the room can equally share and present their ideas? This is when you learn about the culture of a country – whether a culture is collective or individualistic, whether it is a masculine or a feminine culture (read up on Hofstede’s Cultural Indicators). Only when you understand these things, will it be easier for you to adjust.

Join me on this series of etiquette in culture and business and please share your experiences in the comment box below!

Need help to overcome these obstacles? You don’t know how to overcome differences? You need more information or training for your company or as an individual? Please check out my Cross-Cultural and Business English lessons including basic cultural etiquette!

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