Working in a global business environment means more than traveling between time zones. There is also a need to understand the customs, practices and habits of your host country. Problematic doesn’t even begin to define the effects on your business should you fail to heed the cultural dos and don’ts.
In many cultures around the world, the etiquette for women in the boardroom is, literally, a world apart from what is acceptable at the American workplace. Brightly colored business attire for women is accepted, nay welcomed, in Latin American countries. But in Asia and the Middle East, neutral-colored clothes for women are a near uniform. Bringing your host in Tokyo a bottle of American whiskey is a thoughtful gift. It’s a major offense in Dubai.
Indeed, in business travel, protocol for women is a whole different ballgame from how men are expected to behave and comport themselves. And with women being close to half of all business travelers–not to mention U.S. business becoming a global affair–knowing how to avoid a cultural faux pas can have a ripple effect across individual companies and the economy.
Sponsors and Networks
“In most destinations that women are traveling to today, it is essential to have a local business contact,” says Cynthia Lett, director of Lett Group, a business etiquette consultancy. “Establishing a local host is the entry point to secure any business in a foreign country.” In China, Russia and the Islamic Middle-East (UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for example), attending business meetings without an intermediary to accompany you is a disadvantage. In the Islamic Middle-East, it is necessary for this host to be male, especially as you may often find that you are the only woman at the meeting, says Lett.
In China, businesses are built on networks or guanxi (pronounced gwan-SHEE). Trust and ease of business hinges on who you know, so find the right intermediary. “Establish your business connections in advance of your arrival with your Chinese counterpart,” says Lisa La Valle-Finan, intercultural advisor at Get Globalized, an intercultural training business. “Knowing the right people is your relationship currency in China.”
In Russia this counterpart will be crucial to introducing you to the right people too, while in the Middle East they could help you avoid awkward questions like, “Why is your husband not traveling with you?”
Dressing The Part
Fashion is equally important. Not only do you want to respect the local culture, but in some conservative countries, dressing norms in the U.S. are interpreted as discourteous and provocative. “Businessmen may be very forward with you if you don’t observe the dressing customs that local businesswomen adhere to,” La Valle-Finan says. Modest dressing in China, Japan, India, Russia and the Middle East includes keeping knees and elbows covered and buttoning shirts up right to the collar.
A woman wearing pants in Japan and the Middle East, specifically, is also discouraged. “In these cultures, skirts on women are preferred,” says Lett. Cleavage is an absolute no-no, even at social events arranged by your business hosts. Wearing neutral colors–blacks, whites and nudes are de rigueur in Asia and the Middle East.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Argentina, where brightly colored outfits are the norm for women. Across Latin America and Europe, women are respected for being fashion-forward. So whether you’re traveling to Sao Paolo or Stockholm, it’s important to stock up on well-tailored suits and stylish accessories.
Building business relationships in a foreign country takes time, emphasize etiquette experts. In the U.S. where time is money (and both are often in short supply), business deals are secured overnight. But in most other countries around the globe, business contracts are based on trust that may take weeks to establish. In countries like Dubai, China, Russia and India, each business encounter should be taken as another step forward in building trust with your hosts. Never rush to get a contract signed, and understand that accepting your host’s hospitality is but a first stop in a longer relationship.
“Never refuse coffee, water or food from your hosts,” says Lett. This is the ultimate sign of disrespect in most of Asia and the Middle East.” However, although Asian hosts may offer alcohol, experts say accept it at your own discretion.
“In China and Japan, the hosts see it as their mission to get their guests intoxicated,” La Valle-Finan adds. “But a woman who can’t control herself will never be respected. So drink moderately, if you must, but avoid alcohol if you can. Because business lunches are preferred over dinners in India, it is best to avoid alcohol altogether, unless you are meeting socially, in the evening.
To show your appreciation, gifts are important when you are traveling overseas. Do the research first, though. American whiskey is revered in China and Japan. But in the Islamic Middle East, and among Muslim hosts in Asia, alcohol is strictly taboo.
Lett advises specifically gifting “Made in America” products, such as intellectual books, music and art. There’s even an art to when you can present your hosts with these gifts. In the Middle East and Asia, gifts must always be given at the end of the meeting so they are not regarded as bribes. As you leave, hand the gift to a person of equal status in the other company, but state explicitly the gift is “from my company to your company,” so that no one is left out. In Latin America, however, gifts are a great icebreaker and can be given at the start of a meeting.
Timing Is Everything
Timings vary significantly across the world. Used to getting to a 9 a.m. meeting at 8:45? In the Middle East, your meeting may start well over an hour after it was scheduled. Time is fluid in the Middle East and Latin America, cautions La Valle-Finan. What’s the best way to get around this? “There is none,” she says.
“Arrive on time, bring a book and prepare to wait. Never appear agitated or frustrated,” adds Lett. China and India, among other countries, are also known to have “flexible” timings, so take a cue from your host. In this situation, your intermediary is the best person to ask about standard procedure. In contrast, if you’re traveling to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore or the U.K., punctuality is a sign of professionalism.
Kitchen Sink Customs
But some customs are so country-specific that it is impossible to categorize them. In most of the Islamic Middle East, it’s the norm to keep visitors waiting. It is also completely acceptable for your meeting in Dubai to be interrupted because your host needs to sign some papers or take a phone call. This is not considered rude, but an extension of the Middle Eastern custom to mix business with pleasure. It is also acceptable to ask about your host’s children, especially sons, but never their wives.
Also, think you can stuff someone’s business card in your pocket or toss it into your bag? Think again–this is cultural suicide in Japan and China, where business cards are considered a representation of one’s self.
What’s the right way to treat your host’s business card? “Offer and receive cards with both hands, and always look at it as if you’re studying it carefully,” says Marybeth Bond, author of eight travel books for women and the site The Gutsy Traveler. “Give the business card the respect that you would give your host.” Experts also recommend getting your card translated in the relevant foreign language for your hosts.
Your biggest ally when traveling abroad for business is research–knowing as much as possible about your host country prior to take-off. Unlike when you’re a tourist, cultural mistakes are never acceptable when made by business travelers. Leave it to chance or the last minute and your success is guaranteed to be lost in translation.
Filed Under: HR
About the Author: