November 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions Behavior Modifciation November 1998 Current Issue
November 1998
Behavior Modification

For the sake of business, learn to keep your American ways in check abroad


An eagerly awaited plane lands in Brazil. A high-ranking passenger makes his descent to the tarmac and, eager to make a good impression on new Latin American contacts, raises his fingers in an unmistakably vulgar salute to male anatomy. Don't laugh - it happened. (Nixon was the culprit.)

As globalization continues its clichéd but inevitable march forward, doing business with people from many cultures has become as standard a business practice as filling out an expense report. Unfortunately, it's not quite as straightforward. Business styles can vary widely from country to country, even among those sharing borders and languages. Just as humor doesn't translate well, neither do many attitudes, assumptions and behaviors, no matter how normal or innocuous they may seem in one's home country.

Avoiding gaffes and misunderstandings has become so important to the global business world that an entire cottage industry has sprung up whose experts coach Americans on how to dress appropriately, make small talk at cocktail parties, run meetings and basically keep faux pas at bay in cultures where even the most innocent comments or gestures can torpedo business relationships. We've asked these experts for their perspectives and advice.

Slow Down
"I can sum up the American business style like this: "Chop-chop. Cut to the chase," says Bob Frye, Glenmoore, Pa.-based senior vice president and chief of protocol for Protocol International, a 7-year-old firm offering counseling services to corporations, associations and government officers attending or hosting meetings abroad. Americans tend to dispense with pleasantries quickly and launch into business discussions with contacts they've barely met - a style that might go over well in Manhattan but not in Mexico or Mandalay.

According to Roger Axtell, the Janesville, Wis.-based author, speaker and protocol adviser who was recently named one of the 25 most influential people in international business by World Trade Magazine, Americans value speed because we are deal-focused. "We're taught that time is money and the deal is everything. When we go to a meeting, the first thing we say is, Ôlet's get right down to business. Let's negotiate a deal, get it signed and move on to the next thing.' We tend to appear impatient. We consider speed a virtue and believe that's the way things should be done."

On the other hand, Axtell continues, large parts of the world - all of Asia, most of the Middle East, Latin America and Southern Europe - are relationship-focused. "The personal trust and rapport you build up over time in those countries is more important than any deal could be. That concept frustrates Americans, since we don't want to spend Ôwasteful' time to talk. We think in terms of hours and weeks; others think in terms of months and years."

Relationship management also involves gift-giving and mutual favors, as well as being much more personally involved with one's counterparts. "In other cultures," Axtell explains, "when you visit a company, your firm, no matter how prestigious, is a shadowy entity and you're the focus. Your reputation, not your company's, is what counts."

The "I need it yesterday" refrain is also mysterious outside the United States. "Americans want everything immediately, which is considered not only rude but also an enormous imposition, especially if they're asking for something to be sent by overnight courier from overseas," says Michel Couturier, president of Marketing Challenges International, a New York City-based firm that represents international venues and destinations for North American meeting, convention and incentive planners. "What makes Europeans even more resentful is when American planners have asked for something immediately and then take their sweet time answering. Europeans think if you want it so fast, you should answer equally quickly."

What to do: Be patient, even if it seems counterintuitive to being productive. Be aware that many decisions, even small ones, are made by committee, so it can take what seems like an inordinate amount of time to reply to queries, RFPs or contracts. Ensure that your timetable accommodates the getting-to-know-you process. And don't expect to return from an initial meeting with a signed contract. It might take several rounds to arrive at an agreement.

Watch Your Body Language
One of the most common differences in business styles is borne out in communications, says Mary Murray Bosrock, St. Paul, Minn.-based author of the critically acclaimed Put Your Best Foot Forward series and an expert on international communication and behavior. "We expect other cultures to communicate the same way we do," she explains. "And if they don't use the same methods, we either assume they'd like to be like us or we expect them to adapt to our styles." Needless to say, this assumption can spell disaster. "It's just as likely," she says with a laugh, "they will expect us to act more like them."

The fact remains that face-to-face communication can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. In Asia, Bosrock says, volume, well, speaks volumes. "Americans tend to raise their voices when they fear they're not being understood - a legitimate fear, by the way, when there's a language barrier - or when they aren't getting their way. In Asia, a raised voice may cause people to pull back from the conversation in an effort to avoid confrontation. Furthermore, the higher the person's status, the less volume he or she uses to make a point, so the louder you are, the more crass you seem."

Body language can be even trickier. Gestures are a particular minefield. Brazilians still tell the story of Richard Nixon's visit, when he stepped off Air Force One and flashed the "OK" sign (thumb and forefinger in a circle, three other fingers straight up). To them, it's an extraordinarily vulgar reference to a body part mentioned several dozen times in the Starr Report.

In Islamic countries, any display of the sole of the foot is considered highly insulting. A British professor giving a guest lecture at a university innocently did so and triggered a student protest and newspaper headlines denouncing British arrogance, according to Terri Morrison, Malvern, Pa.-based author of The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business series and a frequent lecturer.

What to do: Although controlling nonverbal communication can be tough (ever think consciously about your facial expression?), Bosrock makes these easy-to-apply suggestions: Don't mimic anyone's behavior, never slap anyone on the back, don't put your hands in your pockets and don't stare. Research such things as applause. (In Japan, for example, elegant presentations are often rewarded with a chorus of fingers tapping on the table.) Also be prepared for written communications to be much more flowery and abstruse than the clear, concise style Americans are taught to strive for. Purple prose is meant to convey respect, not obfuscation.

Show Respect
Just because you're new at dealing with, say, Europeans doesn't mean that they aren't sophisticated businesspeople used to dealing with ill-mannered Americans. Marketing Challenges International's Michel Couturier tells of a particularly memorable planner who, during a discussion of her meeting's requirements, defined in excruciating detail what a coffee break was. "Her condescension was appalling," Couturier says. "Less-than-perfect English isn't a sign of stupidity."

What to do: Even when dealing with fluent English speakers, speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and avoid convoluted syntax, unusual words and idioms. Also avoid expressions popularized on American television ("cowabunga") and sports jargon ("down for the count" or "ballpark estimate"). Roger Axtell suggests that you direct your speech as if to a wealthy, elderly aunt who has just asked you how much you think she should leave you in her will. "Be diplomatic, humble, gracious, respectful and precise," he says.

Give Business a Rest
Americans conduct business everywhere and we do it at all hours - at breakfast, late at night, on weekends, walking on the street with cell phones. In many countries, this is unfathomable, and simply inviting someone to a breakfast meeting is the height (or depth) of boorishness.

Outside the United States, business entertaining is for relaxing and getting to know counterparts in a civilized, unhurried way. Don't be surprised if the subject of business never comes up at a dinner or party. As a guest, you're there to enjoy the hospitality and to build bonds that will allow both parties to reap later dividends.

What to do: Use this time not only to get to know your colleagues but to get to know their city. "Let's say you're organizing a big conference and have traveled abroad to do advance work," says Protocol International's Frye. "If you take pains to meet local people and take the time to bring your main contact with you on a tour of her city, you're demonstrating your interest in that person's home and culture. That goes a long way in forging support and respect."

Go Formal
The concept of casual Fridays, where the big boss is called by his first name, wears a polo shirt and khakis to work every once in a while and even gets teased by subordinates, simply won't fly elsewhere, where pecking orders are strictly observed and where virtually all areas of comportment, from dress to terms of address, are an essential part of business culture.

Bosrock tells a story of an American group that began a presentation to European business associates by suggesting that everyone take off their jackets and roll up their sleeves. "The idea was that they wanted to appear friendly, approachable and collegial." The reply: an icy "We prefer to remain dressed." (French businessmen rarely take off their jackets or loosen their ties, no matter what the weather.) In Germany, titles are so important that people can work together for years and still only use family names with one another, referring to each other not just by Herr and Frau but also (when appropriate) Herr Doktor Professor or Herr Burgermeister. You may suggest using first names to break the ice at a meeting, but you're likely to find yourself still referred to pointedly as Mr., Miss or Mrs. (Ms. is usually ignored.)

Formality is also practiced in seating, where areas of the table are reserved for the person with the highest status, whether at meals or the bargaining table. There are even tightly held traditions concerning toast-making around the world. In Denmark and Sweden, for example, you never toast your host or anyone senior to you in rank or age until they toast you first.

What to do: When in doubt, ask quietly where it would be appropriate for you to sit, what "business casual" really means in the local culture, what the customary terms of address are and so on. You won't appear foolish, but instead considerate.

Politesse Is All-important
The rules of business etiquette cover everything from appropriate gift-giving to ways to contradict someone without causing loss of face to knowing how to handle embarrassing realities like a sneeze or a need to take a bathroom break. (Which brings up a few tips: In France, it's considered mal élevé - bad form - to excuse yourself during a meeting or a meal. And if you have a terrible cold in Japan, try not to blow your nose in public. If you do, never use a cloth handkerchief. The Japanese think using and reusing a hankie, then storing it in your pocket, is disgraceful.)

On the other hand, don't go so overboard helping someone save face that you end up being insincere. Couturier tells the story of the meeting planner who told a convention and visitors bureau she wasn't booking their city because the hotels were more than three minutes from the conference center. "They were stunned," he says. "They knew she wasn't telling them the real reason, and they truly wanted to know why - it's important that they know whether it's because the city was too expensive or the hotels weren't up to speed or the venues didn't meet her requirements."

Gift-giving is such a minefield that entire books are written to cover country-by-country practices - for instance, the way red signifies good luck for the Chinese. On the other hand, few know to stay away from green things, particularly green hats (like caps with the New York Jets logo), which mean either you're a cuckold or that your wife or sister is a prostitute. In Malaysia, green is associated less with nature than with the jungle and disease. Anywhere in Asia, if you receive a gift, don't open it in front of the giver. It will embarrass him or her and, worse, will make you appear greedy, impatient and vulgar. In wine-producing countries, it's not a good idea to give your client a bottle of wine. Although you might take great pains to carefully select a fabulous vintage, the gesture implies that you know more about wine than your host.

There are also some significant differences in something as simple as making an appointment. "In some countries, there's no such thing as a cold call, even on a supplier with whom you've had a long-standing relationship," says Earl Foster, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Corporate Travel Executives. Foster once decided to drop in unannounced on an SAS sales rep when he was in Scandinavia with his travel-management team. The receptionist, Foster says, "was so aghast she was ready to call the police."

What to do: Investigate cultural nuances regarding gifts and business customs in advance. Also ask about the rules of punctuality. In some countries, being late is unforgivable. In others, lateness isn't even considered something to apologize for or explain away. In Spain, where timeliness can be less than timely, ask, "The Spanish hour or the English hour?" The former means a half hour to an hour after the appointed time; the latter means on the dot.

Face-Saving Resources Want to learn more about avoiding cultural faux pas? Consult these sources.
  • Roger Axtell, a retired Parker Pen Company executive, spent 30 years living and traveling abroad and now shares his insights with readers of his Do's and Taboos series of eight volumes. The newest is Do's and Taboos Around the World for Women in Business (John Wiley & Sons, New York City, $16.95). Coming in January: Do's and Taboos of Humor Around the World ($15.95).
  • Provo, Utah-based Brigham Young University offers "Culturgrams," concise four-page backgrounders on business styles in 160 countries. Call 1-800-528-6279 or click on (
  • Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway have recently released The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union ($16.95) and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America ($16.95) published by MacMillan General Reference (New York City). The authors' superb Web site ( also offers links, including one to a list of culture-appropriate business gifts.
  • Protocol International, with offices in Chicago, New York City and Hampton and Middlesex in the U.K., offers workshops on international protocol and cross-cultural fundamentals - from handling conference calls to properly recognizing honored guests. The company will also create, manage and implement U.S.-based meetings and events. Call (312) 606-7300 or e-mail
  • Mary Murray Bosrock, a writer and lecturer, is author of the Put Your Best Foot Forward series. A former international editor of Foreign Trade magazine, her books, which cover Asia, Mexico/Canada, Russia and, soon, the United States, are published by IES in St. Paul, Minn., and retail for $22.95 each. J.M.

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