• What not to do. What not to say. Why etiquette matters after all.


    Most people think cultural awareness in business is all about etiquette. It isn’t. It’s about client expectations, communication and management style.

    However, I’m beginning to modify my view. One reason is everyone is fascinated by it. So it must have some influence on the way we think internationally. The other reason is that how you behave abroad affects your client’s or colleague’s expectations of you. If you handle the etiquette right, expectations are met more easily than if you don’t.

    So what do we need to look for and how can ignorance of etiquette affect our business prospects?

    Like all the best stories this one is apocryphal. Paris, as we remember, lost the opportunity to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in 2005 when the selection was announced. Apparently, in July before the announcement, French President, Jacques Chirac, was in Estonia and was heard to say of Great Britain, ‘One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.’ Apparently, he went on to say, ‘After Finland it is the country with the worst food.’

    Unfortunately, his remarks apparently reached the ears of two Finnish delegates to the IOC. At the final lobbying stage Chirac was criticised heavily by the wife of the British Prime Minister. Cherie Blair. Chirac left the building. France lost the Olympics by four votes.

    In his memoirs,’ Running my Life’, British Olympic Chair, Sebastian Coe, claimed Chirac’s ‘tasteless’ remark lost Paris the Olympic Games.

    What are the danger points we need to look out for when dealing with another country? What are the ‘Want not to do’s’ and the ‘What not to says’?

    What not to do

    These are the four areas I focus on.

    1 Greeting and leave taking.

    2 Dress code

    3 Gift-giving

    4 Hospitality

    Greeting and leave-taking

    Learn the typical ways that everyone greets and takes leave. Some nationalities shake hands every time they meet at the beginning of the day. Some nationalities prefer to bow and make a gesture with their hands, especially in Asia. A particular problem, if you are male, can be women in Asia and the Middle East. Westernised women may extend their hand in greeting but for others, touching may be inappropriate. My advice, if you are a man, wait until you see what they do and then respond.


    ‘It’s not what you’re like it’s how you look,’ said a Mexican colleague once. Dressing well is important in Italy and in Latin America but often dress codes in places like the Middle East may involve dark suits for men and the covering of the shoulders, upper arms and legs for women. More outré clothing might suggest a lack of respect or even immorality! Find out what you need to pack before you go.


    In the West ‘open on receipt’ is the maxim but in the East it’s the opposite. To save face, theirs and yours, people gracefully accept presents but don’t open them till later. Also the packaging and colour are important. The lesson is, get your presents professionally gift-wrapped in the store. And pay attention to the wrapping paper.


    ‘I’m not eating that muck,’ an exasperated manager once said in Spain. Spanish cuisine is anything but muck, as its international reputation justifies. However, people often react badly to food they are unfamiliar with. There are two rules.

    One. Don’t refuse hospitality. It may be seen as rejection of the relationship. It is your chance to get to know the people you ae dealing with better.

    Two. If you don’t like the food, taste, appreciate and leave. You will have made the necessary gesture.

    If you are going abroad research these four areas before you go.

    What not to say

    This is as serious as what not to do. As we saw with Chirac, verbal gaffes can leave a lasting sour taste in the mouth of people you deal with. Here there are three things to remember.

    1 Ice-breakers and ice-makers

    2 Cultural fault lines

    3 How to avoid getting it wrong and what to do if you do.

    1 Ice-breakers and ice-makers

    Ice-breakers are things you say to start a conversation. They include things like sport, weather, regional food and drink, national achievements or beauty spots and famous sights, and the general business climate. But even here, be careful. Weather is fine in the UK but if the temperature is a steady 30 degrees or there has just been an earthquake, be careful. Even sport has its problems. Don’t go on about football if the national sport is ice-hockey. Even in India the most popular sport appears to be cricket but the national sport is, in fact, hockey.

    Ice-makers are the things you say which freeze the conversation over and ensure the relationship remains distant. Exactly the opposite of what you had planned! In the Middle East, if you are a man, it may be inappropriate to ask after your colleague’s wife. In China it may be insensitive to ask, ‘How many children do you have?’, given that in 1979 China introduced its ‘one child’ policy to control population growth. Talking about personal things, such as where you live and what your house is like, may be embarrassing in many countries. And this might include France and Germany, where there is a clear division between private and business life.

    The lesson is obvious. Embrace the ice-breakers, but sensitively, and avoid the ice-makers.

    2 Cultural fault lines

    Can we predict the ice-makers? To a degree if you know what to look for. In ‘The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them’ we used the term ‘cultural fault lines’ to identify areas of possible causes of tension between and within international communities. Here they are: -

    • Language

    Language issues, who speaks what, can divide communities quite deeply. In some cases you are best off using a ‘neutral’ language, such as English. The French/Flemish tensions in Belgium are an example of this.

    • Religion and race

    Religious differences are often a source of tension and there is often considerable tension between races. It is far better to avoid reference to either of these topics.

    • Politics

    We already know that discussing internal politics is a risky business but politics can also include historical rivalries. It is all to easy to praise a country without knowing how much you have offended the person you are talking to because you don’t know theirs or their family’s experience at the hands of that country.

    • Money (poverty)

    People don’t like discussing their income although they quite like showing off their wealth and taste. Admire the results if you wish but don’t question the source. Also comparing rich areas of a country to poverty stricken areas or social groups can be a major source of dissent.

    Very important lesson! People often criticise their own country. However, they don’t like it when foreigners join in. Your comments or criticisms are not welcome. Keep them to yourself.

    • Scandals!

    Ah, now there’s the problem. We all love a juicy scandal. However, remember your juicy scandal may be your host’s personal embarrassment or national loss of face.

    Best to keep your mouth shut about what you read in the press.

    3 What’s the impact?

    I still believe that ignorance of local etiquette rarely kills business. However, it can diminish personal effectiveness. Your lack of sensitivity may call into question your personal stature. As a result it can diminish your personal authority in international negotiation. In extreme cases, such as in South Korea, it can make you an ‘unperson’. This is someone who is treated politely and correctly but absolutely ignored in all decision making or information exchange.

    What can you do?

    Here are four things.

    1 Incorporate cultural research into your planning. There are lots of books and websites devoted to this, including this one.

    2 Keep your eyes and ears open on site. Observe and Listen to what people do and say. If appropriate, take your lead from them.

    3 If you are unsure about etiquette, ask your hosts. They will appreciate your sensitivity and interest.

    4 If you think you have made a mistake, apologise. They will say they never noticed. But they did!

    Click on DOWNLOADS to see the slidepack that accompanies this article. See ‘The World’s Business Cultures and How to Unlock Them’ for more information. See PUBLICATIONS

    © copyright 2013 Barry Tomalin (www.culture-training.com)


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