When I first started planning international meetings more than 20 years ago, “going global” was the catchphrase of the day. Companies sought new markets outside of the United States and associations sought new membership. When I started planning meetings abroad, my focus was strictly on logistics: freight forwarding, negotiating in foreign currencies, collaborating with airlines, tax deductibility, choosing activities for attendees to enjoy while they were in the destination, and producing a positive experience that would not be forgotten … all important aspects of international meetings.
I didn’t realize I was overlooking one of the most critical parts of the international meeting experience: protocol. As an international meeting planner, I also needed to assume the role of protocol officer without the title. I quickly learned that it was my job to understand cultural expectations to get the job done. Here are some protocol tips I share from my hard-earned experience:
Communication Styles Communication is not the same all over the rest of the world as it is in the United States — and I am not referring to obvious language differences. Americans like to “get to the point” and to know definitively what is going to happen at each step of the way. Our communications, both written and verbal, are more hurried. We often use “shorthand English,” thinking the other party will understand our meaning. For example, responding to questions from a Japanese meeting planning team, one U.S. hotel sales executive said, “No problem,” which was interpreted as “No, there is a problem.” The hotel lost the business.
In Asia, the Middle East, and in many part of Europe, communication is more looped. It starts with social chat, may include a mention of the work at hand, and then goes back to social chat. Americans may become frustrated with the time it can take to get consensus on a point, but should not try to hurry the process. Understand that the relationship between the parties is more important than the contract. In negotiations with vendors, “no” doesn’t mean no most of the time; it means maybe. Sometimes, as in Asian countries, “maybe” means no.
Dress How you dress sets the tone for your business relationships overseas. Fortunately, the conservative navy or grey suit for men and women is proper just about everywhere. It conveys a sense of professionalism. For women, a modest neckline is just as important.
You may not have thought about it, but colors have a strong influence in how you are perceived abroad. While red is a power color in the United States, in parts of Africa it is a color of mourning. In Asia, it is a lucky color, while in Russia and many countries of the former Soviet Union, red still stands for communism and the blood of revolution. In Latin America, the color purple is associated with death. In Asia, white is the color of mourning. Color consideration must be given to gifts as well as dress.
Business Cards You will need to hand out twice as many business cards overseas as you would expect to hand out during a meeting at home. In almost every office meeting, you will give one to the receptionist as well as to your contact. Always give your business card with your right hand or both hands. The left hand is historically the “dirty” hand, reserved for personal hygiene, so refrain from using it to offer gifts or your business card. Don’t forget to have the other side of your business card translated in the language of the country in which you are doing business if English is not the primary language spoken there.
Eye Contact Meeting one’s gaze is revered in the United States. We determine if the other person is honest and trustworthy by whether s/he establishes eye contact with us. But don’t hold your gaze too long in Asia. A steady gaze is considered to be aggressive and even hostile. The rule to abide by is if you feel that your eye contact is making someone uncomfortable, look away. In most cultures, intermittent eye contact is acceptable.
Greetings Greetings can be tricky. Handshaking is firm and relatively short (three seconds) in North American and Northern European business. However a lighter (limp) but lingering handclasp (10-12 seconds) is the norm in Asia. To make a great impression, go along with cultural norms. Observe. What you get should be what you give in return.
Gifts In the United States, gift giving in business is regulated by Congress. There are limits to the value of gifts you receive from other American organizations. Other countries generally don’t have those limits and gift giving is an important part of business relationships. But there is an art to giving gifts. Knowing when to give, what to give, to whom to give it, and how to wrap it are equally important.
At your first meeting with a new client or supplier, exchanging gifts will be the norm. There are mandatory gift-giving holidays around the world. In Japan, gifts are exchanged July 15 or mid-year and at year’s end, on Jan. 1.
It is always best to give a gift representing your company, industry, or country, made in your country. Some suggestions of appropriate gifts that work almost anywhere are picture books of your town or country, high-quality writing instruments, Native American artifacts, travel accessories such as candles, air purifiers, compasses (Muslims need to know the direction of Mecca), and zoom binoculars. Any intellectual gift — books, music and handicrafts (art) — will be appreciated.
* leather gifts given to Hindus
* alcohol and any product which includes it as an ingredient given as gift to a Muslim
* giving knives, which represent severing relationships (so forgo giving that lovely carving set)
* a gift made in China given to a Japanese client.
Women in Business In many cultures, women are not as easily accepted in the role of competent business people as the United States. Because of their cultural norms, it will take time for international business contacts to trust a woman’s knowledge and competency. Be patient and maintain your professionalism. Often women are ignored at business meetings if they are there with male colleagues; historically they have been seen as assistants, not the ones in charge. It often is important for the group to overtly refer to the women and solicit their opinions on matters to keep all parties included in the meeting.
Promptness Still another concept to grasp in order to successfully conduct business in the international arena is one of time. In all of Northern Europe, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium, there is a high regard for promptness. Being 10 minutes early is appreciated. In the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, and Australia, promptness is appreciated. However, in Southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Greece), most of the Mediterranean, and Arabian Gulf Countries, a meeting may be scheduled for 2 p.m. and actually begin between 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. (except for banquets).
In most of Latin America and Asia, it is even more lax, and appointed times are just estimates. You can’t go wrong by being on time; just bring a book to read or work to occupy you while you wait.
Keep in mind that Americans are almost the only people on earth who eat dinner at 6 p.m. Assume you will eat later than you are accustomed and keep that in mind when planning group dinners which include local colleagues.
Cynthia Lett is a speaker, consultant and coach to Fortune 1,000 executives, government agencies in 30 countries, and savvy professionals worldwide. She is the director of The Lett Group and executive director of the International Society of Protocol & Etiquette Professionals. Lett is the author of Lett’s Talk ... Real Etiquette Dilemmas and How to Solve Them. She is a recognized media expert whose commentary on workplace/career issues is regularly featured on TV and radio shows, and in newspapers and magazines. For more information, call 888.933.3883 (301. 946.8208) or visit www.lettgroup.com .