Foreign Exchange

The first time Valerie Blum traveled to Tokyo for work, when her Japanese counterpart handed her his business card, she unthinkingly took it and stuck it in her purse without so much as a glance.

“I knew from the raised eyebrow I got from my boss that I’d done something wrong,” says Blum, who is vice president of communications for a small production firm in New York City. Indeed, without knowing it, Blum had just committed a major faux pas in Japanese culture.

“In Japan, a business card is considered the direct image of the person it belongs to,” explains Pamela Eyring, owner and director of the Protocol School of Washington in McLean, Virginia, which provides training and certification in international protocol and business etiquette. “Never just take one and put it in your purse or wallet—hold it and admire it first.”

Want to avoid making a similar gaffe on your next overseas business trip? Diversity Woman interviewed experts in international etiquette to learn the do’s and don’ts of different cultures. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know.

Continental Divide:

Europe and Latin America
A good rule of thumb to follow: Old World = formal. New World = casual. For instance, in Mexico or Brazil, as in the United States, you can quickly move to using first names, but don’t try that in Germany or France. “It’s considered disrespectful, especially if they’re senior,” says Eyring. “When greeting them, use their family name.”

Like Americans, northern Europeans tend to be punctual and time conscious, notes Terri Morrison, coauthor of Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries (Adams Media, 2006), but that’s less true in Latin America or in southern European countries such as Spain, Italy, or Greece. Translation? Show up on time for your appointments in these countries, but don’t expect your counterparts to do the same.

Even if you hate waiting, you can turn it to your advantage. In Brazil, where it’s not unusual to be kept waiting a half hour, Morrison recommends making a 10 a.m. appointment “so that when the other person shows up at 10:30, they’ll end up inviting you to lunch if the meeting goes well.” These cultures tend to view business relationships more personally, she notes, so you should never turn down a lunch or dinner invitation. Just avoid discussing work during the meal—the United States is one of the few places where this behavior is acceptable.

Whether you’re in Europe or Latin America, be sure to dress well, notes Cynthia Lett, founder and executive director of the International Society of Protocol and Etiquette Professionals in Silver Spring, Maryland. These countries tend to be more fashion conscious than the United States, so “make sure everything fits impeccably and is stylish but not trendy,” notes Lett. “Frumpy is looked down upon.”

East Side Story:

Asia and the Middle East
Asian countries, including India, are where you’ll probably notice the biggest cultural differences. They’re also some of the hottest places for overseas business right now, so learning a little about these cultures can really pay off.

In China, don’t be surprised if you’re asked questions Americans would find rude, such as “How old are you?” or “How much money do you make?” It’s not that they’re nosy, Morrison explains: “It has to do with Confucianism; basically, they’re trying to determine the right honorific title for you. Their society places everyone in a certain order—even twins.” (The Japanese may also ask how much money you make, notes Lett. “Don’t give a number—just say something vague like ‘Never enough!’ or ‘I am well compensated.’”) Indians, because of their caste system, also ask similarly personal questions, adds Morrison, but in no country are you obliged to answer. “Just change the subject,” she suggests. “They’ll get it.”

In India, where physical contact between the sexes is discouraged (Richard Gere learned this the hard way after receiving death threats for kissing Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS benefit in Mumbai), shaking a man’s hand is acceptable if he’s westernized. To be safe, wait for him to initiate. Even safer is to use the traditional Indian greeting called the namaste: press your palms together in a prayer position under your chin, near your heart, and gently nod or bow slightly.

A special note for southpaws: In India as well as Muslim countries, it’s extremely rude to use the left hand (which traditionally took care of personal hygiene). Never shake hands or eat with your left hand, advises Lett. What if you slip up and use your left? Apologize, says Morrison. “We all make mistakes. In our culture, people often don’t apologize because they don’t want to look weak. But if you apologize, you can move forward.” DW

Sara J. Welch covers business travel for the New York Times and leisure travel for National Geographic, Traveler and Ladies’ Home Journal. Her business trips have taken her to 30 different countries.

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