When in Rome

Practical tips for women conducting business overseas.

A few years ago, Tyra Hilliard, a public speaker and professor in Saint Simons Island, Georgia, had an experience she’s “not proud of” while on a business trip to China.

In 2006, Hilliard, then the director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC, was invited to Shanghai by the president of Shanghai University to help establish a partnership between the two institutions. During her stay, the president hosted a dinner in Hilliard’s honor showcasing the region’s signature dishes—mainly seafood.

“I’m a picky eater and allergic to seafood, so I ended up eating mostly leeks,” Hilliard recalls. “I wish I could have just eaten what he put in front of us, but every time I saw the chicken with its head still on coming around on the lazy Susan, I got queasy.” When her host noticed she was avoiding the local delicacies, he insisted on ordering a special plate of pepper steak for her. The steak was “dreadful,” Hilliard says, and the entire situation “embarrassing.”

Hilliard is hardly the first American to experience an awkward moment during an international business meeting, yet many more potentially uncomfortable scenarios are likely on the horizon. 
According to the Global Business Travel Association in Alexandria, Virginia, China will overtake the United States to become the largest business travel market in the world by 2016. Meanwhile, India has climbed from number 24 in 2000 to number 10 today. Then there is all of the international business taking place in Latin America and the Middle East. As traveling for work becomes an increasingly global affair, it behooves women in business to learn a few basic rules of protocol before their next overseas trip.

Cultivate Connections Beforehand

Finding a local contact before you travel is crucial, protocol experts say. “In Asia and the Middle East especially, you’ll be at a disadvantage if you don’t have a local counterpart to accompany you to meetings,” says Cynthia Lett, director and CEO of The Lett Group, an international business etiquette consultancy in Silver Spring, Maryland. In Muslim countries, she adds, that person must be male.
In China, the business world is based on guanxi (gwan-SHEE), or networks of trust, says Sharon Schweitzer, an Austin, Texas–based international etiquette expert and co-author of the forthcoming book Access to Asia (Wiley, 2015). Well in advance of an international business trip, research and cultivate local business contacts, ideally in the host city, Schweitzer and Lett advise.
How can you find a counterpart? Try social networking sites like LinkedIn, but Lett says the old-fashioned way is best: start with the country’s embassy in Washington, DC. “It’s their job to match U.S. companies with opportunities in their country,” she explains. “They can give you lots of information about how to do business there and who’s looking for opportunities from companies like yours. They’ll even make introductions for you.”

Trust Takes Time
Cultivating trust networks for conducting business overseas may take months, experts say. Indeed, the American emphasis on the bottom line is viewed as offensive in many places, so practice patience. In Asia, this even applies when exchanging business cards: accept the other person’s card with both hands (or, in India, the right hand only, as the left is considered unclean), look at it for a moment, and nod in acknowledgment before putting it away.

In the United States, time is money. Elsewhere, scheduling is often more fluid. Even so, you should arrive promptly for overseas meetings, experts say, but don’t expect your counterparts to do the same. Especially in Latin America and the Middle East, don’t be surprised or offended if your host is more than an hour late. Bring something to read while you wait, accept any offers of food or drink, and don’t schedule more than two meetings a day, Lett suggests.

Meals and Entertainment
Expect to be invited to lunch and dinner while on overseas business, but don’t think that means you can seal the deal on the spot. In Asia particularly, discussing business during a meal is verboten. “When you’re invited to a social event, they want to get to know you, not the business,” Lett explains. She adds, “In Japan and Korea, you’re expected to go to karaoke parlors. If you don’t do karaoke, you don’t do business.”

Never refuse hospitality; in Asia and the Middle East especially, declining an offer of food, water, coffee, or tea is considered disrespectful. Also, don’t be a member of the Clean Plate Club; leaving your plate empty is rude, as it suggests your host didn’t provide enough to eat. You should also taste all of the dishes offered as a cultural courtesy. If you have a specific allergy, as Tyra Hilliard did, be sure to let your host know about it well in advance of your trip, says Schweitzer. But, she adds, “be prepared that he may not be overly thrilled with your revelation!”

Many Asian hosts will offer alcohol at meals, and though drinking with the locals can be a good way to build relationships, losing control or appearing hung over the next day can torpedo business relationships. So know your limits. “My approach is to leave my glass half full of baijiu”—China’s famously powerful distilled liquor—“signaling I do not need a refill,” Schweitzer offers. If you don’t want to drink at all, tell your host it’s for a medical reason, suggests Lett, which is more polite than saying you’re a teetotaler or that it’s for religious reasons. (In Muslim countries, of course, alcohol is taboo.)

What to Wear

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Women especially must pack outfits acceptable to the local culture, as U.S. standards of dress may appear discourteous or even provocative, and you may not be treated with respect.

“Business casual has created major credibility challenges, especially for women doing business in Asia and those planning to move up the career ladder,” says Schweitzer. Formal and conservative should be your watchwords: skirted suits (to the knee or below), neutral colors, and understated jewelry. Eschew pantsuits, very high heels, costume jewelry, overly tight clothing, and short-sleeved, sleeveless, or low-cut blouses. In Latin American countries like Argentina and Brazil, you can get away with brighter colors and short sleeves, Lett says, “but never show your armpits or your cleavage.”

Giving . . . and Receiving

Exchanging gifts is important to establishing good international business relationships, but do your homework first. Chinese and Japanese hosts appreciate American whiskey, but don’t try that in the Middle East or India. Lett recommends intellectual gifts that showcase American culture: “One of my favorite gifts is a picture book of our national parks. It’s very pretty, very American, and it works well for men and women.” You shouldn’t offer gifts to government officials in China, Schweitzer says, and generally in Asia and the Middle East, exchange gifts at the end of a meeting so they aren’t misinterpreted as bribes.
Be sure to leave space in your luggage for all the presents you’ll be bringing home. Schweitzer recommends packing a collapsible bag for this purpose, lest you commit the faux pas Tyra Hilliard made on her second trip to China in 2013. When her host insisted on giving her several boxes of candy she didn’t have room for, she packed what she could and left the rest in her hotel room for the housekeeper. “When I went downstairs to check out, my host was there to pick me up . . . just as the housekeeper called down to say I’d left some candy in my room,” she recalls. “Busted!” DW

Sara J. Welch has traveled to more than 30 countries and once made the mistake in Egypt of trying to shake a man’s hand. 

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