March 14th, 2010

Mind Your Global Manners At Home and Abroad

by Jacqueline Whitmore

A few of months ago while attending a conference in Chicago, my conference host invited me and a few other conference speakers to dinner at a local steakhouse.  It didn’t occur to the host until much later in the evening that one of the couples in our group was from India.

Just before he took our order, our server presented a silver platter of raw steak to the woman from India!  Unbeknownst to our host, most people from India are vegetarians and don’t eat meat because the cow is considered sacred!  I felt very embarrassed for the couple and for our host.  Instead of making a fuss over the awkward situation, the couple simply ordered pasta.

Have you ever made a faux pas while doing business with an international client?  In this global economy the chances of doing so are very high. To stay competitive in our ever-changing business climate, cultural competence and a global mind-set are musts.  To help you get a head start on your international manners, here are eight helpful tips:

  1. Be observant and ask questions.  When traveling internationally, notice how people act, dress, and treat each other.
  2. Think before you speak.  If you don’t have an interpreter, stick to simple and direct language.  Avoid slang.  Stay away from controversial subjects like politics and religion, unless, of course, your host brings up the subjects.
  3. Keep an open mind.  Be aware that something as simple as a handshake differs from culture to culture.  In some countries, eye contact may be kept to a minimum as a way of showing deference or respect.  And don’t be surprised if someone greets you with a kiss on the cheek.
  4. Never refuse hospitality when it is offered.  In most cases your international host will offer you water, coffee or tea.  Gladly accept their offer, even if you are not thirsty.  By not doing so, you run the risk of insulting him.
  5. Appreciate the differences.  Don’t compare living standards in the U.S. with those of your international hosts.  There’s nothing wrong with being proud of where you live, but boasting and comparing can be counterproductive to establishing a successful relationship.
  6. Be apprised of world events.  You don’t have to be an expert in international affairs, but it’s helpful to know the basics, like what foods your visitors or hosts enjoy, what holidays are observed in their country, and a little bit about their government and their favorite sports.
  7. Learn a few phrases.  Learn at least a few common phrases before traveling abroad or welcoming international visitors to the U.S.  Your efforts will be appreciated.
  8. Begin by using surnames and professional titles.  Instant familiarity doesn’t always make a favorable impression in other parts of the world.  Wait until the client or colleague lets you know when it’s acceptable to use his or her first name.  Addressing someone by their correct title also conveys respect.  A title such as “doctor” or “professor” is highly valued in Germany, Italy, and many other countries.
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