UK businesses are likely to need to expand their export horizons in the coming years so it makes sense to understand the importance of other cultures’ business etiquette.
Failure to observe the correct protocols can be viewed as a mark of disrespect in more formal and hierarchical societies, particularly where there is a strong culture of deference to older and more senior people, and could have a negative impact on negotiations.
This is a situation where ignorance of cultural norms and taboos is no excuse.
Some examples of business etiquette
The three main areas of potential pitfalls are dress codes, dining and above all business cards.
In many Asian and Arab countries, the left hand is considered unclean and should therefore not be used for offering or receiving business cards and gifts, nor when dining.
In South Africa, too, you should not present gifts with the left hand. Use either both hands or the right hand when giving and receiving them.
On the other hand (no pun intended), in Brazil you should avoid eating with your hands, even for a sandwich or other finger foods.
Giving and receiving business cards is a very specific ritual in many countries, as is what information is included on them.
In India, which is in many ways a very hierarchical society, titles and educational qualifications are important and should be included on the card. Never use the left hand for offering or receiving cards.
In Japan and China, the custom is to give and receive cards with both hands then give any received due attention and respect by reading them carefully and never, ever writing on them.
Even words like “no” or “please” and “thank you” can be fraught with peril. In the UK we tend to regard please and thank you as polite behaviour, especially in a formal setting, but in India, for example, saying thank you at the end of a meal is considered a form of payment and therefore insulting. Similarly, saying “no” is considered harsh and it is better to respond with “I’ll try” or “possibly” or another more indirect response.
In Japan, too, an outright “no” is considered rude and it is customary to respond with a “yes” even when you disagree.
Generally, when it comes to dress, it is safer to opt for the formal and smart, which means the business suit for men. In India, women are expected to always cover their upper arms, chest, legs and back.
Physical contact can also be fraught with perils and best avoided. In some countries, a handshake on meeting is acceptable, but not in Japan, where the usual custom is a bow. Although handshakes are used it is best to let the Japanese person initiate it.
These are just some illustrations of why it pays to research the customs and etiquette that is acceptable in countries where a business hopes to arrange deals or partnerships and why getting it wrong can have implications for business success in negotiations.