Conducting yourself appropriately whilst doing business abroad is not always easy if you are unaware of a country’s corporate customs. Whilst some aspects are obvious, others are surprising and could leave a business traveller feeling out of place or unsure of what to do next.
Here at SITU, our managers have good experience of meeting foreign serviced apartment partners and have adapted to some customs and procedures that do not exactly correspond with those of the UK. Here are some examples.
Prior to or following business meetings abroad, it can be custom to participate in out-of-office activities. For example, in South Korea, it is common that corporate meetings end with guests engaging in Noraebang, or karaoke. Assessing the surroundings provides a good indicator of what to expect. If a business meeting is taking place in an entertainment establishment, guests may be expected to get up sing. Less confident individuals will hope that they only have to sing a chorus or the meeting takes place in a private room. Either way, it may be worth preparing your go-to karaoke song before attending a business conference in South Korea!
The Finnish, however, have been known to have quite a different approach towards business encounters. Expats to Finland may not need to fear about packing their best business clothes before boarding a flight as it is not out of ordinary for meetings to begin in the organiser’s sauna. Therefore, a towel may be all that is necessary!
Sauna is a Finnish word which originated in the nineteenth century. Locals consider a sauna session to be an honoured tradition and believe they can help meetings to head in a positive direction. Nowadays, almost every home in Finland has a built-in sauna, so it can be considered rude if you turn down a steam bath invitation. So, for the sake of progressive engagement, it is worthwhile accepting an offer for a steam soak.
Showing consideration of foreign customs and coming across as respectful does not go unnoticed by new, potential business partners. Whilst it clearly important that hosts are accommodative, guests showing an adaptive approach towards new cultures is equally significant.
Sometimes, it is the small things that make a world of difference. In Germany, purely out of respect, before entering a business meeting, members usually allow the oldest member to enter the room first. Be careful though not to fall into the trap of assuming anyone’s age!
Admittedly though, some customs are more difficult to adapt to than others. For instance, left-handers are at an instant disadvantage in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Here, and across the Middle East, the people believe the left hand is unclean and offensive to greet with. Therefore, actions such as shaking hands, passing documents and eating should be completed with the right hand instead.
This rule could be particularly hard to manage for some. In Japan, however, guests can even expect to be judged on what they say. Expats have been known to avoid saying ‘no’, as it is customary that new-coming parties agree to everything other participants say, regardless of personal opinion, to avoid sounding rude and disrespectful. These customs can be restrictive but may also be the only approach to take to avoid awkward dialogues.
For trips to China, on the other hand, prior preparation is even more important. Many Chinese non-business related meet-ups are begun with an exchange of gifts, and this is no different when meeting a Chinese fellow associate. It is also customary that even if the Chinese counterpart refuses, givers should still continue to insist that they take the gift as a token of goodwill. Do be aware though that you should avoid offering a watch as a gift. In China, watches supposedly represent death.
Wherever you are, dining with someone new can be an awkward affair. Dining etiquette seems to be different wherever you go, and this makes it hard to know exactly how to conduct yourself in an unfamiliar establishment. Which type of cutlery should you use for certain foods? Which hand is more appropriate to use cutlery with? Should you eat everything on the plate or leave some to suggest you have been well fed? The answers to these questions are different across the globe, meaning some research is essential before dining and doing business.
Awareness of dining etiquette is particularly important in India, where expats must consider Hinduism’s connection to the cow as a sacred symbol. Therefore, it would be wise to refrain from ordering any cow-related meat products!
In some countries, such as Italy and Russia, there is also an insistence on keeping your hands above the table at all times, instead of placing them on your lap. However, in countries such as Morocco and Japan, these rules can be irrelevant. In these locations, business meals are often served on rugs or knee-high tables where guests then sit on cushions. If this is the case in Saudi Arabia, guests should sit cross-legged or kneel on one knee. On the whole, it would be fair to say that, generally, dining etiquette is relative depending on where you go, meaning that reading up on the location beforehand is always important.
Preparing for a business trip abroad can be an understandably stressful experience. Accommodating to unfamiliar expectations is not always easy, so doing research in advance is very helpful. It is also important to remember though that these ‘rules’ are not always strictly enforced. A good host should be understanding of a guest visiting a different culture to their own. Staying in serviced accommodation that is reliable and welcoming can also ease the pressures of some surprising worldwide business etiquettes.