Like language, business and social etiquette and protocols evolve over time. Unlike language, there are no phrase books or handy formulations to learn and parrot when the occasion demands. Researching the customs of the country, and being alert to them when we’re there, is the foundation of a mutually profitable business relationship.
So what does the business traveller need in the essential etiquette starter pack? Here are ten cultural, social and business etiquette questions to research before boarding the flight.
- Meeting and greeting. First impressions are lasting impressions, so be sure to find out what is expected in those crucial first moments of contact. First names or last names? In some countries, hierarchy is strictly observed; who to greet first?
- Dress. Business attire is understood everywhere, and good grooming is a universal sign of respect and dependability. Then the variations set in; it’s a fair bet that the rising stars of a West Coast tech company will prefer smart casual, while luxury hotel owners in the Far East will be sticklers for tailoring. Default to business attire in the first instance and follow your hosts’ lead thereafter.
- Punctuality. Be on time. Even in countries where there’s a more relaxed approach to the appointed hour, be on time and – depending on where you are – be prepared to wait.
- Time is a concept, and different cultures interpret it very differently. Western cultures usually tick to a faster beat; they ‘cut to the chase’, ‘get down to business’, and expect things to move along quickly. Others take their time in the belief that building trust and relationships happens over a longer timeframe.
- Hierarchy is a minefield wherever you are, quite possibly even in your own country. Elaborate rules and observances apply in some parts of the world based on gender, age, and seniority, while in others there’s a more relaxed approach. Find out all you can before you travel through research, talking to colleagues who have made the journey, or finding a good forum (LinkedIn is a good place to start).
- Small talk. ‘Small’ is a bit of a misnomer here. What counts as small talk in one part of the world has the potential to cause grave offence in another. Equally a socially fluent and engaging business guest is always welcome and has a far better chance of building meaningful business relationships. Obvious topics to avoid are race, religion and politics, even if events the country you’re visiting are making headlines. Find out where the pressure points and raw nerves are and avoid them. If in doubt, stick to weather, travel, and the arts, and follow your host’s lead.
- Body talk. Take as much care with body language as with spoken language. Different expectations of eye contact, the firmness of a handshake, physical contact, and physical boundaries apply everywhere. Research pays dividends.
- Gifts. Ceremony, ritual, an elaborate courtly dance: giving and receiving gifts is a highly developed art, governed by unwritten rules and expectations about when to present a gift and to whom, and how often it will be politely refused. It’s a little like learning the steps of a courtly dance and, like all the best moves, repays careful study.
- Entertaining. Eating and drinking is part of the business landscape. It’s the work of a moment to research a nation’s cuisine, how it’s eaten, and when. Be ready for early-morning breakfast meetings in one country, late-evening suppers in another, and brown-bag lunches somewhere else. Even if the food is not to your taste, remember a refusal often offends, and know the rules of the road when it comes to alcohol.
- Humour and irony. Every country laughs at its own jokes, often to the utter bewilderment of others. Humour loses much, if not everything, in translation – and irony is a notoriously bad traveller. It pays to be an appreciative audience until you’re more certain of your ground, and to save your own more nuanced humour for when you’re back.