How to be British and do Business Abroad
Being successful when contemplating doing business abroad and building relationships with clients or suppliers in other countries can often hinge on how you act, dress and deal with people from different cultures. Larger companies have the advantageous ability to set up satellite offices or companies who can be left to deal with the intricacies of the business culture in the target country.
Well if you’re dealing with other cultures whether at home or abroad you need to know how to deal with people, make strong relationships and quite critically not offending anyone! So I thought I might help by giving you a small insight into what I have learnt at work, on my travels and from a bit of research. Remember everyone is different and I am making broad generalisations about business cultures so it may not be true for everyone. These points and tips will assist you in developing international business relationships, but are not definitive and are certainly not always true in every situation.
We know all too well about our British image abroad and typical traits of being reserved, breaking the ice by talking about something mundane (like the weather), and queuing, but we also know our annoyances like respecting personal space, not keeping eye contact or being asked personal questions.
Now obviously first impressions count and in my opinion and experience opening a dialogue in your customer’s language can go a long way. A simple greeting (bonjour, konnichiwa or nǐ hǎo!) may well go a long way, if you’re on a major business trip then you could hire an interpreter to help. Being aware of cultural greeting etiquette may also help build your reputation in your client’s eyes, for example perfecting your bow in Japan is an important ritual and expresses degrees of respect, appreciation or apology!
The Germans like to give and receive gifts at the beginning of meetings such as a box of chocolates or even a bottle of wine. Try to wear formal dress but do not go overboard and wear lots of designer names, jewellery and expensive watches, whereas in contrast this is considered the norm in Italy! Giving small gifts in Japan and China is also customary however, it’s not a good idea to open your gift in public.
Allow your host in Japan to offer you a particular seat as there is a strict order in reference to your perceived status.
When in the Middle East, and particularly Arabic countries, it is particularly offensive to show someone the sole of your foot. In many Asian cultures it is frowned upon to brag and take credit for others work, so if in doubt, be honest and let your actions and previous work speak for themselves.
Don’t expect the Chinese to openly disagree with you or sound negative in response to something. Try to listen for words like “maybe” or “possibly” as this may indicate disagreement, and it is good to follow this social convention in return. India has a similar culture where it is considered aggressive to openly disagree with superiors or equals, however if you are the superior then it is ok, but always err on the side of caution.
In contrast Northern Europeans are often more open and direct (but not confrontational) than British people as they value democracy and opinions from the top to the bottom.
You may well be invited to a dinner by your host so be mindful of the local etiquette and be prepared for the cuisine.
While travelling in Japan, I found that it is polite to finish as much rice as you can to respect this labour intensive and valued commodity. Surprisingly while eating Ramen (noodles in soup) it is appropriate to slurp! Seeing groups of businessmen in suits all slurping away at lunch was quite a shock. A well-known HSBC advert alludes to it being impolite to finish the whole meal in China, because it is considered bad manners for the host to not re-fill empty plates.
In many places, it is not always appropriate to talk business over food, though in the United States do not be surprised if this happens.
Don’t always expect to shake someone’s hand when parting ways, it is not always observed however it is excepted that westerners would do this.
Be careful when exchanging business cards in Japan, as how you handle it represents the respect that you have for that person. Hint: Try to work out which way is up on their business card when holding it (it’s hard when the card is in Japanese!).
When doing business in India and China in particular it may be about who you know and less about what you know, connections and recommendations from people in notable positions within the country can be particularly useful.
Being on time can be particularly important in most of the world, however some countries may be a bit more relaxed so don’t be offended if Southern Europeans are a little late. In Greece and Turkey try not to point at people or make the “ok” sign with your hand.
Make sure you do your research and I think the emphasis is on being open, mindful and respectful to the cultures you are dealing with. If you do think you’ve slipped up then the best thing you can do is apologise and (if appropriate) be able laugh at yourself!
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