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Kiss, Bow Or Shake Hands

If you do something out of the ordinary in a foreign country, youíre in for a short ride... Here are some dos and doníts of business etiquette

Since you’re human, (we’re assuming!) there will be times when you step on toes, forget an important name, pop off with a harsh comment, or (heaven forbid!) use the wrong fork. We all do. Think about the ‘outtakes’ scenes at the end of some movies where we see how many times it took to get things perfect, even when everyone was performing to a script! This is real life, there are no scripts, and we’re all making it up as we go along. But beware, if you do something out of the ordinary in a foreign country, you’re in for a short ride...

In China, for example, always address a person using his or her family name. My American colleague did the unthinkable and greeted his Chinese counterpart Mr Alfred Wong, “Good evening Alfred.”

“Good evening Mr Simpson, and it is Mr Wong or Chairman Wong,” came the stern response.

For business purposes, it is tradition to call a Chinese person by his surname along with his title, such as ‘Director Chan’ or ‘Chairman Lee’. Chinese culture frowns upon quick informality. Apologising for my ignorance, I exchanged business cards politely. And while I took particular care as not to further invite his wrath, I unknowingly put the card in my back pocket. And before I knew it, voilà! The meeting came ended, even before it had begun.

Make sure you don’t commit this same blunder, always take a quick look at the card before putting it in your front shirt pocket; never in your back pocket, as this is seen as a sign of disrespect. Thais, on the other hand, address one another by first names and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications only. In Japan too, the Western practice of accepting a business card and pocketing it immediately is considered rude.

On a recent trip to Belgium, a friend speaking from past experience had advised me, “Always greet a Belgian associate with three kisses on the cheek, alternating from one cheek to the other.” At my business meeting the same day, I made sure I followed his instructions to the T. I could see the surprise on my counterpart’s face, he was impressed by my knowledge of the local customs and culture. Gloating with pride, I pointed my index finger at him and inquired, “Would you like some coffee?” “No, thank you,” came the curt reply coupled with a scornful look. Don’t ever point your index finger at somebody in Belgium, it is extremely discourteous.

You’d be amazed to know that the ‘okay’ sign commonly used in the United States and the United Kingdom (thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other fingers raised) means zero in France, is a symbol for money in Japan, and carries a vulgar connotation in Brazil.

Being lucky to have found a little free time (a rare opportunity, indeed) on my business visit to Bulgaria last year, I decided to venture into the countryside. I stopped by a quaint inn, and this plump waiter came up and asked, “Would you like a mug of beer?” I nodded my consent. I took in the countryside ambience as I waited for my beer. After waiting for over 15 minutes, I became restless and approached the waiter for my beer. He gave me a startled look and explained, “But you said no, sir.” Did I??? Seeing my shocked expression, he realised what the confusion was all about. He politely informed me, “A nod means no in Bulgaria and shaking the head from side to side means yes.”

So there you have it, some basic principles to remember when travelling the world for business and not-so-business purposes. It might help to do a little preparatory research in the business etiquette of a foreign country, rather than learn it the hard way...