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Get Your Travel Etiquette Right

feBusiness Traveller argues why, before you step into another country, it is imperative that you become familiar with their social norms

Mr X, in Japan on his first trip abroad, has just disembarked at Tokyo. Receiving him at the airport is Mr Y. Mr X and Mr Y meet. Mr X extends his hand for the customary handshake. Simultaneously Mr Y bows, as is the wont in that country. Taking the cue, Mr X bows. Unfortunately, Mr Y extends his hand at the same time. Mr X, bent, looks up and sees Mr Y’s hand. He stands erect and extends his hand. Unfortunately, Mr Y bows at that precise moment…

In fact, you might have already seen this scene in a number of movies. Cultural differences and mannerisms like these have been grist to the mill for comedians since time immemorial. Unfortunately, once in a while, reality comes home to bite.

Kunal Guha, an engineering student in the US, still remembers the pin drop silence which followed, when, once on a trip to Brazil, in the midst of a get-together with some local acquaintances he signalled OK in the standard US style - a circle of first finger and thumb. He says, "You can't make a bigger blunder in Brazil. The gesture which I used is considered completely obscene and vulgar."

A misdemeanor like this might be overlooked between friends but, on a business trip, when you are dealing with strangers, such happenstances might have unpleasant repercussions; it could spoil a relationship.

Therefore, if going abroad, it would be wise to brush up on the rules guiding the social behaviour of the country you are visiting. In other words get your travel etiquette right.

"If you are planning a trip, getting your travel etiquette right not only helps save you the embarrassment but also helps you maintain your poise in a situation where you would have otherwise reacted angrily," says Sanjay Anand, a software programmer with Mastek, who is at present in Singapore on a project. He goes on to add, "For example, in some countries like Mexico, if a meeting is scheduled for a particular time, it is only a rough estimate of the period when you will meet. If the time fixed is 2 pm, don't be surprised if nobody turns up till 4 pm. But it is pointless to take umbrage at anyone because that is the way things work out there. Contrary to this, in a country like Japan, if the meeting is fixed for 2 pm, then be sure to be there 15 minutes early otherwise you will offend your hosts."

Ann Marie Sabath, in her book, International Business Etiquette: Asia And The Pacific Rim, writes that the most important reason for becoming knowledgeable in every country's 'silent language' of etiquette is to develop good business relationships overseas and a major factor in this is to mind your meeting manners.

In Australia, for instance, it is advisable to be direct during a business meeting. Your words are taken at face value and it is expected that what the Australians say is also taken literally without any added dimensions attached to it. Though there is small talk, it is minimal.

Conversely, the Thais are considered to be informal but asking if there are any questions or opinions from your Thai associates should be done in an indirect manner. Blunt questioning is considered inappropriate. Which is somewhat like in Japan where phrases like ‘We will think about it’, ‘We will see’, ‘Perhaps’ – which you might take for a ‘Yes’ – might indeed mean ‘No’.

Travel etiquette starts from the first handshake and exchange of cards to holding the chopsticks at the farewell dinner. Says Anand, "In Singapore, visiting cards are usually presented with both hands. The name should face the recipient." In Japan you must face your counterpart, bow slightly and hand over the card with either hand or both hands together. Just don't shove it into the back pocket of your trousers after receiving it - that's offending. In Africa, on the other hand, you hand over the card with the right hand.

Even handshakes change from place to place. Frederica Care Kussin in her book AllEtiquette.com - A Power Guide writes ‘in Africa a light warm handshake is the acceptable form of greeting when you meet and when you leave’, but in Europe ‘shake hands with a firm grip when you meet and when you depart'. And whilst in North America, a proper handshake is 'a full hand grip that is firm and warm with an understated downward snap.’

So, during negotiations, there is no alternative to some good homework on regional traits – one must be careful about not offending but you cannot also appear too submissive. Eye contact is a good example. In the United States and Canada, eye contact is a good thing when speaking to someone. It builds trust and affinity and avoiding eye contact implies that you have something to hide. However in Africa, it is strong eye contact which must be avoided. Another factor which must be kept in mind during negotiations, is the pace of the meeting. Hurrying things up will go against you if you are meeting the Indonesians. Go armed with patience and diligence because Indonesian businesspeople are slow and deliberate when it comes to making decisions. If you attempt to rush them through the negotiation process, you risk being regarded unfavourably. Haste makes waste in such cases.

If you do not get your etiquette right, then even your good intentions might backfire. Take something as simple as a gift, which is a means to improve relations. The global rule is of course that it is completely unethical, if not illegal, to pass off a bribe as a gift. But what if your intentions are strictly honourable, and it still gives the wrong impression.

Mayuresh Kelkar, joint managing director, Dhwani Creations, remembers an incident. "I once gave a gift wrapped in white paper to a Chinese acquaintance. Though he accepted it, I instantly sensed that something was wrong. Later, I made enquiries and found that a faux pas had been made. The colour white stands for death in China and gifts are never wrapped in white paper there," he says.

It is fairly common knowledge that pork and alcohol are anathema among Muslim and in Muslim countries but how many of us know that in Latin countries, any gift items having knives or scissors, will instead of firming up your association, have exactly the opposite effect. Both articles signify the breaking of a friendship.

Travel etiquette is therefore something which can make or mar your relationships. Relationships fuel the network and the network is what brings in the business, as any businessman knows.

But, as a final word, don't be carried away and mix things up. You might have got your rule book correct and suitably impressed your Chinese hosts, when once the waiter or business associate has refilled your tea cup, you sign your appreciation by taking two fingers of your left hand and tapping it lightly thrice on the table close to the tea cup. But try to do the same thing in front of a Vietnamese audience, and you will be signaling a ‘Master-Servant’ relationship. Definitely not something recommended, if you want them to sign that deal.

United States
On the business dress code, learn about the company culture to gain additional insight into dressing standards. When in doubt, dress on the conservative side. Americans tend to refrain from greetings that involve hugging and other close physical contact, except with family members and friends. To show approval, there are two common gestures: the 'OK' sign, formed by making a circle of the thumb and index finger, and the "thumbs up" sign, formed by making a fist and pointing the thumb upward.
Though suits are the norm in companies above medium-level, pastel shirts are common nowadays and can be worn by business travellers. Women must be sparing in the use of perfumes and ornaments. Small talk is usual in the beginning of a Japanese meeting to establish rapport. Relationships take time to build with the Japanese. Take a good supply of visiting cards, preferably one side of the card must be in English and the other Japanese. Include as much information as possible about yourself in the card. The Japanese like that.
The system is very hierarchical in China and places emphasis on rank. It is assumed that the first person that enters the room is the head of the group. If the meeting room has a large central table, the principal guest is likely to be seated directly opposite the principal host. Let the hosts initiate greetings, seating suggestions, and negotiations.
Select one person to be the spokesperson for your group. The Chinese will do the same. Phrases like 'It is inconvenient,' 'I am not sure' and "Maybe' usually mean 'No'.
A soft handshake and a lack of eye contact do not necessarily indicate timidity.
Conservative dress is the norm for both men and women in British business culture. Punctuality and courtesy are the most important aspects of British business etiquette. In business meetings, small talk or icebreakers are not necessary. The meeting can proceed quickly from introductions to the business at hand. The British tend to follow established rules and practices and company policy is the primary authority. A proposal stands a better chance of success if it conforms to the way things have been done in the past.
Business dress is conservative. Men may wear a dark suit and tie; during the summer, the jacket can be removed. Suits, skirts and blouses, or dresses are standard for women. Australians generally dislike negotiating and aggressive sales techniques.Australians take words at face value. Say what you have to say and expect your words to be taken literally. In presentations and conversation, Australians are often receptive to sporting analogies. If you are teased, take it good-naturedly; you may tease back in an affable, rather than mean-spirited, manner.
The French will perceive the way you dress as a reflection of your social status and relative success. Don't use first names during a business meeting. Show up on time for meetings. Don't bring up business at the start of a dinner/meeting. The French can be very direct, questioning, and probing, so a carefully planned, logically organised proposal is very important. French business protocol requires constant formality and reserve in negotiations. For corporate letters or email, use a very formal approach.
Conservative – preferably tropical weight suits – are the best options. Any hint of ignorance about the domestic or regional political scene will almost surely disqualify you from doing business in this country. Always wait to be asked to sit down. Once seated, expect to be asked a couple of times if you want coffee or tea. It's a good idea to accept, as this provides a break in the formality. Avoid the ‘hard sell’, since nothing is more off-putting to a South African executive than someone who's too pushy.
Punctuality is important. No elaborate bowing is necessary in formal business meetings. A firm handshake will suffice. Age and seniority are revered in this culture. If you are part of a delegation, ensure that the most important members are introduced first. If you are introducing two people, state the name of the most important individual first. When sitting in a chair, keep your feet flat on the floor, rather than crossing your legs in front of elders or hierarchical superiors. Avoid challenging, correcting or disagreeing with an elder person or superior in a public setting.
Dress in corporate business and banking is generally formal, dark and conservative suits for both men and women. Follow the example of the senior participants as to how informal or formal you should act, dress, and sit. The German side will arrive at the meeting well-informed, and will expect the same from you. German businesspeople will not make concessions easily. They will, however, look for common ground and this is your best route to making progress when negotiations reach an impasse.

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