Worst mistakes you can make during an overseas business meeting

New study reveals embarrassing blunders Brits make abroad and top secrets for surviving your next business trip (for those who don’t have a clue about business etiquette).

Did you know that in Russia, it’s seen as insecure to smile during a business meeting? Or in Hong Kong, giving gifts within business is viewed as bribery? UK online printer instantprint recently conducted a study on International Business Etiquette, collecting anecdotes from senior business people and speaking with experts in the field for their top tips.

The study reveals some rather interesting stories and statistics, such as 78 per cent of business people are not fully educated on what the ‘correct’ business etiquette is internationally and 56 per cent have encountered an awkward situation because of this.

Instantprint spoke with Business Etiquette International to uncover the top ten tips Brit’s can use to prepare for international business travel.

Know what type of handshake to give. In China, it may be wise to wait and see if your host offers a handshake.

Discover what gifts are acceptable in each country before purchasing or giving anything. In some countries, such as Hong Kong, it’s viewed as bribery.

Be aware of the different customs for different nationalities. For example, in Middle East/UAE the left hand is considered unclean so when dining use your left hand as little as possible, especially with group shared dishes.

Be careful with what humour you use. Whilst it may be amusing in your country, it may be considered as extremely offensive in others.

Ensure your body language matches what you’re saying so you’re easy to understand.

A sign in one nationality could mean something entirely different in another. Ensure you do your research for each country!

Understand the best way to introduce yourself. In China, it is polite to do a slight bow, India traditionally place their hands in a prayer like position and in Mexico they greet each other with a handshake, pat or hug.

Discover the dress code beforehand. In Sweden, casual clothes are generally preferred to smart.

Appreciate the general cultural mannerism for meetings. In Russia, it’s viewed as insecure to smile during a meeting.

If you intend to present a business card, a great way to build a rapport discover the culture’s norm for business card exchanging. In Hong Kong it’s preferred to present your business cards with both hands, whereas in Brazil there is no ritual or tradition, so give away whenever and as many as you feel.

Finally, Don’t be offended by anything that doesn’t fit in with your own culture, most will then extend this back to you.

Marla Harr, consultant at Business Etiquette International, says, ‘It’s imperative for individuals who travel abroad for business to educate themselves and their teams on the proper business etiquette and accepted protocols for that country. Not knowing the idiosyncrasies within the culture can have unintentional misunderstandings that can be embarrassing, costly to a marketing campaign or a contract deal falling apart.’

From business meetings being confused as a first date (awkward) to that annoying colleague who always manages to offend the hosts, it’s clear that not all business people – no matter what level of seniority – fully understand international business etiquette.

Check out instantprint’s full study to discover funny blunders from senior business people and top secrets for surviving your next overseas meeting, here.

Co-founder of instantprint, James Kinsella, comments, ‘Often, the smallest gesture such as handing over a business card correctly will be massively appreciated by your hosts. Despite the uncertainties of Brexit, globalisation means even the smallest of businesses can interact with suppliers or contacts abroad, so understanding their country’s correct business etiquette can do wonders for your working relationships.’

Tips on doing business overseas – by Chris Ingram

Not so long ago, my company was poised (or so I thought) for a joint venture with a large Japanese company that shall remain nameless. We were punching massively above our weight and were naturally excited, recalls Chris Ingram.

We were invited to Tokyo for a key meeting and in advance I studied the books: when to bow; the types of gifts and their appropriate size for each person’s status; the order in which you should enter the room; and so on.

We spent so much time worrying about this etiquette that we scarcely noticed that the deal we thought we’d agreed was, little by little, moving in their favour. In fact, we had three “key” meetings and before each one the company’s middle management would tell me how seriously their bosses were taking it, and the significance of all the senior people present. We were looked after with incredible courtesy and there were several “pre-signing” ceremonies; it was all very flattering. The reality was that our deal was suffering from the death of a thousand cuts, and 18 months later it still hadn’t been signed. I hung on and hung on, but in the end pulled out; they were offended, but the distraction was too great for our small company. Whether this was a cultural divide or a deliberately drawn-out negotiating technique, I’ll never know. However, after that I decided I would learn enough about another culture to avoid mortally offending people in their own country, while also remaining true to my own habits and customs. I was reminded of this in July when a Chinese designer took me to lunch in Hong Kong. I usually manage adequately with chopsticks, but on this occasion I was struggling to eat a rice dish, only to look up and see my host shovelling his rice down with a large spoon!

Know your history

When doing business overseas, though it’s a mistake to try to rigidly imitate the social mores of the country you’re aiming to trade with, it’s nevertheless hugely important to know something of its culture and history.

Back in the mid-90s, my team and I at CIA were in a rush to put together a European network of media agencies. One thing I hadn’t remotely studied was the concept of leadership, and how it’s demonstrated – and applied – quite differently in various countries. The first deal we did outside the UK was in Italy. We marvelled at their courtship process as they entertained us with impeccable style: the opera in Verona; the Hotel Gritti Palace and Harry’s Bar in Venice. When the deal was done, the day came for the first board meeting of the Italian company. The charismatic boss invited me up to his office beforehand and explained his plans – which included a restructuring – in detail. As I nodded politely, I was thinking: ‘This is really interesting – I shall enjoy the debate at the board and see where we end up.’

We arrived at the board meeting 15 minutes late. Marco, the boss, told them what he and I had agreed. The directors listened politely and then we moved on to the next item. At that time, John Mole’s Mind Your Manners had just been published, and I could have saved myself some headaches if I’d known about it. Naturally, I’d assumed everyone knew that my consultative and informal, but professional, style was best. However, I found that in Italy and most Latin countries the boss was expected to be an autocratic figure. In Italy, you built close relationships first, so personal trust in the leader was the thing of most importance.

The same, but different

Although globalisation has tended to make nations and companies more similar, these underlying differences still exist. For example, those close relationships aren’t nearly so important in the US – particularly in New York, where doing a deal is what it’s all about; everyone knows they are there to make money. I’ve negotiated with over 50 companies in the States about buying and selling their businesses, and the cliché that “everything is for sale in the US” is absolutely true. Once I’d realised this, I understood why the US has the greatest density of lawyers on the planet. (Why waste time building up a relationship with someone in advance when, if they prove untrustworthy, you can sue them?) Similarly, it’s not surprising that the more aggressive forms of private equity originated in the US. I say this with no sense of superiority at all. Being successful when doing business overseas is all about seeing – and understanding – the other side.

See also: Top small business tips for trading overseas

Owen Gough, SmallBusiness UK

Freddie Halvorson

Owen was a reporter for Bonhill Group plc writing across the Smallbusiness.co.uk and Growthbusiness.co.uk titles before moving on to be a Digital Technology reporter for the Express.co.uk.

Related Topics

International Trade