International Assignments: Business Etiquette

Stepping off the plane to do business with foreign colleagues is always exhilarating. But, as Emma Bird explains, find out about the social norms beforehand.

My debut as a fashion and textile journalist in Italy was show stopping – but for all the wrong reasons. The reason? I was clueless when it came to business etiquette.

I may have au-paired in Naples, partied my way through a gap year in Bologna and washed a few dirty dishes in a restaurant in Abruzzo, but as I drove along the A4 autostrada to the tiny textile town of Biella to conduct my first ever interview in Italian, I realised the protocol of this business situation completely floored me.

And therein lies the problem: unless you understand the social culture of the country you are visiting, it could spoil a new business relationship at best and ruin an existing one at worst. “You may know your industry inside out, forwards and backwards, better than anyone else,” says Terri Morrison, co-author of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, How to do Business in 60 Countries (B. Adams).

“Yet when you step off the plane, that expertise is not enough. If you do not have the social knowledge of business practices, negotiation techniques and social customs, the chances are you will fail.” Morrison is speaking from experience. Five years ago, she was in Mexico and found herself having to work late with a male colleague.

Wanting to eat, Morrison innocently suggested they should continue to work over dinner in a nearby restaurant. But her invitation was misinterpreted by her colleague, who thought she was romantically interested. “The client realized his mistake when I started to laugh, which was perhaps not the best response, but it’s what happened,” she says.

“I took the blame for the error. It allowed him to save face, and we talked about the weird things that have happened to both of us during our travels. “I did lose some credibility, but not with him – with some associates who saw us both together at dinner and talked about it at work.

Those rumours took a bit of time to die down, but it was not that big a deal.” Overseas postings are an enriching experience but in order to make the most of working in a cross-cultural team, you need to understand unspoken behaviour codes. But beware.

What you think of as ‘polite’ may be interpreted negatively by a colleague unfamiliar with your own cultural background. Mario Berri, from Sardinia, was sent to work for Tasco Europe, the accountancy joint venture between Shell International and Ernst & Young, as a country manager and initially found the differences between Italy and the UK hard to fathom.

“As an Italian, I’m very tactile and used to talking loudly to get my point across,” he says. “But this wasn’t appreciated in Glasgow. I started observing my British colleagues and copied them in their behaviour. As soon as I did that, I noticed a change in people’s attitudes. “I also had to learn about the way of doing things.

The UK, like the US, is a direct country where the best way to get something done is to tell people to do it. It taught me that my way isn’t always the best and to be sensitive about other people’s feelings.” The key to overcoming cultural differences is honesty, stresses Richard D Lewis, whose bestselling book When Cultures Collide, Leading Across Cultures (Nicholas Brealey) is now in its third edition.

“All kinds of problems can be caused by cultural insensitivity, including offending and even insulting people because of ignorance of their standards,” advises the chairman of Richard Lewis Communications, an international institute with offices in more than a dozen countries.

“It is obviously very important for students and new graduates who enter into international business to be sufficiently aware culturally of how to manage staff and engage in other transactions.

The advent of globalisation is making it imperative for people to acquire these skills.” If only I had taken Lewis’s advice and been more cultural savvy when I did that first interview in Biella. From the moment I rolled into the car-park more than 45 minutes late, exchanged business cards in the wrong manner, and muddled up my use of the informal ‘tu’ with the formal ‘lei’, I unwittingly broke every business etiquette rule in the book.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the scoop I was after. Nevertheless, there is no need to panic if you do find yourself unintentionally offending your international colleagues. When this happens, take a deep breath and take Morrison’s advice: “Resolving faux pas generally involve an apology, something that people often have a bit of trouble doing.

‘I’m sorry’ is key to turning a problem around, and something that all of us should incorporate into our vocabulary.” Emma Bird’s first taste of life abroad was as a 17-year-old intern on a French newspaper. She has worked in the UK, France, Germany and Italy and is the founder of the site

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