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Intl. Business: How not to be the "ugly American"

Getting Through Customs - Articles

My friend's dad is a hard-nosed American sales guy. He spent thirty years developing and, in my opinion, mastering the disparate skills of schmoozing, selling, negotiating, and closing. (Man, this guy could close.) But when he started moving into big-time international sales, he realized there was this whole world (literally) of customs, skills, and rhythms he'd have to master -- lest he unintentionally offend a client and blow the deal.

When I first heard about some of these differences ("In Japan, brace yourself for several days of intense all-day recreation before business is ever discussed"), I picked up a copy of Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, which has tons of fascinating advice on how to adapt your behavior when conducting business outside the US.

I wonder how many of these have changed since I read the book in the mid-90s -- the world has shrunk a lot since then. Still, I have to say that as a poorly-traveled American, I do find this stuff fascinating And, now I've discovered the book's authors have this ginormous repository of web-based information.

Here's some favorite random factoids, mores, and customs from outside the U.S.:

  • "Business cards (extremely important) are presented after the bow or handshake. Present your card with its Japanese side facing your colleague. Handle the cards you receive carefully - don't put them in your pocket or write on them." - link
  • "Remember that the left hand is considered unclean in the Islamic world. Even in many non-Islamic areas of Africa and Asia, the tradition has evolved of using the right hand in preference over the left." - link
  • "Germans abhor hype and exaggeration. Be sure you can back up your claims with lots of data. Case studies and examples are highly regarded." - link
  • "In North America and Northern Europe, businesspeople usually stand close enough to shake hands, about 2 1/2 to three feet apart. In parts of Southern Europe and most of Latin America, the distance tends to be closer. In the Middle East, it is closer yet, sometimes under one foot. " - link
  • "Never complain about how spicy the local food is, or how fattening, or that you would never eat insects/lizards/canines/primates (or whatever you find offensive). Just eat what you can without making yourself sick, and keep your criticisms to yourself." - link
  • "In Japan and South Korea, visiting executives are usually invited to participate in after-hours drinking bouts." - link
  • "China: Business leaders are highly sensitive to sovereignty issues. Things must be done their way or not at all." - link
  • "Many Asians who do shake hands actually perform a hand-clasp, with no pressure and very little pumping. To give emphasis to a handshake, it is permissible for each person to place their left hand over their clasped hands." - link
  • "The traditional greeting between Saudi men: grasp right hands, place left hands on the other's right shoulder and exchange kisses on each cheek." - link
  • "The lack of punctuality is a fact of life in Brazil. Become accustomed to waiting for your Brazilian counterpart. Make appointments at least two weeks in advance." - link
  • "[In France] A bouquet should have an odd number of flowers, but never seven or thirteen." - link
  • "[In Costa Rica] Making a fist with the thumb sticking out between the middle and index fingers is obscene. This gesture is known as the 'fig.'" - link
  • "In Chile, slapping your right fist into your left open palm is obscene, and an open palm with the fingers separated means 'stupid.'" - link
  • "Eye contact among the French is frequent and intense, so much so that North Americans may be intimidated. Hierarchies are strict. Try to cultivate high-level personal contacts." - link
  • "Many US and European salesmen have accidentally insulted would-be customers in the Middle East simply by sitting incorrectly. When they cross their legs, they point the sole of their foot at their intended customer. As readers of this column know, displaying the sole of your foot is considered an insult in much of the Middle East and in the Muslim world." - link

What customs have you U.S. folks learned traveling and doing business outside the country? More interestingly to me, for you folks based outside the U.S., what American business rites seemed odd, foreign, or illogical to you?

Brad Knowles's picture

Sigh.... For "Hello, I don’t speak...


For "Hello, I don’t speak , do you speak English?”, that should have been something more like "Hello, I don’t speak insert-local-language-here, do you speak English?”

Oh, and in English speaking countries, keep a careful eye out for differing meanings for the same words. In the US, we use the word "pants" to describe what people in the UK would call "trousers". In the UK, they use the word "pants" to describe what we would call "underwear". In the US, we say "suspenders", when those in the UK would say "braces". In the UK, if they say "suspenders", the equivalent American word would be "garter".

There's a similar issue for many foreign languages. In French, there's even a term for this -- Faux Ami (pronounced something like "Foze Ah-mee"). In English, we might use the word "legume" to mean particular varieties of peas or beans, while in French this word simply means "vegetables". There are lots of these in French. I'm sure the same is true for many other languages.

Oh, and for anyone traveling to Europe, they're not "French Fries". The French didn't invent them -- the Belgians did. In France, they're usually called "Frites Belge" (pronounced something like "Freet Belj"), "Pommes Frites" (pronounced "Pom Freet"), or just plain "Frites". In Germany, I've usually heard them called "Pommes Frites", even though that's a French phrase.

In Europe, if you call them "French Fries", you're just demonstrating that you really are the stereotypical ignorant American. And don't get me started on the term "Freedom Fries".

Translation: Pommes = Potatoes Frites = Fried Belge = Belgian




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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