Fardad Zabetian, is global business technologist/CEO at KUDO, a web-based video conference platform with real-time language interpretation.
Not long ago, choosing the right fork at a business meal felt like a momentous pass-or-fail test. Today, with teleconferencing being our new normal, it seems like a charming throwback, but our remote lives have also increased the possibilities for global business to be done. However you do it, cultural etiquette is very important.
Having spent more than two decades as a technology entrepreneur working with Fortune 500 companies and organizations such as the United Nations, I have seen how even a small cultural faux pas can create discord. In my current venture, I am connected with thousands of professional interpreters from around the globe who intimately know the do’s and don’ts of each region as they impact both governmental diplomacy and global business.
Whether traveling abroad or teleconferencing, we all need to be aware of many things — from spoken language to body language — which could help seal the deal or cost you an opportunity.
First impressions matter, whether it’s in person or on a teleconference call. In Japan, for example, shaking hands is uncommon. A slight bow is considered respectful, avoiding looking the other person directly in the eye. In France, however, eye contact is de rigueur, accompanied by a firm handshake that conveys that you’re dynamic and welcoming. Belgian professionals might initially shake hands, but the preferred greeting is a series of “air kisses” on each cheek once a relationship is established. Some of these gestures are possible and polite to perform even on a video conference environment.
Beyond first impressions, there are cultural differences once a meeting begins. Germans tend to prefer straight-to-the-point communication (it’s also best to refrain from humor, as levity isn’t appreciated in business settings). To the south in Italy, business is more about building a friendly relationship, so a direct, hard-driving approach is frowned upon.
Another form of communication, even in the digital age, is the business card. In both Japan and China, when you offer someone your card, be mindful to extend it with both hands, conveying that you acknowledge the importance of the other person. Also: thumbs on top, name side up.
On the subject of thumbs, do take heed. While “thumbs-up” is a symbol of approval in America, in many countries across the Middle East, West Africa and Latin America, it’s tantamount to a middle finger. Pointing your finger at someone, while less provocative, is disdained in Asia. And in nations like Brazil, the “OK” symbol typically used by Americans — forming an O with your thumb and index finger — is considered an insult, not to mention its recent adoption by some white supremacist groups (in September 2019, the Anti-Defamation League added the symbol to its “Hate on Display” database).
While physical contact (e.g., shaking hands, even a pat on the arm) is considered improper in places like China, Korea, Thailand and the Middle East, expect “a complete invasion of your personal space if you’re doing business in Brazil,” according to my Brazilian business partner, Ewandro Magalhães. There, it’s customary to stand extremely close and use frequent physical contact while talking. Resist the urge to back away since it’s considered disrespectful.
Dress For Success
They say dress the way you wish to be seen, but fitting in is a better idea. In Australia, “formal” attire for startups and techies at conferences and such is jeans, a t-shirt and a jacket. It’s only when money comes into play, at an investment meeting or perhaps a legal conference, that a proper suit might be expected.
Asia has a wide range of business attire. Singapore, for example, has evolved into a more hip startup scene similar to Australia, where company founders will dress in a t-shirt, even to more formal financial events. Business attire in China, by contrast, is traditionally conservative, with men in dark suits and ties and women with high necklines.
Sometimes, though, only a towel is needed: In most Scandinavian countries, inviting a business partner to enjoy a relaxing sauna is a time-honored tradition.
Dining And Socializing
If you’re heading out to a business dinner in a new country, spend time researching the local customs and etiquette. Of course, there’s knowing a salad fork from a dinner fork, how to use a fork and knife or whether you turn the fork tines down to rest it on the table. This is quite different in Asia, where you are expected to use chopsticks, so take time to practice in advance (and remember, never use chopsticks to spear your food or point across the table).
While slurping your food in America might be impolite, it is usually considered a compliment in Japan, especially in the presence of the chef. In Saudi Arabia, if you are dining on a whole roasted sheep, a guest of honor is frequently offered an eyeball, which is a delicacy. In India, even if a restaurant has steak or burgers on the menu, you’ll want to choose something else since the cow is still a sacred animal there.
Alcohol, as you can imagine, has made and broken countless business relationships. In much of the Middle East, alcohol is forbidden, so don’t give it as a gift. On the other hand, you may be poured a great many small glasses of sake in Japan or Mekhong whiskey in Thailand. Should you enjoy a business meal in South Korea, it will likely include copious amounts of soju (a clear spirit with alcohol content that can range from 16% to more than 50%). You may also be invited to accompany your host to a noraebang, commonly known to Westerners as a karaoke room, where you will be expected to sing. It’s OK if you’re not good — it’s about sharing an experience that bridges cultures through the universal language of music.
Whatever you do and wherever you do it, make sure you’re thinking about the other person’s cultural point of view, and chances are you’ll build much better relationships.