Foreign Business Travel: Make a Winning Impression

Posted on Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Going abroad on business translates into a quagmire of different languages, gestures and customs that can perplex even an experienced world traveler.

"In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French. We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."

- Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Take, for example, the wingtips or dress pumps you're wearing. Shoes are forbidden in Japanese homes or traditional restaurants unless the owner insists. Accordingly, make sure you pack plenty of clean socks without holes.

Dress codes, tipping, gift giving and table manners are likely to be markedly different the farther you travel from the United States. When you're planning a foreign business trip, doing some etiquette homework is nearly as important as making plane reservations or booking a hotel. It can mean the difference between clinching a deal and coming home empty handed.

Here's a sampling of how different customs can affect business relationships abroad:

Business cards. Meishi, as the Japanese call them, are a way of life and key to establishing credentials in Japan. Therefore, you should bring a large supply. One side should be in English, the reverse in Japanese. Include information about professional organizations you belong to since the Japanese want to learn as much about your qualifications as possible. And then, there's the ritual — business cards are presented after the bow or handshake with the Japanese side up. Spend a few moments examining it and then put it in your card case, not your back pocket. If you're seated at a table, place the card in front of you.

Language. Be precise and don't use American slang and jargon. In most European countries, for example, the bathroom is the room with the tub. Don't ask for one unless you need a good soak. And don't ask for a restroom or a powder room. They'll probably tell you there is none. A toilet is a toilet and that's what you ask for. Generally, you don't have to learn the language of the country you're in, but it's appreciated when you take the time and effort to learn a few basic phrases.

Titles, names and respect. This can be confusing, particularly in many Asian and Pacific countries where surnames come first and given names come last. That is, until you run into an accommodating businessperson who has adopted the Western practice of first comes first to make life easier for Americans. Your best bet is to find out the customs in advance.

To avoid offending foreign business contacts, don't use first names unless you're asked. And show special respect for older people in Asian countries. Age is very important and you shouldn't be surprised to be asked in Vietnam: "How old are you?"

These are just a few of the cultural differences you may face when traveling overseas on business.

Where can you go for information so you won't be the brunt of jokes or lose lucrative deals? You can head to the library, check out our resources below or search online to get some insight. There are series of books like Culture Shock! A Guide to Customs and Etiquette for numerous countries around the world.

Remember to slurp your noodles in Tokyo, never give a Thai a knife and don't handle food with your left hand in India. You'll find out why when you do your homework and it will help you win some valuable business.

More Resources

Embassies and consulates. You can contact the American Embassy when you're in another country or get in touch with foreign embassies and consulates in the United States. Part of their job is to help facilitate trade between the countries by answering questions, providing written material and hosting educational programs. The French Embassy in Washington, for example, gives lectures on doing business in France that include information about differing management styles.

Colleagues and professional advisors. Fellow employees can provide you with details if they've already done business in the country you're traveling to. And you can contact your accountant or attorney for additional knowledge about government restrictions and tax laws.

Chambers of Commerce. There are 85 U.S. branches around the world that provide insights and services for companies that want to go global.

The Internet. The State Department also has detailed "Background Notes" on individual countries that can help show overseas counterparts that you know something about their part of the world.

The Concierge. In a strange foreign city, don't overlook an obvious source of advice. The hotel's concierge can tell you the best restaurant for a business lunch, the proper thank-you gift and the kind of flowers not to send.

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Disclaimer: The information contained in Dulin, Ward & DeWald’s blog is provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as financial or legal advice on any subject matter. Before taking any action based on this information, we strongly encourage you to consult competent legal, accounting or other professional advice about your specific situation. Questions on blog posts may be submitted to your DWD representative.

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