When doing business with people in another country, you can step on a cultural landmine, if you don’t go about it without due care and attention.
Brits can be anything from reserved to very friendly. If you don’t understand that what they say is not necessarily what they mean, even the most fluent non-native English speaker can come a cropper.
For instance, if an English person prefaces a comment by saying ‘with respect’, it generally means ‘you’re wrong, but I’m too polite to say that.’ If they say, ‘with the greatest respect,’ it means ‘you are an idiot and you don’t understand what you’re dealing with here.’
‘Very interesting’ usually means ‘actually not interesting in the slightest’, not, as many other nationalities would interpret it, ‘that’s something we need to follow up on’.
Americans like to use first names from the moment they meet – regardless of the status of the people they’re meeting. This practice is becoming more common in Britain too. However, Germans prefer their title and last name to be used, especially if they’ve studied long and hard to achieve it, at least, until they invite you to call them by their given name. This is also common in other European countries, in China, and Latin America. It’s important to get this right to avoid offending your business contacts right from the get-go.
Your friendly smile can be misinterpreted too. In some countries (e.g. Russia, Japan, South Korea, Iran) it’s associated with a lack of intelligence, and in others as a sign of dishonesty (India, Argentina, the Maldives).
While most westerners are taught to make eye contact and find those who don’t suspicious, a Japanese person can find it disrespectful, and some Africans and South Americans consider it challenging if it’s more than fleeting. In the Middle East and parts of Asia, many native males consider it inappropriate to shake hands with a woman, let alone make eye contact.
While business cards are common worldwide, the significance they hold varies. The Japanese would be offended if you took their card with one hand, glanced at it and said ‘thanks’, before putting it away. You would be expected to receive it with both hands, look at it carefully and give a genuine acknowledgement.
It’s not uncommon for Arab businessmen to hold majlis-style meetings where they, effectively hold court with a number of different people. They will switch from conversation to conversation, something which can be challenging for a European who is more used to one-to-one meetings – or at least meetings where you have the undivided attention of your host! And, if you find yourself sitting in an actual majlis on floor cushions, be sure to ensure the sole of your foot is not pointing at the person with whom you’re meeting – as this is considered rude.
If you’re planning to do business with people from another country, ensure you do your cultural homework first so you don’t step on a behavioural landmine and ruin any chance of doing business.