Opinion: Networking in different cultures and countries

Credit: iStock Leo Patrizi

5 business etiquette tips for foreign situations

If you’re doing business in Denmark, and you and a potential client go out for lunch, should you leave a little something on your plate rather than eating everything? In Russia, is it important to smile to create rapport with your work colleague? If you’re in Israel, is it OK to schedule a business meeting on Friday afternoon? If you answered no to all of these questions, congratulations: you know more than most of us when it comes to global professional etiquette.

How much food a person leaves on their plate may seem inconsequential, but it may be off-putting for a Danish businessperson. Business in Russia is serious, and smiling will not create a warm fuzzy feeling between you and your Russian associate. And doing business in Israel on Friday should be avoided as the Jewish Shabbat begins at sunset and lasts until nightfall on Saturday.

Here’s our best advice for networking in different cultures and countries.

1. Make the most of Google
It’s amazing what a quick online search of business etiquette and customs in any country offers up. Actually, it’s a little scary because there are so many things that are done differently around the world that it doesn’t take much to trip up. So do your research first.

2. Ask people with inside knowledge
Take the time to see what the online experts say, but then double-check this information. It’s essential to find someone who has lived in that country or regularly does business there. They will share the sticky knowledge that you can’t get any other way. We also suggest you try looking for someone who is working in your field because business norms may vary by profession. For example, if you have a job in the tech sector and you’re going to Israel, seek the advice of a person who does business there in that industry.

As a bonus, a person with inside knowledge may make some introductions for you. “You’ve got to meet my cousin, he’s the CTO of one of the most up-and-coming companies.”

3. When it’s not in-person, still be aware
Maybe you aren’t getting on a jet plane to travel to another country, but you’re still operating there even if it’s over Skype. One of the most important things to do before any conference or video call is to practise the pronunciation of people’s names. If you aren’t certain how to say a name, go to your network and ask someone who will know. There are also websites that allow you to hear how the name is said.

Think about the visual impression you’re making on Skype, too. Most people know that women must be more covered up in some Muslim countries, so it might be best to not wear a sleeveless dress during your video conference call. The same holds true for men. If your dress culture is casual but your video business meeting partners wear suits at their office, consider how you want to present yourself. These may seem like small things, but they show respect.

4. Yes, sometimes it’s about the shoes!
We found this absolutely incredible, but if your work takes you to London to visit clients or potential investors in the heart of the financial district, don’t wear brown shoes. While they may be fashionable in many parts of the world, City bankers and financiers look down on them. Your choice of clothing could be more important than you think, so dress to fit in.

5. Cultural awareness is important at home
In this multicultural world, we all “travel” to local Chinese, Korean and Italian restaurants, so knowing proper chopsticks etiquette or why some Italian dishes aren’t meant to have Parmesan, or any cheese, on top are worthwhile bits of information.

You can see how this is applicable when dining with clients, colleagues or the families of your friends from different cultures, even if the dim sum restaurant or the French bistro is in your neighbourhood. For example, you don’t have to be dining in Japan or China to never stick chopsticks upright in your rice. And you don’t have to be in Italy to not put Parmigiano Reggiano on your seafood pasta.

Here are 15 international food etiquette rules to use without having to buy an airline ticket.

Respecting the culture and business etiquette of someone’s home country is key to building high-trust relationships.

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac, principals of Shepa Learning, are keynote speakers and authors of Work the Pond! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life (Penguin/Prentice Hall). They teach the skills of networking and communication to corporate clients, universities and business associations. Please sign up for their free weekly networking tip; it’s always under 200 words.