Do This, Not That When Doing Business Overseas

Say Anything, to Anyone, Anywhere by, Gayle Cotton

Cultural etiquette, politeness, and good manners are passed down through societies from generation to generation.

Etiquette refers to the cultural guidelines for what is appropriate or inappropriate and polite or impolite. It gives a culture structure, integrity, grace, and finesse—all of which are uniquely adapted from one culture to another.

Fortunately, simple business and social etiquette are often based on basic common sense. Although etiquette styles and fads may come and go, the fundamentals of global etiquette remain essentially the same.

The following tips on what to do and what to avoid will help you engage in successful global business and social interactions. They will help to avoid embarrassing faux pas and guide you toward establishing quality relationships and friendships.

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Tips for what to do

Show respect. The most important of the global etiquette tips is to show respect for what is important to another person and his or her culture. Although cultural conditioning has deep roots, respect is universally understood—and is an essential step in bridging the cultural gap.

Show you care. Be proactive and learn about what's important to the cultures you visit or interact with. This will help you win friendships and develop business relationships.

Strike a balance. Find the comfortable middle ground between your culture and that which you're visiting or working with. No one expects you to be just like him or her, nor would that be congruent. Be yourself and adapt to develop rapport in a way that works for all concerned.

Know your geography. There is nothing more embarrassing than not knowing the exact location of the country you are visiting or the locality of its neighboring countries and surrounding areas!

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Mind your manners. What is polite in one culture may not be considered so in another, so know your manners for the countries you visit.

Know how to address people. The practice of using first names, surnames, titles, university degrees, or religious designations varies from country to country, so learn what is appropriate.

Clearly enunciate and speak slower. Speak clearly and slightly slower—about 20 percent slower—when communicating across linguistic borders. There's no need to speak louder— multilingual speakers may be cross-translating, but they aren't deaf!

Define acronyms, slang, and jargon. Define, clarify, or eliminate any acronyms, abbreviations, slang, and jargon that other cultures may not understand or even worse —take literally.

Know the appropriate greetings. Greetings are as diverse as the cultures themselves. There are handshakes, kisses, hugs, and bows—and they come in all shapes and sizes.

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Tips for what to avoid

Using rude hand gestures: Unless you are counting on your fingers, avoid any hand gestures that you think could be potentially offensive to other cultures so you don't unintentionally offend someone.

Touching: Many cultures, including the U.S., southern European, and some Latin American cultures, are comfortable with back pats or having an arm, elbow, or shoulder touched. However, this might be uncomfortable and inappropriate for people from other cultures.

Appearing self-important: Although the United States is known to prize self-confidence and the entrepreneurial spirit, some cultures—including many in Europe and Asia—prefer a more humble, group-oriented approach in their communication style

Asking personal questions: When in doubt, it's safest to wait to ask personal questions (about family, etc.) until someone poses these kinds of questions to you first.

Discussing religion: It's safest to avoid touching on the topic of religion, unless the other person brings it up first. There is always a chance that religious prejudice could be a problem.

Discussing politics: It's advisable to keep politics, global affairs, and even a country's economic condition out of the conversation—again, unless the other person brings it up first.

Unintentionally causing embarrassment: People are embarrassed by different things in different cultures. Doing your research on the potentially embarrassing factors of specific cultures beforehand will help you avoid this.

Showing the soles of your shoes: This may seem like a strange one, but showing the sole of your shoe is offensive in many cultures, including the Middle East and parts of Asia.

Saying "no": Many cultures, including the Asian and some Latin American cultures, consider saying "no" directly to be impolite. If pushed for a firm "no," they will become very uncomfortable.

When it comes to cultural etiquette, no one expects perfection. Awareness is the first step in bridging the cultural gap. A little advance preparation and being observant will likely help you figure out most of what you need to know. If you enjoy working with or visiting other cultures, they are likely to enjoy the same with you!

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Gayle Cotton is the author of the book "Say Anything to Anyone, Anywhere: 5 Keys To Successful Cross-Cultural Communication." She is President of Circles Of Excellence Inc. and an internationally recognized authority on Cross-Cultural Communication. For more information, please visit