Manners matter in all countries, but cultural missteps could cause you to lose out on an important business deal. How much do you know about doing business on a multi-cultural international stage?

Cultural faux pas, such as mistreating a business card or declining an invitation, could be costing your freelance business some lucrative deals with overseas organisations.

A lack of understanding of business cultural etiquette has been identified as a major issue for Australian executives with one in three admitting to inadvertently causing offence out of ignorance.

Even something as simple as a woman initiating a handshake could be taken the wrong way in Middle Eastern countries, and assuming a Japanese businessperson is nodding “in agreement” during a meeting is another common mistake.

Common Dos and Don’ts

To better equip you before your next international business meeting, here are some lists with common dos and don’ts when dealing with clients from across the world, both in and out of Australia.

China

  • Accept and give business cards with both hands. Study the card first as it represents the person you’re meeting. Never leave it on the table, write on it or put it in your wallet or pocket  — instead use a small card case.
  • When dining, do not start to eat or drink before your host.
  • Don’t compliment anyone for speaking English well. Chances are, most decision makers had extensive international exposure abroad. It may also be taken as a sign you cannot find better things to compliment.
  • Personal contact must be avoided at all cost. It is highly inappropriate for a man to touch a woman in public. The same applies in the Middle East.
  • Stand up when others enter the room.
  • Avoid sensitive topics, such as acknowledging Taiwan’s independence, freeing Tibet, and Chinese human rights issues.
  • When dining with a group and taking food from a common plate, use the implements provided and not your own chopsticks or fork, and choose the items closest to you even if you prefer something on the other side of the plate. As a cultural courtesy, you should taste all the dishes you are offered, but do not eat all of your meal or they will assume you did not receive enough food and are still hungry.
  • Show deference if someone appears to be senior to you.
  • Allow the Chinese delegation to leave a meeting first.
  • Do not discuss business at meals.
  • If you are bringing gifts, clocks, storks, cranes, handkerchiefs and anything white, blue or black are definite no-nos because of their association with death.
  • Lay your chopsticks flat when in Asia. Never cross them on your plate or stick into your rice as it looks like the incense offered to the dead.
  • Stop confusing China and Japan. Chinese people don’t bow any more than Westerners, whereas Japanese people have a complex bowing etiquette.

India

  • Don’t assume you can use a person’s first name — in many parts of the country it’s considered rude.
  • Don’t accept or give anything with your left hand.
  • Don’t refuse hospitality.
  • Don’t be offended by a debate.
  • Don’t ignore hierarchy in the workplace.

Russia

  • Don’t turn down a glass of vodka when your host offers it.
  • Don’t perceive traditional Russian hospitality as an attempt to bribe you.
  • Don’t shout at people — it’s a sign of weakness.
  • Don’t interpret lack of smiles in general crowd as an unwelcoming attitude.

Middle East

  • Don’t speak about sex, politics or religion. These topics are risky in any culture but particularly in the Middle East and Asia.
  • Women in business situations should wait to be offered a hand to shake rather than try to initiate what is generally considered a friendly respectful gesture in the West.
  • Do take time build up the trust via a professional relationship. As in Asia, don’t go about trying to force an answer or being impatient, such as time keeping at meetings or pushing deadlines.
  • No public displays of affection  — even with your husband/wife/partner.

Obviously, these aren’t exhaustive lists. Rather, they are helpful pointers leading deeper into the Pandora Box of global etiquette. We haven’t even touched on the non-verbal gestures, rules of punctuality and tone of voice.

Tell us about the cultural mistake you made — or observed — in the comments section below. Don’t you wish someone had shared his or her experiences with you before you became the laughingstock of the water cooler brigade or worse?

Adriana Petkov has worked for 10 years in marketing communications and taught ESL in Asia, Middle East, and Europe. As a natural communicator fluent in 5 languages, her passion for the power of words has led to the creation of Buzz Marketing Solutions – a boutique freelance consultancy specialising in Copywriting, PR & Social Media. To learn more, visit: www.buzzmarketingsolutions.com.au