Globalization has made cross-border business deals more common than ever. But, every day, deals are jeopardized or lost when foreign associates are offended by Americans unaware of other countries' customs, culture or manners, etiquette experts say.
They commit a faux pas (a slip or blunder in etiquette, manners or conduct) while traveling, meeting a foreigner here or communicating on the phone or Internet.
"Americans are way too informal in their dealings with their counterparts abroad, and they end up perceived as uncouth and even obnoxious," says P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature and civility at Johns Hopkins University. "Innocence, stupidity or arrogance make them behave in Cyprus the way they would in Cleveland."
Politicians and celebrities are not immune, generating highlight reels of faux pas for late-night talk shows. In May, actor Mickey Rooney caused a stir in Great Britain when he violated protocol by kissing Queen Elizabeth's hand at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. In April, Richard Gere repeatedly kissed actress Shilpa Shetty on the cheek at an AIDS awareness rally in April in New Delhi, India, a country where public displays of affection are generally taboo. An Indian court issued a warrant for his arrest and irate protestors burned effigies of the actor. The warrant was later suspended.
President Bush used an expletive while talking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a meeting in Germany last year. He also gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel a shoulder rub while she spoke to Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. Many Europeans were offended because the summit was a formal occasion and they viewed the actions as demeaning.
Many American business travelers also commit faux pas, making, in many cases, already-challenging deals all the more elusive.
Robert Burns, the American owner of CC Bloom's Hotel in Phuket, Thailand, says he's inadvertently insulted or embarrassed Thais several times. During his first business meetings in Thailand a few years ago, he started the gatherings by talking about business.
"That's a no-no," he says. "I quickly figured out that I was creating problems by talking business before eating lunch and by initiating the talks."
Terry Buchen, of Williamsburg, Va., says he made the mistake of asking personal questions of a Scottish man on his first business trip to England in 1994. Buchen asked the man about his wife and children during a casual conversation. "I was flatly told it was none of my business," recalls the golf-course consultant. "I then asked him about the weather, and I could not get the guy to stop talking about it."
"Americans often do not realize how dismaying their directness can be for people from different cultures," says David Solomons, chief executive of London-based CultureSmart Consulting. The company has a guidebook series for travelers, and it consults for corporations.
San Francisco-based etiquette consultant Syndi Seid says a client, a company in Seattle, lost a big business deal in the 1990s because it did not understand a Japanese company's business culture. During negotiations, the U.S. company, which Seid didn't identify, invited the Japanese company to Seattle, but for months, officials of the foreign company had trouble obtaining visas. The impatient U.S. company sent high-level executives to Japan to close the deal.