Doing business abroad? Simple faux pas can sink you

It backfired because the Japanese executives were eager to visit the USA and were was turned off by the Americans' lack of patience in building a rapport between the companies.

Seid says another unidentified client, a Silicon Valley company, nearly lost a business deal five years ago when a top executive of a French company arrived in California on an evening flight. The U.S. company sent a limo to pick up the client at 7:30 p.m., but no staff member went along. The company thought the Frenchman might want to relax at a hotel after a long flight and planned to pick him up the next morning. But the Frenchman was offended because no top official met him at the airport.

"The French eat dinner later than 7:30, and he thought he'd be taken out to dinner," recalls Seid. "It nearly killed the deal."

In many cultures, one's family defines an individual, says Terri Morrison, co-author of a business etiquette book series, Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. "Therefore, making an error in a person's name is quite a personal insult."

Take the Chinese practice of placing the surname first. "Calling (Chinese President Hu Jintao) 'President Tao' is appalling, like calling him President George, or Bubba," she says.

Morrison says she has seen American executives look at business cards from Latin American clients and not realize that a Hispanic father's surname is listed first, followed by the mother's. For example, Señor Juan Antonio Martinez Garcia should be addressed as Señor Martinez, she says.

Ranjini Manian, who runs a company in Chennai, India, that helps expatriates adjust to Indian culture, recalls a client who worked for Ford Motor in India in the mid-1990s. The client was left-handed and used his left hand to cut a ribbon at a bank opening.

"The left hand is considered inauspicious in India, and there was consternation all around," says Manian, the author of Doing Business in India for Dummies. "The ribbon was retied and cut again with the right hand."

Manian remembers another occasion when an American in the construction business offended an Indian engineer working for him in India. The American beckoned the engineer by snapping his fingers and waving a curled forefinger. To an Indian, such a gesture is condescending and insulting. The engineer, who was also upset by the American's use of four-letter words earlier in the week, resigned.

"The curled finger proved to be the last straw, and the Indian told me he felt treated like a dog," says Manian. "The American was aghast when I told him and tempered down for the rest of the project, but he had already lost one of his best Indian engineers, who he had trained for three months on the project."

Dining no-no's

Table manners also get many U.S. business travelers in trouble, etiquette experts say. In the USA and the U.K., it's customary to put hands on the lap when not using them. But it "demonstrates very poor manners" in France and other countries where the hands and wrists should remain on top of the table, says Tamiko Zablith, an etiquette and protocol consultant in France and England. "You also should not leave the table before the meal is over, even if you need to go to the restroom," she says.

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