In some regions of Asia, it's "a sign of pleasure to belch after a meal," and you "should slurp your noodles as loudly as possible," Zablith says. Business travelers should research chopstick etiquette because it varies among Asian countries. In China, for example, diners pick up the rice bowl and use chopsticks. Koreans do not pick up their rice bowl and usually use a spoon.
When dining in the Middle East, North Africa or other Muslim lands, always use the right hand, because the left "is deemed unclean and disrespectful," Zablith says.
Another caution: "Never turn up your nose at the local delicacy," says Morrison. "It may be the most prestigious item on the menu, which they bought at great expense just for you."
Frequent business traveler Jerry Galiger, of Winston-Salem, N.C., committed a faux pas without saying a word. During his first meeting in France with his United Kingdom-based company, he drank red wine, then switched to white.
"From the expressions of the group, you would have thought I exposed myself," says Galiger, whose company makes storage systems. "I later found out you never go to a white after a red, because you can't enjoy the bouquet of the white after you've drunk a red."
Cultural clashes are not limited to individuals or groups of people discussing or negotiating a business deal. An entire company can suffer from cultural differences. The $36 billion acquisition of the USA's Chrysler by Germany's Daimler-Benz in 1998 was marked by "the most significant cultural clash in the business world in recent memory," Solomons says. The aim of the merger was to create an international automotive behemoth, but it didn't happen. In May, DaimlerChrysler sold the Chrysler group, which reported a $2 billion first-quarter loss this year.
Culture clash alone doesn't fully explain the failure of DaimlerChrysler, but it was a destructive element apparent from the start. After the merger, German and American executives "spent a lot of time wrangling about the size of the new company's business card," says Jeswald Salacuse, a professor at Tufts University's law and diplomacy school. "Would it follow the small American-size card or the larger size common in Europe?"
The dispute symbolized deeper divisions that prevented the company from becoming a cohesive unit. "Much of the disaster, as they acknowledged, was caused by a basic lack of understanding of each others' national and, by implication, corporate-cultural differences," says Solomons.
Many corporations prevent their employees from sticking their feet in their mouths by educating them about foreign customs, manners and culture. Houston businessman Mickey David says he always studies a country's cultures and customs before going. His health care company offers online courses and other information to employees before they visit other countries. Susan Jacobsen, who works for a Washington law firm and has planned international business meetings in the past 10 years, suggests www.executiveplanet.com. She says the website had such tips as, "The French will revert to English if they see you floundering."
Such resources can be valuable for non-travelers, because the business world is confronting an "etiquette learning curve" for new technologies, says Sue Fox, author of Business Etiquette for Dummies. The electronic devices that permit instant communication also open the door to offending people in other countries. "Behave just as if you are having a face-to-face conversation with them," Fox warns.
Learning the customs and culture of a foreign country "signals respect for the other side, and respect is important in developing a business relationship," says Tufts' Salacuse. "The fact that you haven't learned the history and the customs raises questions about the sincerity of how committed you are to doing business in the country."