I get the question of almost every cultural awareness training: “Can you give me some Do’s & Don’ts of this particular country?” or “What about this or that Business Etiquette?“
It’s a very valid question and an obvious one from someone working in an international environment. We want simple and short answers and solutions to the problems we face.
However… Do’s and Don’ts and Business Etiquette questions are really the most difficult ones to answer.
Why are Do’s and Don’ts Difficult to Answer?
Do’s and Don’ts are very contextual, and so is almost every business etiquette. Meaning that one particular Do will be very effective and acceptable in one situation (with the same “cultural players” present), while it can turn into a complete Don’t and unacceptable in another situation (with the same “cultural players” present). The same holds true for a Don’t turning into a Do when the context changes. So it works or does not work both ways.
Imagine the following setting: A European learns “how to do Business with Japanese” on a particular cultural awareness training. Amongst the things he/she learns is how to greet his/her Japanese counterpart in the traditional Japanese way and how to accept his business card. He/she learns that a deep respectful bow is the “Do” to do and accepting the Japanese business card the traditional Japanese way. He/she also learns how to present a business card “Japanese style“: presenting it in a way that it can be read immediately without flipping it around (yet another Do).
On the other side, “our” Japanese counterpart goes to a cultural awareness training on how to deal with Europeans. He learns that bowing is not the way to greet someone, but shaking hands is (in this case the European Do). In addition, he is told that dealing with business cards is not a big thing in Europe, that business cards function more like a piece of information for future reference and that they do not carry the same weight as they do in Japan.
When our Japanese and European finally meet, simultaneously the Japanese sticks out his hand whilst the European bows forward. The result: the European gets a hand in his/her face while bowing. Nice… (creating yet another cultural problem: how to apologize!)
Of course, this is an exaggerated example, but hopefully, you understand what I mean with Do’s and Don’ts changing in different contexts and circumstances back and forth.
Within a Japanese context bowing is a Do. In a European context shaking hands is a Do. But since the context has changed (a mix of European and Japanese Do’s and Don’ts) it is not always clear what to Do or to Don’t.
My advice is to not always go with the Do’s and Don’ts that you might have learned from another culture but to take a more adaptive approach. And if there are things you’re not sure about or do not understand, it never hurts to ask the other party if he/she can explain what is happening or what needs to be done within the given context.
An excellent book on this subject, that I can fully recommend is Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands There are several specific “versions” of this book available. I suggest you browse around Amazon and take your pick!
Personal Space & Hygiene
Here it gets a bit tricky because it could be interpreted as being too personal. So let’s keep it general.
- Personal Space: Cultures that are relatively Individualistic, tend to “value” their personal space more than more collectivistic cultures.
- Personal Hygiene: Cultures that are more Individualistic buy and use more deodorant and shampoo. You can interpret this as that Individualistic cultures are not comfortable with smelling each other’s body odors. Individualistic cultures also spend much more money on general hair care products, skincare products, and other personal hygiene-related items.
If you per se must see some do’s and don’ts and a business etiquette here and there, click here. It’s a large Infographic.
An article on international business etiquette can be found here.
Here are 4 ideas you can use directly to up-your business etiquettes.
An infographic on international business etiquettes can be found here.
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I do agree that we should be prudent with those Do’s & Don’ts as a intercultural trainer! Next Thursday, I’ll give a workshop “Working with Germans”. On that occasion, I will mention that punctuality is a value (or a so-called “cultural standard”) in Germany: Being on time for your meeting will be appreciated by your German client/colleague/boss. But that doesn’t mean that some Germans can’t arrive late on the same meeting. And even German trains aren’t always on time.
I totally agree with the last sentence: “it never hurts to ask the other party if he/she can explain what is happening or what needs to be done.” After all, intercultural communication is in the first place communication between individuals.
I am curious to know what suggestions you might have for a business woman in Spain. The typical greeting in Spain is a handshake for a man and the two-cheek kiss for a woman. Obviously, in a business context, a woman who quickly offers her hand will get off with a handshake but if you meet again, in a more informal context, it is custom to exchange the kiss. Then you’re stuck, because should you meet a third time with additional new people, you must kiss the the previously kissed ones and you should kiss the new ones as well so as not to offend them (unless it’s a very formal meeting). And, of course, that becomes quite uncomfortable for a non-european. Not to mention that handshakes are extremely rare between 2 women. A conundrum. How would you deal with that?
First a question to you: do any of the parties feel uncomfortable “greeting” the Spanish way?
Here’s my advice/take on your question:
First, If both parties are fine greeting each other the “Spanish” way, there is no problem.
Second: what would you like to achieve? If you’re ok doing the “kiss” greeting when you’re not Spanish, and would offend the Spaniards if you would’t do the traditional greeting, you/one could reconsider adapting yourself/oneself. This in order not to offend the “other”.
Third: I’ve been in many situations where people from different cultures do not quite know how to greet each other. The solution? Simply ask. Something like “how should we greet?” or “How do you greet in your country? We greet like this…”.
If you’re not sure, asking what is appropriate has never offended anyone, or got anyone stuck.
For Chinese the common advice “when in Rome do as the Romans do” is fine, and flunks when the outsider is physically different and needs rules/laws that reflect outside thinking. Even married in a Chinese family the westerner likely gets different treatment, often silent differences. A westerner might believe in a thing called a contract as a lock-in to an arrangement, where a chinese knows the contract is only the start of an ongoing relationship. Those differences need to be bridged then fused when associated goods and services and people go into or out of china. Eg when a expat leaves china the relationship goes, but a western outfit may believe that its contract goes on.
This is a very interesting question! I live in India, where boys and girls usually don’t greet each other physically, maybe with the exception of a brief handshake. However, there are a lot of people here from countries like UK and Spain, where kisses on cheeks are very common. How do you handle that if you are to say hello to one British and one Indian girl at the same time? Will you follow the “British way” on the Brith and the “Indian way” on the Indian. I don’t think there are any particular rules here, but that common sence is extremely important.
You can read more about this in a presentation I gave about cultural awareness a few weeks back
I agree with “common sense”.
However, as often in Cultural Awareness Training, “common sense” is not always “common practise”…
In situations like you described, I would always ask what’s appropriate.