While it is true that the information you’ve gleaned from social media and emails will be very useful, you also need to focus on a few important details to position your business trip for success. So, before you pack your carry-on and squeeze into that (not so) comfy airline seat, read and con- sider these 6 essential tips for international business travelers.
Tip No. 1: Language Skills (Do You Speak English?)
Your global business partner will understand that you may not be fluent in her native language. What she won’t understand is your assumption that this limitation will be accommodated at all costs.
Take a class, download an app, enlist the help of a friend, but by all means, make sure you know how to say key words and phrases that will help you to communicate with those around you. It shows respect. A good starter vocabulary will include staples such as how do you do, please, thank you, good morning, check please, my name is, and the always useful “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Xhosa, Mandarin, Arabic,” etc.
Tip No. 2: Greetings and Introductions (Hi There, Can I Call You Mel?)
Americans commonly embrace the use of first names in the workplace. Abroad, however, the use of first names is usually reserved for non-business relationships, so count on calling your colleagues “Mr.” or “Ms.” Also, depending on the situation or country that you are visiting, a title such as doctor may take precedence.
If you are unsure, consult an etiquette expert or reference tool to ensure that you are following local customs. “Honor and Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address” by Robert Hickey is a highly respected and useful resource regarding the protocol of titles and ad- dressing others.
When making introductions, the name of the top ranking person is said first. Keep in mind that your client ranks higher than your colleague. For example, “Ms. Top Ranking Person (or client), may I introduce to you Mr. Lower Ranking Person (or colleague).” Always say “to you” as in “happy birthday to you” because saying “you to” reverses the name order.
A firm, two-pump handshake is appropriate in most business settings. Substitute greetings such as hello and pleased to meet you for the ultra casual greetings hi or hey.
Tip No. 3: Conversation Do’s and Don’ts (The Queen Reminds Me of My Aunt Edna)
In the USA, we think nothing of telling new friends and colleagues about our jobs, families and love lives. However, the rest of the world doesn’t share our infatuation with over-sharing. Acceptable conversation topics while traveling abroad for business include sports, positive current events and that tried and true standby – the weather.
Learn simple facts about the economy, geography and culture of your host country. This knowledge will do double duty – your global business partner will be charmed because you cared enough to learn a few facts about her country and you will have appropriate conversation topics to share at the lunch or dinner table.
Never discuss the monarchy of your host country. An innocent comment could cause great offense, so if the Queen of England reminds you of your Aunt Edna, please keep it to yourself.
Tip No. 4: Dining with Dignity (Which Fork Do I Use?)
Your international colleagues will eat using the Continental style in which the fork is held in the left hand, tines turned down.
The American style, in which the diner switches the fork from the right to the left, went out of fashion in Europe in the late 19th century. Although much has been written about the merits and faults of both methods, either is appropriate abroad. If you choose to eat in the American style, rest your wrists on the table between food bites – in Europe it is considered rude to keep your hands in your lap while dining.
You will be faced with unfamiliar foods. Whether you view this fact as a challenge or a perk of international business travel, try some of everything that is offered to you unless you are allergic to it or have dietary restrictions – you keep kosher or are a vegan, for example.
If you are hosting the meal, make sure you observe the proper seating protocol for your guests. Generally, a guest of honor sits to the right of the host, but do your homework as customs vary.
If your head isn’t spinning yet, learn to use chopsticks. It is a must if you travel to Asia for business because showing a client or business partner that you cared enough about her culture to learn some of its customs is the right thing to do.
Tip No. 5: Dress for Success (Business Casual Not Allowed!)
The concept of business casual is not as widely accepted abroad as it is in the USA. As a result, international business attire tends to be conservative. Suits and ties for men and suits, dresses or skirts for women are the norm.
High quality fabrics and subdued colors such as black, gray and navy blue are always good choices. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so take the time to find out what is appropriate. What works in Helsinki may not work in Dubai.
Tip No. 6: Time and Money (What Time Is It and Why Am I Late?)
Be prepared to use military time, which is actively used throughout the global business community. Keeping military time is simple if you remember that 1:00 p.m. is 13:00 hours, 2:00 p.m. is 14:00 hours and so on.
A word of caution about dates: In the United Kingdom dates are written DD/MM/YY instead of MM/DD/YY. For example, the short form for January 2, 2012 will be written 02/01/12.
Of course, the currency will be different. Be aware of monetary exchange rates and plan
accordingly. Also, take a credit card that uses smart chip technology instead of a magnetic strip as the magnetic strip is outdated abroad and may present a problem at some businesses.
Finally, expect the metric system to be used. Even if you are good with math and can easily convert kilometers to miles, take a conversion calculator or download an app for ease of reference. It is surprising how the brain can quickly become overloaded when dealing with jet lag, cultural and language adjustments, unfamiliar food and new surroundings!
For more tips and a wealth of free information, see the U.S. Department of State’s website at www.state.gov. I particularly like the Tips for Traveling Abroad section. Smartphone users can take advantage of their free app called Smart Traveler.
By Stayce Wagner, Spencer Crane Etiquette, LLC/All rights reserved
Originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of Know, A Magazine for Paralegals KNOW – International Business Travel