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Intercultural Meeting Faux Pas (And How to Avoid Them)

June 11th, 2018 in

Imagine you’re in a hotel in the United Arab Emirates after having flown across the globe for an important in-person meeting. Your notes are ready, you’ve timed everything out, and you’ve done all the prep work necessary to lead a focused, grounded discussion.

Don’t gloss over that “grounded” part, though. Showing the bottom of one’s shoes during a conversation is a disrespectful gesture in the UAE and a quick way to cut short any productive conversation.

When you’re so focused on nailing that presentation, it’s easy to forget those little-known cultural nuances that make other countries unique. No matter how great your interpersonal skills are, a simple misunderstanding could mean the difference between a successful international business meeting and a global meeting misstep.

Global Meeting Guidelines

Some of the largest multinational corporations in the U.S. do most of their business overseas. These companies would have never made this global expansion if they didn’t understand the cultural norms to adhere to (and avoid) when working internationally. Here is a small sample of meeting dos and don’ts when traveling abroad:

Japan

Taking the initiative is great, but not when it comes to introductions in Japan. Always wait to be introduced. And instead of shaking hands, execute a bow; the deeper the bow, the greater the show of respect. During the meeting, avoid speaking slowly and loudly, as it’s considered condescending. If your words aren’t registering, try speaking more clearly and consistently instead.

The United Kingdom

It may sound friendly in theory, but kissing, backslapping, and hugging are a bit intrusive for our friends in the U.K. Personal questions regarding salary or intimate history are usually frowned upon as well, so keep any meeting conversations with U.K. colleagues strictly professional.

United Arab Emirates

Some of the UAE’s cultural norms coincide with Western customs, but, like Emiratis’ aversions to seeing the bottom of footwear, not all of them align.

For example, it’s polite to compliment the host after accepting refreshments at meetings, but punctuality is not usually as important as in Western communities. It’s also acceptable to take phone calls during meetings and enter a room unannounced, so don’t be alarmed if meetings become relatively chaotic.

South Africa

Pointing is always impolite, but if you find yourself doing business in South Africa, resist the urge to direct your index finger at anyone. While you’re at it, try to find something to do with your hands besides stuffing them in your pockets — which is another no-no when conversing with South Africans — and maintain consistent eye contact.

Brazil

“Just dropping by” is a common phrase in many cultures, but not in Brazil — at least, not without consequences. According to Brazilian etiquette expert Sandra Branco, you should schedule important meetings at least two weeks in advance and confirm them two days prior to the scheduled date. It may seem like a hassle, but it forces updates to be given in person rather than via email or phone, a route Brazilians would prefer not to take.

Russia

You can never go wrong being a good listener, but sometimes listening just isn’t enough. In Russia, it’s customary to express your views and note any changes to the country’s contemporary culture that you’ve observed.

Doing business, however, can be tricky without making any local “connections.” Don’t enter a meeting without some small gifts that symbolize the importance of your business. These little trinkets can go a long way toward ensuring that your encounter — and the business being discussed — go off without a hitch.

Australia

Pleasantries can usually be dispensed with when talking business with Australian colleagues. They typically prefer to keep things straightforward, so you shouldn’t worry about extensive schmoozing before a meeting.

You should also avoid hyping your company or product during a sales pitch because modesty is considered a virtue in Australia. In short, stick to the facts and save the superlatives for another time.

Understanding these different customs should help you avoid a tragic meeting faux pas and potentially create meaningful, profitable cross-cultural business relationships. After all, the goal isn’t just to maintain your dignity, but also to join the ranks of the multinational companies that can step foot into any environment across the globe and feel at home.

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