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Do's & taboos: cultural aspects of international business - includes short bibliography and sources for help - Cover Story

Business America, August 13, 1990 by M. Katherine Glover

DO s ! "ABOO#

$ultural As%ects o& 'nternational Business

(ever touch the hea) o& a "hai or %ass an ob*ect over it, as the hea) is consi)ere) sacre) in "hailan). +i,e-ise, never %oint the bottoms o& the &eet in the )irection o& another %erson in "hailan) or cross your legs -hile sitting, es%ecially in the %resence o& an ol)er %erson.

Avoi) using triangular sha%es in .ong Kong, Korea, or "ai-an, as the triangle is consi)ere) a negative sha%e in those countries.

/emember that the number 0 is consi)ere) ba) luc, in Kenya, goo) luc, in $1echoslova,ia, an) has magical connotations in Benin.

/e) is a %ositive color in Denmar,, but re%resents -itchcra&t an) )eath in many A&rican countries.

A no) means 2no2 in Bulgaria, an) sha,ing the hea) si)e3to3si)e means 2yes.2

4n)erstan)ing an) hee)ing cultural variables such as these is one o& the most signi&icant as%ects o& being success&ul in any international business en)eavor. A lac, o& &amiliarity -ith the business %ractices, social customs, an) eti5uette o& a country can -ea,en a com%any s %osition in the mar,et, %revent it &rom accom%lishing its ob*ectives, an) ultimately lea) to &ailure.

As business has become increasingly international an) communications technology continues to )evelo%, the nee) &or clearly un)erstoo) communication bet-een members o& )i&&erent cultures is even more crucial.

Gro-ing com%etition &or international mar,ets is another reason that com%anies must consi)er cultural )istinctions. As #ecretary o& $ommerce /obert Mosbacher in)icate). 2American com%anies have to rely on all available tactics &or -inning in the global mar,et%lace to)ay. +earning international business )i%lomacy shoul) be the &irst ste% they ta,e.2

he claims. $ustoms vary -i)ely &rom one country to another. "his hol)s true &or +atin America in general. Many nationalities value the %ersonal relationshi% more than most Americans )o in business. #ome o& the cultural )istinctions that 4.e. "hose -ho un)erstan) the culture are more li. Many 4. attitu)es to-ar)s %unctuality. an) %rotocol are integral %arts o& business. long3term business relationshi%s. long3term relationshi%s base) on trust are necessary &or )oing business. #oli) business o%%ortunities usually &ollo. %atience.e the mista. "hey may not even un)erstan) something as basic as -hat signi&ies closing a )eal in a %articular country33a han)sha. engage in small tal. 2"here is much more to business than *ust business in many %arts o& the -orl). 'n some countries. &irms ma.a strong %ersonal relationshi% in Guatemala. #ociali1ing. Do s an) "aboos o& . or a memoran)um o& un)erstan)ing.2 style rarely -or. negotiating styles. business %eo%le have a very )irect style. 9:. an) customs regar)ing titles.e o& rushing into business )iscussions an) 2coming on too strong2 instea) o& nurturing the relationshi% &irst. 'n these countries. cites this cultural )istinction as the greatest area o& )i&&erence bet-een the American an) Guatemalan styles o& )oing business.#. eti5uette. &irms most o&ten &ace inclu)e )i&&erences in business styles. . $ommercial Attache in Guatemala. . "he abru%t 2al-ays -atching the cloc.um%ing right into business )iscussions be&ore a get3ac5uainte) interlu)e can be a ba) mista. "a. signi&icance o& gestures. meanings o& colors an) numbers. American &irms must %ay close attention to )i&&erent styles o& )oing business an) the )egree o& im%ortance %lace) on )evelo%ing business relationshi%s. Accor)ing to /oger A6tell in his boo. *oin them &or lunch or )inner. grace. greetings. a -ritten contract. o&ten tries to &orce a business relationshi%.osting 'nternational 7isitors 8see list o& %ublications on %.ing the time to learn something about the culture o& a country be&ore )oing business there is also a sho. "he ine6%erience) American visitor.Business e6ecutives -ho are not alert to cultural )i&&erences sim%ly cannot &unction e&&iciently overseas.time &or a %ersonal relationshi% to )evelo%. gi&t3giving customs.2 $harles <or).ely to )evelo% success&ul.o& res%ect an) is usually )ee%ly a%%reciate). -hile in others they are much more subtle in style. attitu)es to-ar)s )evelo%ment o& business relationshi%s. he a)vises.#. &rien)shi%s. A better in&orme) business e6ecutive -oul). in)icate an interest in the &amilies o& his or her business associates. #omething -ith one meaning in one area may mean the o%%osite some-here else. about Guatemala. an) generally allo.e. not to mention re-ar)ing &or the com%any.s in Guatemala.

a &irm that trains an) %re%ares e6ecutives in cross3cultural communications.is one o& the most -ell3. or various other gestures. nose rub. are the o%%osite. . Belgians. even &ashionable. hug. is ma)e by %lacing both han)s together in a %rayer %osition at the chin an) bo-ing slightly..-ar) encounters.symboli1es res%ect an) humility an) is a very im%ortant custom to observe -hen )oing business -ith the .e.e &or greetings an) goo)byes.iss.a%anese consi)er it ru)e to be late &or a business meeting. "he higher the han)s.a%anese an) Americans o&ten combine a han)sha.an)sha. . "he bo. . an) they )o not . o& a-areness concerning the country s acce%te) &orm o& greeting can lea) to a-. men )o not stan) -hen a -oman enters or leaves a room.a%anese. 'n Guatemala on the other han). "he .e the 4nite) #tates. /omanians. ho-ever.so that each culture may sho. Business entertaining is usually )one in the evening at a local taverna. "hey are li. -hile others may be >9 minutes late.no-n &orms o& greeting. "ra)itional greetings may be a han)sha. the more res%ect is symboli1e). accor)ing to #on)ra #no-)on. the -ai.e -ith a bo. "here are also )i&&erent levels o& bo-ing. a luncheon at a s%eci&ie) time means that some guests might be 10 minutes early. +ac. Attitu)es to-ar) %unctuality vary greatly &rom one culture to another an) unless un)erstoo) can cause con&usion an) misun)erstan)ing. ?hen crossing cultural lines. 'talians use a han)sha.es are the acce%te) &orm o& greeting in 'taly. 4nli.a%anese. to be late &or a social occasion. "he rela6e) atmos%here is im%ortant to buil)ing a business relationshi% base) on &rien)shi%.Buil)ing a %ersonal ra%%ort is also im%ortant -hen )oing business in Greece. something as sim%le as a greeting can be misun)erstoo). #no-)on says.iss a -oman s han). 'nc. accor)ing to <or). "he &orm o& greeting )i&&ers &rom culture to culture. each -ith a signi&icant meaning.a%anese bo.ely to get )o-n to business right a-ay an) are unusually conservative an) e&&icient in their a%%roach to business meetings. but it is acce%table. an) s%ouses are o&ten inclu)e). "he tra)itional "hai greeting. "he &ingerti%s shoul) never be raise) above . =resi)ent o& #no-)on s 'nternational =rotocol. "he . %lacing the han)s in %raying %osition. an) Germans are very %unctual. -hile many o& the +atin countries have a more rela6e) attitu)e to-ar) time. "he latter is reserve) &or royalty.the other res%ect. .

e also suggests avoi)ing bac.i. Assistant $ommercial Attache in the 4nite) King)om "homas Kelsey a)vises that American businessmen shoul) never sit -ith the an. Misun)erstan)ings over gestures is a common occurrence in cross3cultural communication. <rance.nee on to% o& the other.they are. <or e6am%le. "he use o& a %alm3u% han) an) moving in)e6 &inger signals 2come here2 in the 4nite) #tates an) in some other countries but is consi)ere) vulgar in others.eye level.i.ho.2 <ailure to return a -ai greeting is e5uivalent to re&using to sha. 'n many countries 8inclu)ing the 4nite) King)om.le resting on the .#. #he suggests that 2.no. business %erson really -ants to . you2 an) 2' m sorry2 as -ell as 2hello. it is consi)ere) o&&ensive to %lace one s arm over the bac. 'n Bthio%ia.2 =ro%er use o& names an) titles is o&ten a source o& con&usion in international business relations. ' m %lease) to meet you2 is %re&erable an) conveys a more sincere message.a&&ection in %ublic. 'n <rance. it is a symbol &or moneyA an) in Bra1il.:.a%an. an) Denmar. it means 1eroA in . an) misinter%retation along these lines can lea) to business com%lications an) social embarrassment. 2.e han)s in the ?est.ac5uaintance. an) men an) -omen shoul) not sho. it is a%%ro%riate to use titles until use o& &irst names is suggeste). Accor)ing to #no-)on. "he 2OK2 sign commonly use) in the 4nite) #tates is a goo) e6am%le o& a gesture that has several )i&&erent meanings accor)ing to the country. . o& the chair in -hich another %erson is sitting. in Denmar. they o&ten have very )i&&erent meanings. American intentions are o&ten misun)erstoo) an) Americans are sometimes %erceive) as not meaning -hat they say. the stan)ar) American greeting. hol)ing out the han) %alm )o-n an) re%eate)ly closing the han) means 2come here. the 4. "he gesture means 2than. . "hey shoul) instea) cross their legs -ith one .are you@2 lea)s the Danes to thin. =eo%le aroun) the -orl) use bo)y movements or gestures to convey s%eci&ic messages.nee.sla%%ing an) %utting an arm aroun) a ne. "hough countries sometimes use the same gestures. 'n "hailan). ho. it carries a vulgar connotation.

Cue3#ai Kan. com%anies are e6%ecte) to res%on) by giving a gi&t. %oints out that customs to-ar) the e6change o& business car)s vary. 'nternational e6ecutives must use caution to choose a%%ro%riate &lo-ers. B6changing gi&ts symboli1es the )e%th an) strength o& a business relationshi% to the . observance o& a country s customs to-ar)s car)3giving is a . an) ran. they o&ten use the honori&ic 2Khun2 or a title %rece)ing it.ey %art o& business %rotocol. 'n shar% contrast.2 Accor)ing to #on)ra #no-)on. but e6%ensive items are not a general %ractice. gi&ts are e6%ecte). &lo-ers are a suitable gi&t i& invite) to someone s home. 'n Buro%e. -hereas in other countries o&&ering a gi&t is consi)ere) o&&ensive. $ustoms concerning gi&t3giving are e6tremely im%ortant to un)erstan). too. status.ing business contacts as 2Monsieur2 or 2Ma)ame..a%an. Business e6ecutives also nee) to . Gi&ts are usually e6change) at the &irst meeting. Bven that is not as easy as it soun)s.many to %resent.2 or 2Mrs. an) &ailure to %resent them is consi)ere) an insult. "hais. it is im%ortant to a))ress <rench3s%ea. it is also consi)ere) ba) luc. Be-are o& -hite &lo-ers in . Gi&t3giving is not a normal custom in Belgium or the 4nite) King)om either although in both countries.ing contacts shoul) be a))resse) as 2Mr. <or e6am%le. on the other han).<irst names are sel)om use) -hen )oing business in Germany. ?hen %resente) -ith a gi&t. Gi&t3giving is an im%ortant %art o& )oing business in . avoi) sen)ing chrysanthemums 8es%ecially -hite: in Belgium an) else-here in Buro%e since they are mainly use) &or &unerals.a%anese.ing Bast33an) o& a ne. to con&use the t-o is a great insult. 'n some cultures. host an) e6ecutive %ro)ucer o& a television sho. 'n Belgium. gi&ts are rarely e6change) in Germany an) are usually not a%%ro%riate.&our3%art series on Doing Business in Asia.2 -hile Dutch3s%ea.about Asia33+oo. or in -riting.tor2 are sometimes use) to in)icate %restige. . to %resent an even number o& &lo-ers. ?hen using the &irst name. #eemingly minor in im%ortance. "itles such as 2.err Dire. #mall gi&ts are &ine.-hen to %resent gi&ts33on the initial visit or a&ter-ar)sA -here to %resent gi&ts33in %ublic or %rivateA -hat ty%e o& gi&t to %resentA -hat color it shoul) beA an) ho.a%an -here they are associate) -ith )eath. a))ress each other by &irst names an) reserve last names &or very &ormal occasions. an) %ur%le &lo-ers in Me6ico an) Bra1il.no. 7isiting business %eo%le shoul) use the surname %rece)e) by the title.

it is im%ortant to use both han)s an) %osition the car) so that the reci%ient can rea) it. accor)ing to Cue3 #ai Kan. the signi&icance o& gestures. e6ecutives involve) in international business must be a-are o&. (egotiating across cultures is even more com%licate) because o& the a))e) chance o& misun)erstan)ings stemming &rom cultural )i&&erences. During a meeting. "hese cultural variables are e6am%les o& the things that 4. 't is e5ually im%ortant to be &amiliar -ith the business style o& the &oreign com%any. . it is essential to un)erstan) the im%ortance o& ran.a%an or #outh Korea. 'n a))ition. some com%anies &ail to )o their home-or. s%rea) the car)s in &ront o& you relating to -here %eo%le are sitting. At times in the %ast. the )ata shoul) be %rinte) in the native language on the reverse si)e o& the car). an) negotiating eti5uette. at the car) a&ter acce%ting it.-ho the )ecision ma.et is consi)ere) very ru)e there.ers are. ac. treat a business car) as you -oul) treat its o-ner33-ith res%ect. observe the title an) organi1ation. in the other country an) to . <or e6am%le. Americans have not ha) a goo) trac. it is %articularly im%ortant to be a-are o& the -ay business car)s shoul) be e6change). a host o& cultural variables must be )ealt -ith all at once. .a%an.o-ever. overseas an) that business must be a)a%te) to the culture.es that coul) have easily been %revente). she conten)s. an) %erha%s ma. 'n any country -here Bnglish is not commonly taught.#. 'n other -or)s says Cue3#ai Kan.'n . as business has become more global. recor) o& being sensitive to cultural )istinctions. Americans have become more sensitive to cultural )i&&erences an) the im%ortance o& )ealing -ith them e&&ectively. "he %ro%er a%%roach is to care&ully loo. #till. an) ma.e a relevant comment or as.no. a %olite 5uestion.e &atal or near3&atal mista. ?hen %resenting a car) in either . (egotiating styles )i&&er &rom nation to nation. (egotiating can be a com%le6 %rocess bet-een %arties &rom the same nation. "he -estern tra)ition o& acce%ting a business car) an) imme)iately %utting it in your %oc. A number o& &irms have learne) the har) -ay that success&ul )omestic strategies )o not necessarily -or.no-le)ge -ith a no) that you have )igeste) the in&ormation. 's it im%ortant to be )irect or subtle@ 's it necessary to have an establishe) relationshi% -ith the com%any be&ore beginning negotiations@ B6ecutives negotiating -ith &oreign com%anies must also un)erstan) the nature o& agreements in the country.

o-ever.#.2 A tooth%aste com%any trie) to sell its %ro)uct in regions o& #outheast Asia through a %romotion -hich stresse) that the tooth%aste hel%e) enhance -hite teeth. gol& ball manu&acturer targete) .et entirely. as it turne) out.s." E00> Gale Grou% . "ell her -e ll be a little late. a com%any ultimately must not only have a sensitivity to other cultures but also must have a goo) un)erstan)ing o& its o-n culture an) ho.a%an as an im%ortant ne. "he &irm.es in Multinational Mar. "hey run the gamut &rom &orgivable to )isastrous. in his boo. instea) o& rea)ing 2-hen ' use) this shirt.ly staine) teeth.2 "he commercial containe) t-o ma*or cultural errorsD +atin -ives sel)om )are or)er their husban)s aroun). Business America 'nternational "ra)e A)ministration $O=C/'G. Big Business Blun)ersD Mista. "he slogan 2-on)er -here the yello. sales o& the com%any s gol& balls -ere -ell belo.average. -here some local %eo%le )eliberately che-e) betel nut in or)er to achieve the social %restige o& )ar.e this. . 9:. the -i&e sai) to her husban). an) at the -orst. a lea)ing 4.et &or gol&.eting 8see list o& %ublications on %. Katherine Glover ?riter. Another com%any e6%erience) hea)aches cause) by %oor translation.age) the balls in grou%s o& &our33the number o& )eath in . 'n the a). 2/un )o-nstairs an) %hone Mary." 1990 4.#. Government =rinting O&&ice $O=C/'G. 'n this area. A Me6ican maga1ine %romotion &or an American3bran) shirt carrie) a message stating the o%%osite o& -hat ha) originally been inten)e). &or e6am%le. Mista.a%an. ' &elt goo).es o& these ty%es can at the least re)uce sales. #ome years ago. M. cites a number o& other blun)ers that resulte) &rom cultural oversights.et has le) to many international business blun)ers. such an a) -as less than e&&ective.other countries see American culture. give the com%any an) the %ro)uct such a ba) name that it closes out the mar. "he a)vertisement.<ailure to research an) un)erstan) a culture be&ore entering the mar. ha) %ac.2 sai) 2until ' use) this shirt.-ent2 -as also vie-e) as a racial slur. Davi) /ic. One concerns a tele%hone com%any that trie) to incor%orate a +atin &lavor in its commercial by em%loying =uerto /ican actors. "o avoi) blun)ers li. ' &elt goo). an) almost no +atin -oul) &eel it necessary to %hone to -arn o& tar)iness since it is e6%ecte).mar.