First impressions count, and seldom more so than in international business where non-verbal cues may play an increased role in perceptions. So what preparation is needed for making the best first impression in international business meetings?
Business Etiquette around the World for Initial Business Meetings
Business etiquette around the world varies widely and it can be really tricky to get the nuances right. Realistically, a foreign partner you are meeting for the first time, either at your office, a trade fair or during a country visit isn’t going to expect you to have native knowledge of the intercultural business etiquette, however you should be able to get the basics right.
Correct use of names and titles is a key part of intercultural etiquette
This can be a tough one…
Have you ever had somebody mispronounce your name? If, like me, you have the kind of name which is difficult for speakers of certain languages to pronounce (it’s the “th” in the middle 🙄, or in Asia sometimes the “r”s), then for sure you will have had the experience of your name being mangled.
Whilst this can sometimes be amusing, and in most cases you probably wouldn’t take offence or assume it was deliberate when in initial business meetings, it can be uncomfortable for the speaker if they suddenly realise that they have mispronounced your name. Especially in Asia, you don’t want the person you’re meeting with to feel like they’ve lost face right from the start.
However, there are names which can be really intimidating for non native speakers to pronounce. For example, in Austria, many surnames are rather long and have a lot of letter combinations that may be unusual. This makes them quite difficult for non native speakers to know really how to how to pronounce them.
Consequently, there are a couple of things you can do in advance of any meeting to make sure that you are neither embarrassed no embarrassing!
Firstly, of course, you can ask a colleague, if somebody already knows that person or if you have a colleague who speaks the language of the target country. Perhaps they can tell you how to pronounce a certain name.
Then there are of course, a number of online resources that you can access where names will be spoken out loud for you so that you can learn how to pronounce them.
Failing that it’s very rare that somebody would be offended if you actually asked them to repeat how their name is pronounced so that you can say it correctly.
When you introduce yourself to somebody, make sure that you speak your name as clearly as possible (what you think is slow and clear, may not appear so to someone who is nervous about meeting with a foreigner for the first time and holding a business meeting in probably not their native language).
Titles can be a minefield when you’re doing international business it’s really dangerous to just assume that the way that you address somebody that you’re meeting for the first time in a foreign country is the same way that you would address somebody that you were meeting for the first time in your own country.
Different countries have different ways of showing politeness. So for example, in the UK if you’re meeting for somebody for the first time, it would be polite to address them as Mr. Smith or Ms Richards even if they then say to you “please just call me John” or “I’m Valerie”. In Israel it would be pretty usual to be on a first name basis immediately, even if the person is the multi-billionaire owner of the company you are visiting or a government minister.
They’re are countries, especially in Asia, where even when you’ve known somebody for a very long time most people don’t consider it appropriate to address you simply by your first name, as that would seem far too familiar. So you may find yourself being called Mr. John or Miss Katherine.
These are not the only variants though. In Germany a person might be addressed as Herr Direktor or in Austria, sometimes people are also addressed using their academic titles. So in Austrian German at least, they would be addressed using Mr. Doctor + the family name eg. Herr Dr. Braun, especially for older generations. That doesn’t mean of course that they always expect you to address them exactly in that way. However in such cases you certainly need to stay more on the formal side unless invited to do otherwise.
In Asia, people tend to address others by saying the surname first and then the first name so for example, in Korea somebody might say Kim Ji Hoon or even Director Kim Ji Hoon. And in Korea you will rapidly discover that Kim really is the most frequent surname – don’t assume that people are necessarily related.
It’s better to err on the side of excessive formality, than to run the risk of offending someone by being overly familiar. Even if the first hours of a meeting are extremely stiff and formal, chances are that things will relax a bit if you are able to enjoy a meal together.
Of course the level of formality is likely to be lower with a group of young people working in a tech start up compared to the board of a private bank, so do your research as to what’s appropriate and stay flexible.
Just to make things more confusing in Asia, many younger people also have an English name that they use, so it may be hard to marry up the full Chinese name on a business card to the person who said “call me Ocean” at the beginning of the meeting!
Appropriate Greetings – the next core skill in international business etiquette
“Good morning”, “how do you do”, “Good afternoon” these are all typical formal greetings.
What level of formality is required for your meetings in order to make a great first impression? What are the appropriate greetings for you to use when talking to a new business partner for the first time in many markets around the world?
A typical first greeting might be to shake hands and to say, for example, “how do you do” however, there are other markets around the world where a short bow might be more appropriate or the Indian Namaste greeting. In the Middle East, it’s not considered appropriate for men and women to shake hands at an initial business meeting. That wouldn’t be a sign of respect.
Saying that you’re pleased to meet somebody is almost always an acceptable method of answering to an initial greeting however, in some markets, you may find that people are less formal and you can match your level of formality to meet those of your partners.
There are some countries of course where other forms of greeting are also more common, although perhaps not always in an initial business meeting. For example, in France, it can be common to kiss people on both cheeks when meeting. Whereas in Lebanon it’s polite to kiss three times when you meet people. In Turkey, men also greet each other with a kind of hug if they know each other and want to show respect to one another. However, this is often not always the first time that you actually meet somebody.
Learn a few words in the prospect’s language – this goes a long way in intercultural business etiquette
One easy way of making the best first impression in international business is to learn a few words in the language of the country you are visiting or your visitors.
So, this doesn’t need to be hard. Good morning, please, thank you… Simply enough to welcome people to your company if they are visiting you. Or to thank them for inviting you to their offices if you are in their country. And to say you’re happy to meet them, and looking forward to your discussions.
This kind of greeting or welcome can also be included for example, at the beginning of presentation if you have one. You can just thank them for the opportunity to present, or it can also be included on a website to welcome a new distribution partner to the company.
One other option is also in your reception area if they come to visit you. Put up a sign in their native language be that on a board or on an electronic billboard if you have the possibility to say “welcome Mr. Smith from Wang Corporation”. That will make that person feel like they are your special guests on that day.
Preferred interpersonal distance – maybe the trickiest to estimate
We’ve all been used to the idea of social distancing in the last couple of pandemic years, but what about the cultural aspects of physical space and distance?
Think about what amount of interpersonal distance is regarded as being polite in your prospect’s market. How much personal space do they need for it to still be polite?
The answer to the question of “how close is too close?” depends very much on where you are from, however it also varies hugely on an individual basis.
It can quickly feel uncomfortable if you perceive that somebody is standing too close to you for initial business meetings.
In many Western cultures, (US and Western Europe) then the acceptable distance for people meeting one another for the first time is about the length of two arms. That is the distance at which you would shake hands without needing to step forward. However, for example, South Americans and Arabs tend to feel more comfortable with less personal space, whilst Asians would expect considerably more distance. (If you are out and about somewhere in China you might not believe this as the general distance give is around 0, especially at the airport when they are behind you with a trolley!).
This concept of personal space also depends on your gender and age. Women tend to prefer more space than men, older people also tend to prefer more space. Perhaps this is a question of feeling they need to be shown respect or just simply don’t want to be crowded by strangers.
Generally speaking, a study by the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology found that people who live in warmer climates tend to keep less distance than those who are living in colder places.
Make sure that you look carefully into this before your meeting as you don’t want to be stepping backwards awkwardly if you feel that people are in your personal space, or equally for your potential business partner to be taking a step back from you!
Business Card Protocol – one of the oldest elements of etiquette for international business meetings
One point that you need to plan in advance of your visit is to learn about the protocols around exchanging business cards.
I know that it might sound or feel a little bit old school to even think about exchanging bits of paper with other people across the world. And that of course, there are very many online solutions and apps which are available to do exactly this.
However, I would argue that aside from any cultural implications there are also some really practical reasons for exchanging business cards. For example, once you have finished a meeting, not during the meeting, then you can make any quick notes on the back of the business card that will help you better remember that person or in order for you to pass the business card on to a colleague when you get back to the office and to explain something to them.
It’s all too easy if you simply just save the contact details of a new person that you met afterwards to not remember what that person was called or how their name was spelt. You don’t want to scroll through all of your 1000s of contacts in order to identify the new one.
On top of that, though, there are also many cultural implications around exchanging business cards. For example, in Japan, and many other places in Asia it is common to exchange business cards with people. You should hand over your business card with both hands and also accept business cards from your counterparts with both hands. Then, you should show respect to that business card by carefully reading the information on the business card, perhaps asking a short clarifying question. Whatever happens you shouldn’t then however, just stuff that card into your wallet or worse still into the back pocket of your trousers. Place it in front of you and refer to it on occasion when you’re talking to people – it also helps remind you what people’s names & job titles are.
Realistically speaking, if you are the guest in a company, the first person that you should give your business card to should be the person at the higher end of the hierarchy. I know that it doesn’t work out like that always in practice.
Personally, I find that if I’m in a country where it’s maybe a little bit difficult for me to remember the names (and it might be more difficult even to remember what is the role or title of the people who are all sitting in front of me if there’s a group of say five or six people), then I will set the business cards out in front of me so that from left to right there is the order of the people who are sitting in front of me.
That way I know exactly what is their name and their role within the organisation that I’m visiting.
It’s really critical for you to find out in advance how to behave when you are handed business cards in a certain country and whether you will be expected to have business cards (allow enough time for printing, especially if you want to have them multilingual).
Gift giving is another minefield to be navigated for making the best first impression in international business. Business etiquette around the world varies hugely on this question.
So there are many questions that you need to consider when you’re meeting with somebody from a country that you don’t really know anything about and thinking about a gift.
Firstly, is it appropriate for you to give a gift at all to somebody from that culture?
In some countries due to corporate governance rules, it may not be appropriate for you to give any kind of gift whatsoever.
Although, to be honest, if a gift is something really small, such as some small chocolates or something very typical from your company’s country of origin, then usually a small gift will be acceptable, but this is not always the case – you don’t want to make anyone feel awkward.
So the first question is gift yes or no?
Then of course, you have to think about what kind of gift is appropriate to give?
How many people should you prepare a gift for?
This might depend on the status of the person who is going to be visiting you and also on the level of relationship.
Is it even acceptable for you to give somebody from that culture a gift in a first meeting or is a gift something that is only acceptable to give to someone you’ve already formed a deeper relationship with?
One other point to consider is when during your meeting, should you hand over any gift which you have with you?
Is this something that you hand over at the beginning of a meeting to say thank you for inviting me to visit you? Or is it something (more usually), that you hand over at the end of a meeting literally just before you go for the airport?
… just to make sure that the final impression of your first visit is a very positive one.
One other consideration should also be the question as to whether a gift should be handed over publicly, or if it’s something that you should give to somebody very discreetly or in private.
What is your company policy on both giving and receiving gifts, as there may be financial limits on this (in fact, there probably will be.)
You have to be prepared when on international business trips to be handed a gift of a value that you are not able to properly judge at the time.
So you need to be prepared and to know what to do in such cases.
Accept that it will probably cause offence if you completely refuse to accept a gift unless it is something which is extremely obviously inappropriate such as an expensive watch or cash, etc.
One question that you additionally should find out about before leaving for your business trip is the question of how to behave if you are handed a gift by your host other than obviously, to thank them for it.
In China, for example, it’s not usually considered polite to open a gift immediately in front of the host – if they hand you one this is something that you would open in private after the meeting.
However, on some occasions, if a gift is something which is more personal, because you have a deeper relationship already with that person, they may ask you to open a gift on the spot because they perhaps want to see your reaction to it.
Clarify in advance what is your company policy regarding gifts and make sure you stick to it. Bear in mind that you can easily get caught out with gifts that you don’t open on the spot (& that turn out to be of an inappropriate value), or with handicrafts for which you have no way of estimating if they are just a nice souvenir or something produced by a grand master.
It can be really hard to select suitable gifts for people you don’t know that well, so it pays to brainstorm a list of options. Keep a list of who at the company has received what to avoid the embarrassment of someone from a different department giving them a second copy of that photo book… been there, done that.
Making the Best First Impression in International Business Meetings
With a little preparation and a dose of empathy you’ll be well on the way to making those first impressions count. Business etiquette around the world may vary (and also evolves over time) however in most cases any potential business partner will be willing to overlook small errors, as long as it’s clear you’re not trying to provoke them by showing disrespect to their culture. (Bear in mind that there are limits to this patience though so attending initial business meetings without a clue about intercultural etiquette is asking for trouble!).
Being polite, smiling and doing your best to be friendly will go a long way but there is really no excuse for not checking out the points I’ve mentioned above. Remember that however cosmopolitan we may believe ourselves to be, each of us has certain cultural biases and you don’t want a potential good customer to be put off by your perceived rudeness or disinterest.
There are so many things which can go wrong out of your control when you are involved in overseas business however international business etiquette shouldn’t be one of them, as this can be avoided with a little preparation and cultural sensitivity. Remember that the guidelines above are all generalisations and as such needed to be treated with caution. You can’t assume that ALL French people will want to kiss you on both cheeks or that all Chinese will want to be addressed by their full Chinese name and job function.
Stay flexible and open to learning as well as interested in what your meeting partners are telling you and your intercultural competence is sure to grow!
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