Traveling or doing business internationally can be scary, if you don’t do your homework ahead of time. Before I started my etiquette and protocol business several years ago, my husband and I went to Italy. It was a beautiful trip. However, I know now that I didn’t do as much research as I should have completed.
Most Italians speak English, but keep in mind that other countries appreciate when you attempt to speak their language. If you cannot do so, apologize. Most people will immediately forgive you. Can you imagine if someone from Germany started talking to you in their language and didn’t even try to speak English? If they apologize for their lack of language skills, we tend to be more receptive and helpful.
While shopping the streets of Venice, I walked up to a vendor with a cart full of t-shirts and souvenirs. Apparently the gentleman said, “Bonjour”. I did not hear this. I held up a t-shirt about the size of my granddaughter and asked my husband if he thought it would fit her. The vendor started yelling at me because I didn’t say hello to him and I picked up his merchandise without requesting his permission.
If I had done my research, I would have found that in a lot of countries you do not touch the street vendor’s wares without asking. In fact, many prefer to show you their products and goods. This must have been the case as the vendor continued yelling at me. Needless to say I didn’t buy anything from this particular gentlemen. The Italians we met were most gracious and incredibly kind throughout the entire trip except for this one small hiccup. I learned then that there is much more to researching a country than learning a few words you might need to know and what sights to see.
Here are a few easy tips to remember while traveling or doing business internationally that will make your experience more enjoyable.
1. Research, research, research! If you do anything, get the book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison andWayne A Conaway—the bestselling guide to doing business in more than 60 countries. Also I highly recommend the series of books by Mary Murray Bosrock. She has a book for almost any travel destination.
2. Different countries, different personal space. For example, in the U.S., our confortable personal space is about an arm’s length away from another person. In some countries, such as Japan, personal space can be up to three feet apart. In the United Arab Emirates, people tend to stand closer to one another. Knowing these differences will help you both here in the U.S. and in other countries. If someone stands extremely close to you in the U.S., and they are from South America, you would then know why. It is part of their culture to stand close.
3. Gesture do’s and don’ts. Do you know that in France, the OK signal actually means nothing or worthless? In Belgium, the OK signal is offensive meaning an orifice. In Australia, the thumbs-up sign means “Up Yours”. Knowing which signals are unacceptable in certain countries can literally be a lifesaver. Try to gesture with your full hand if in doubt. A great book and a fun read is Gestures: the do’s and taboos of body language around the world, by Roger E. Axtell.
4. Use of jokes and sarcasm. While traveling or doing business internationally, avoid jokes and sarcasm. It does not translate well. For instance, “Take my wife, please”. Imagine how someone whose first language isn’t English would interpret this. They may really wonder why you want them to take your wife. They would most likely ask you, “Where”?
5. Dress code. Whether you are going for business or simply for fun, some countries are offended by short skirts and sleeveless tops. For example, in Dubai showing the soles of your shoes is offensive. In the United Arab Emirates, the dress for women is very modest while in public. Keep your shoes planted on the floor so you do not show your soles. If you are traveling internationally for business and are not positive what your attire should be, play it safe and err on the side of formality. The Wall Street look is an international safe zone for business. You should always ask because every country’ dress code is different. Attire may change depending on occupation as well.
6. Avoiding certain topics. If you are in Japan or Germany, you will want to avoid any topic relating to WWII. It is a very sensitive subject. While in France, don’t bring up anything negative about Napoleon. Here is a short list of topics to avoid while traveling internationally: money, sex, politics, religion, personal problems, economic problems, terrorism, and war.
Researching international protocol will not only help you abroad, but here in the states as well. U.S. business is conducted with many different cultures. It is important that people be prepared to do business and behave in a socially acceptable manner. It is best to be sensitive to other cultures and always treat people with respect. Be aware that informed actions will be appreciated by all and give you the upper edge!