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Business Cultures and Etiquettes
By Dr. Karine Schomer, President, CMCT

I recently interviewed a group of e-business solutions program managers freshly arrived from the UK to work in California. "We know we can do the professional work," one of them said, "but our success will depend on how we get along culturally, how well we can learn the do's and don'ts of American and Silicon Valley business culture."

Similarly, in a multicultural team-building workshop, an Indian software development manager working in the US shared his awkwardness at not knowing the types of behaviors expected of him in various business interactions.

Today's globalization has not erased the many variations in how business is done in different countries and cultures and the challenges of handling these differences. Indeed, "knowing the ropes" of how to behave in any particular business situation has actually become more complex because of the increased intermingling of people and cultural styles.

At one end of the spectrum is the overall approach to business. This includes the value attached to business as an activity, the nature of the work ethic, the definition of ethical behavior, the dividing line between business and private life, attitudes toward success and failure, the value attached to results or to process, the role of personal trust versus legal contracts, receptivity to change and risk, the value placed on quality and efficiency, and styles of communication.

In the middle are specifics of leadership and management styles, management and decision-making processes, negotiation styles, workplace relations, assumptions about employee motivation, as well as approaches to appointments, deadlines, schedules, and meetings.

At the other end of the spectrum are all the subtleties of business social etiquette - the behaviors expected of individuals in both formal and informal settings.

Being etiquette-savvy is an important global management skill, the absence of which is often responsible for major business and professional setbacks.

There is the well-known corporate story of EuroDisney's rocky beginnings in France, where significant mistakes were made: sending lawyers rather than executives to negotiate, trying to enforce a dress code for employees, building small fast-food dining rooms and banning alcohol flew in the face of all sorts of French cultural norms.

The American businessman who, at the end of a successful negotiation with an Iranian company, gave the American "thumbs-up" sign to express his pleasure, wouldn't have ever thought of making such a gesture if he had known that, in Iranian culture, the gesture is rude and obscene.

Here are some of the elements of business social etiquette to which it pays to be attentive:

  • Is your manner of dress and personal hygiene what is expected?

  • What does your posture and body language convey in the culture?

  • Are you using the culturally appropriate form of greeting?

  • Are you being sensitive to the other people's zone of comfort regarding physical space?

  • How are you handling the ritual of business card exchange?

  • Is your conversational style appropriate - are you avoiding conversational taboos?

  • Are you behaving appropriately with those of the opposite sex?

  • Are you showing the culturally expected forms of personal and status-related respect?

  • Are you handling people's names and titles correctly?

  • Are you conforming to the culture's notions of punctuality?

  • Are you aware of the cultural norms around gift-giving and who pays when eating out?

  • Are your business entertainment patterns and table manners appropriate?

Although much of this is common courtesy, it's best to get the details right when working in different business cultures, so that etiquette mishaps don't interfere with the achievement of business goals.

©2000 Karine Schomer. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Siliconindia, October 2000.


For more information, contact CMCT, write to info@cmct.net, or call 510-525-9222.

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