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Appreciating Cultural Differences Makes Good Business Sense
By Carolyn Luesing

What do you do when a new Japanese business associate hands you his card? Why should you never send carnations to a German? What is the most common way to greet a Latin?

When you conduct business overseas or play host to international visitors, it makes good business sense to understand and appreciate their cultural differences. By making an effort to close the culture gap, you'll gain respect, increase credibility and foster healthy business relationships.

Although it's impossible to generalize guidelines for all cultures, here are some do's and don'ts with respect to three nationalities that have become major players in international commerce. We'll look at the Japanese, Latins and Germans when it comes to how to address them, their concepts of time, their dining styles, and appropriate gifts.

First impressions: The introduction
As Americans, we tend to be much more casual and informal when we meet people. Our natural inclination to be familiar can put some people on edge. Germans and Japanese, for example, are very unlikely to use first names in business. Asians prefer to use less eye and physical contact.

A universal handshake that most cultures are comfortable with is a single pump handshake that lasts a few seconds. Latins are prone to touching and to smaller personal space, while Asians and Germans enjoy more distance. The Latin hug (abrazo) is common between men and men and women and women. At home, the Japanese are more comfortable with a bow from the waist. Be sure not to refer to Japanese as 'foreigners' or 'Orientals,' but instead as international visitors and Asians.

With Asian and German associates, punctuality is a must! It is safe to begin a meeting with a more formal tone that can always be relaxed by following their lead. Business cards are treated with more respect by people from other countries, and there is a strong emphasis on titles and positions. It is helpful to have your cards printed in their language on the back if you are regularly dealing with a particular country. Germans will include university degrees and often the company's founding date on their cards, so you may want to add similar information to yours.

Have a good supply of business cards whenever conducting business with the Japanese. Offer a short bow. Present the card so the recipient can read it. Study any card you are offered, receive it with both hands and put it in a respectful place, such as a wallet or breast pocket. It is also a sign of respect to learn a few simple sentences in the other person's language to show that you appreciate his or her culture.

Germans, Japanese and Latins value more formality in manners than Americans. Don't stand with hands on hips or talk with hands in pockets. Be tolerant about smoking, as Japanese and Europeans smoke more than Americans. Avoid speaking in a loud voice. Respect privacy and a sense of order with Germans. Latins enjoy discussing family, whereas Germans and Japanese generally do not.

Time to eat!
At business meals, more time is spent on building relationships rather than rushing straight to work. It is appropriate to eat with the silverware constantly in both hands. Most of the world eats continental style with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right, eating off the back of the fork. We, on the other hand, are uncomfortable when people keep both of their wrists above the table for the whole meal. We place the hand we are not eating or drinking with in our laps. Europeans often find it strange and may wonder what we are doing!

When you eat with chopsticks, never leave your sticks standing up in the bowl and never leave them crossed. If you are serving yourself, turn them around and use the ends you haven't used to eat. It is polite in any culture to try different foods. Never make a negative comment about the food. Asians consider it appropriate to pick up soup and rice bowls while eating. Some groups even show their pleasure by slurping their soup and noodles. In Germany, Japan and Brazil, the service charge may be included in the bill. In Latin countries and in Germany, the main meal is served at midday.

Guidelines for gift-giving
Be aware that gifts are important, but that some may be taboo in certain cultures. For example, with Japanese, white is the color of death and four of anything is unlucky. With the Latins, gifts of knives suggest 'cutting' of the relationship. With Germans, red roses signal romantic interests, and carnations signify death. With Mexicans and Brazilians, purple is the color of death, so it's best to avoid purple flowers and gifts. With the Japanese, gifts are normally given and received with a slight bow and are not opened in front of your counterpart.

When in doubt about how to act in a certain situation, ask questions. If you are communicating through an interpreter, remember to look at your business associate who is being interpreted, not at the interpreter.

International protocol is a fascinating but often frightening element of doing business in this global economy. By becoming an enthusiastic student of cultural differences and helping international business associates learn more about our culture, you will leave a favorable and memorable impression.


Carolyn Luesing of Carolyn Luesing & Associates is a speaker, consultant and trainer. She presents seminars in the areas of business, social and global etiquette.

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