San Diego Business Journal International Business Can Be Social Minefield

You're taking a trip overseas to present a business plan to your company's prospective international partners.

It's a difficult presentation but you're polished and confident all the details have been worked out. You've rehearsed it a million times, once before the CEO , and you handled her questions quite nicely, thanks.

You plan to arrive in the country a day early so you can overcome the jet lag and be quick on your feet. New suit, fresh haircut you've got all the important angles covered, right? Wrong.

In the global economy, "business" is only one part of the battle. Cross-cultural awareness, often wrongly thought of as fluff and polish, is not optional.

World cultures may have become more tolerant of American bumbling for the money we bring, but make no mistake , social tact can determine who gets the contract, and a pre-meeting strategy that addresses the business styles of your target country is just as important as rehearsing your professional presentation.

- Expect Formal

Dealings Abroad

Be prepared for a very formal atmosphere in all your dealings abroad. Status is very important , your position in the United States will dictate who you will meet in your target country. Appointments are always necessary, and the lead time to make an appointment increases with the importance of your contact.

Government officials or local business people who have not met you personally will not take your calls directly. And don't expect to conduct business over the telephone, especially with someone you have not met personally.

Good communication skills will usually get you further than good technical skills. Nowhere is this more true than in the international arena.

Americans may simply chuckle at an incorrect introduction, then move on to other matters , because, after all, time is money , but don't expect your international counterparts to take such things so lightly.

A sloppy introduction can be a major faux pas. Business introductions are determined by precedence , juniors are introduced to seniors. Get that backwards and the international CEO might believe you rank him below your assistant.

- Research The Names

And Titles Of Contacts

Research the correct titles and pronunciation of the names of the people you will meet. Do not stumble on the names , teach your tongue to make those sounds.

And be keenly aware of the appropriate time to switch to first names. Instant familiarity is usually inappropriate. Using first names in the United States is intended to personalize the meeting, to remove social barriers and get down to business. In many countries, titles are business, and calling new acquaintances by their first names, or inviting them to call you by yours, can create extreme discomfort.

Today, a handshake is the recognized form of greeting throughout the world, but it can be only a part of the whole process. In Japan, a greeting is often a bow and a handshake. In certain cultures a handshake may progress to embraces and kisses on both cheeks.

The "double-clasp to express sincerity" doesn't work so well in the Middle East, where the left hand has its own cultural significance. And as far as the kissing, is it lips-to-cheek or only cheek-to-cheek? Twice or three times? Understanding the distinction may make the difference between appearing eager for a contract or eager for a date.

Learn the protocol of proper greetings before traveling and be prepared for every situation.

Another important aspect of international communication is proxemics or space. The "comfort zone" of personal space varies in different societies from 12 to 36 inches. Certain cultures are often insulted that Americans back away from them during a conversation; other cultures are offended when we come too close and invade their space.

- Learning Appropriate

Business Card Etiquette

The Japanese have taught the world the importance of business cards. Take great care in presenting your card to others , never hand out a card that is defective, out of date or soiled.

Carry cards in a case that is leather or silver, not plastic. Have your cards printed in English on one side and in the language of your target country on the other. Present your card native-language side up. And when you receive a card, take the time to study it.

Your counterpart has worked hard to get where she is and that card represents the sum of her efforts , do not scribble information on it or stuff it in your pocket.

Learn the terminology of your target country. Americans talk about gallons and inches, while Europeans talk liters and centimeters. We meet at 1 p.m., but in Italy it's 13:00. June 9th is written "6/9/00", but in France that would be the 6th of September.

A major U.S. corporation recently lost hundreds of thousands of dollars by not knowing that Germans "reverse" the usage of commas and periods in their numbers. $7,000 U.S. (seven thousand dollars) can become 7,00 DM (seven deutchmarks) after the German accountant truncates that "unnecessary" zero.

- A List Of Tips To

Take On The Road

o Don't cross your legs. Showing the soles of your shoes is an insult in the Middle East. Keep both feet flat on the floor.

o Don't use your hands to "talk," and refrain from nervous gestures such as fingering a ring or a pen.

o Don't be abrupt, loud, or boisterous. Understand the implications of interrupting or contradicting.

o Don't refuse hospitality. Declining tea or coffee may be interpreted as a lack of trust and an insult.

o Learn at least a few words in your host country's language. "Thank-you" goes even further in the native tongue.

o Sharpen your formal dining skills. Your meetings will likely involve at least one sit-down meal.

o Know the proper attire. "Casual Friday" does not exist in the international arena, but a suit is not always the answer.

Peter Drucker of Business Week made an observation that applies in business customs as well as strategy: "Be ready or be lost; if you don't think globally you deserve to be unemployed and you will be."

International business can be a social minefield. The list of casualties is long and distinguished. One option for navigating the field is to tread lightly across, hoping not to trigger explosions with your errors. A better choice is to learn the exact locations of the mines and walk boldly around them. With some advance work, this can be your path.

Witt has been involved with all aspects of protocol and planning for international events. She also teaches at SDSU.