Doing business overseas requires knowledge of culture


July 29, 1991|By Alyssa Gabbay | Alyssa Gabbay,Special to The Sun

It was a classic case of good intentions gone wrong.

Nearly a dozen Maryland government officials and businessmen, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, were meeting with some Israeli officials during a trip to the Middle East. Knowing that business attire is usually quite casual in Israel, they prepared for the meeting by dressing in short-sleeved shirts and slacks. But when the Marylanders arrived for their appointment, they found their hosts clothed formally in business suits.

"[The Israelis] had known that Americans usually wear coats and ties, so they wore them for us," recalled Eric Feldmann, executive director of the Maryland International Division and a member of the delegation. "It was a pretty funny situation."

The 1989 incident proves that no matter how hard you try to adapt to a new culture, you might fall short. But if you want to operate internationally, the effort is always worthwhile, according many business experts.

Knowing how to greet your Thai host or whether or not to order alcohol in Kuwait may not seem like a big deal. But "a big reason why many companies don't succeed overseas is because they don't grasp some basic cultural differences," said Lynn Tyler, director of outreach and intercultural programs at Brigham Young University's David M. Kennedy Center of International Studies in Provo, Utah.

Severe cultural blunders can result in insulted hosts and bungled negotiations, according to Mr. Tyler.

With more and more local businesses dealing with overseas customers these days -- Maryland's exports last year totaled $3.22 billion, nearly double that of 1986 -- learning about foreign protocol and etiquette is taking on greater importance.

To help, here are some pointers about overseas etiquette:

* Do your homework. Find out as much as you can about a country before you go there, and you'll decrease your chances of committing cultural gaffes, Mr. Feldmann said. Go to the library and look up anything you can find about the country's history, geography, politics, culture and national holidays. The research library of the Maryland International Division, located in the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore, contains much of this valuable information. Call 333-8180 for an appointment.

The U.S. Department of State has background notes on the history, politics and culture of more than 100 countries. To obtain the notes, which cost $1 each, call the Government Printing Office at (202) 783-3238.

Similarly, Brigham Young University of Provo, Utah, publishes "Culturgrams" on 98 countries. For copies, call (801) 378-6528.

* Learn some language. If your hosts aren't fluent in English, you'll probably hire an interpreter to help you conduct business in a foreign country. But it's still a good idea to learn a couple of words of the language, even if it's just how to say "Thank you," "Good morning," and "It's a pleasure to meet you."

"It shows that you're making an effort," Mr. Feldmann said. Also, show courtesy by having your business card printed both in English and in the language of the country you're visiting.

* Greet people correctly. Hand-shaking is probably more common overseas than in America, according to Roger Axtell, author of "The Do's and Taboos of International Trade" (John Wiley & Sons, 1989).

Frenchmen usually shake hands at the beginning of a meeting and at its conclusion. Hugging and cheek-kissing is also popular in some parts of Europe and Latin America, but it's generally not practiced until people know each other fairly well.

On the other hand, the Japanese generally bow when they greet people, a custom Americans should imitate. The deeper the bow, the more respect you're showing for the individual. Some Japanese and American businessmen now combine bows with handshakes when they greet each other.

When greeting someone in Thailand, place your hands in palm-to-palm prayer position at the chin and bow slightly.

* Try to suppress your astonishment over seemingly outlandish customs. About two years ago, Morris and Maureen Tischler of Pikesville-based Overseas Marketing Group Co. could barely hide their disgust when they saw several cockroaches crawling on the linen of their restaurant table in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But when none of their Malaysian hosts reacted -- beyond turning over a tea cup to catch a roach -- the Tischlers managed to go on with their meals (albeit with a slight loss of appetite).

"You just kind of have to swing with the punches," said Mr. Tischler, whose company sells telecommunications and other training materials in about 50 countries. "You just go on with the ++ conversation and ignore it." If not, he said, there's a danger of insulting your hosts.

* Pay attention to body language. Don't be surprised by the physical familiarity demonstrated by many Middle Easterners and Latin Americans. It's not uncommon for a Latin American to gently hold your elbow while talking business, according to Roger Axtell.

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