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Expanding your business outside your country? Expand your cultural awareness as well.

October 7, 2010

Cheryl Walker-Robertson goes global

Globalization has made cross-border business deals more common than ever.  But, every day, deals are jeopardized or lost when international business prospects are offended by Americans unaware of other countries’ customs, culture or manners.  “Americans are way too informal in their dealings with their counterparts abroad, and they end up perceived as uncouth and even obnoxious,” says P.M. Forni, a professor of civility at Johns Hopkins University. “Innocence, stupidity or arrogance make them behave in Cyprus the way they would in Cleveland.”

Politicians and celebrities are not immune, generating highlight reels of faux pas for late-night talk shows.  In May, actor Mickey Rooney caused a stir in Great Britain when he violated protocol by kissing Queen Elizabeth’s hand at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.  In April, Richard Gere repeatedly kissed actress Shilpa Shetty on the cheek at an AIDS awareness rally in April in New Delhi, India, a country where public displays of affection are generally taboo.  An Indian court issued a warrant for his arrest and irate protestors burned effigies of the actor.  The warrant was later suspended.

President Bush used an expletive while talking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a meeting in Germany last year.  He also gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel a shoulder rub while she spoke to Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.  Many Europeans were offended because the summit was a formal occasion and they viewed the actions as demeaning.

Many American business travelers also commit faux pas, making, in many cases, already-challenging deals all the more elusive.

An American Hotel owner inadvertently insulted or embarrassed his hosts. During his first business meetings in Thailand a few years ago, he started the gatherings by talking about business.

Another businessman made the mistake of asking personal questions of a Scottish man on a business trip to England.

Recent literature cites an acknowledgment by business executives that understanding cultural differences is absolutely essential for doing business abroad.  Unfortunately, this same literature reports that surveys of major corporations indicate that relatively few offer this type of preparation for their people. Whether your company offers the training and/or the knowledge or not you are responsible and accountable.  Here’s what you should consider.
These 5 hints are a tip of the iceberg

  1. Learn about the country, culture and politics. There is a difference between being British and being English.   Plus there was a both a travel alert and a transit strike looming while we were in London.
  2. Know a few words in the language. They speak English in the UK but they also have words like Lift, Loo, Cheers, Half-Four, Peckish.
  3. Listen before you start to sell. My first 3 trips to China consisted of meeting and listening to potential customers before opening up the discussion to sales.
  4. Protocol—greetings, listening, dress, dos and don’ts of conversation, forms of address, dress, dining, gifting, business cards.
  5. Business Practices—importance of punctuality, negotiation practices, entertaining, cognitive styles, values, decision-making.

Also consider calling Protocol International for our customized International Briefing by country. 


Cheryl Walker-Robertson is Chief Protocol Office of Protocol International. Protocol International is a service company that specializes in training and image enhancement through workshops, seminars and one-on-one coaching. Visit to learn more.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Moses Akpan permalink
    April 8, 2012 9:17 AM

    Pls i need help, I am engineer but i don’t know how to follow it up.

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