You’re in the boardroom; the coffee is free flowing as you receive nods of approval around the rich, mahogany table you are now commanding. Your pitch is effortless, the numbers stack up and the adrenalin courses through your body with sheer elation. ‘I got this’ you silently think to yourself.
The senior board member, motions for a final look over the documents. One hand holding a glass of water; you think nothing of it as you hand over the information with your left hand. All of a sudden, the once beaming and encouraging faces now turn stone cold, like gargoyles frozen in shock, in a graveyard of horrified silence.
Little did you know that in the United Arab Emirates (amongst other countries), the left hand is considered unclean and used only for bodily hygiene; i.e. wiping your ass. Any eating, shaking of hands or passing documents is to be done with the right hand only. And as everyone stares in disgust, wondering exactly how much of your fecal matter now adorns the treasured documents; just know that this innocent hand gesture has translated as a serious insult and you have royally screwed up!
Such is life in the world of international business etiquette, if you don’t know the cultural in’s and out’s of a place then you might be sent packing home. Beyond the UAE many other places around the world have cultural traditions which are seen as absurd by outsiders. Let’s explore some of these.
Punctuality is an absolute must in Russia- that is, for those who are travelling there. For Russians? Meh, not so much. While they expect you to be bang on time and not a second too late, they can waltz in at any time they like. The purpose of this is to test your patience.
Patience? Oh you’ve got patience. This is the part where you relax into your chair and extract a flask from the inside pocket of your debonair suit. You screw off the multi purpose lid, which turns into a hand-crafted shot glass. Patiently pouring a shot of vodka, you drink and proceed to light up a cigar with an aura that casually exudes, I got all day son.’
This is a tricky one, you are expected to have a gift ready for when you meet. Oh easy, you think? Not so fast. It is tradition to refuse the gift up to THREE TIMES before being accepted. You must keep presenting a gift until it’s finally accepted. Why? Because greedy. Now I’m sorry, but who the hell came up with this? I’ll tell you who. A sociopathic monster who takes a great deal of pleasure in awkward as fuck situations. When you get a crappy Christmas or birthday present such as socks, losing lottery card or a bag full of black jelly beans; the only response is, ‘Wow! Thank you so much, I love it. No, really.’ Then you swiftly re-gift that shit.
Since the first three presents will probably be refused anyway, then put as little thought, time and effort into them as you care to. Or just buy things for yourself that you really want/need. That way when they are refused, then it’s a bonus for you. Ensure you choose the last gift with care and always have a back up.
Have you ever seen the immortal business card scene, from the movie ‘American Psycho’?
Call them old fashioned, but the Japanese still feel this way about the importance of a business card. You should come prepared with more than you need, one side in English and the other in Japanese. When giving or receiving a card, it is very important to do so with both hands. Overkill yes, I know but this is how they do. And do not forget to say thank you. You should also never write on, or play with a business card during a meeting, as it’s a sign of disrespect.
When it comes to formalities, going to Japan may seem like mission impossible. For an extensive list of how to avoid any potential faux pas, read here to get educated.
Ah Egypt; lover of delicious fruit teas, hookahs and strong, black Turkish coffee. In Egypt it is considered very rude if your host offers you tea or coffee and you do not accept. Even if you do not drink the stuff and just prefer a glass of water, thou shalt always say yes.
Yes maybe you only drink organic, matcha, green tea or pumpkin, spiced, vanilla soy lattes (ugh). But when you get to Egypt the only words in your vocabulary, will be yes please. Then when they aren’t looking, quickly empty your beverage into a nearby pot plant.
Ever wondered what your colleagues look like naked? Well in Finland you don’t have to. It is common for casual meetings to take place in the sauna, and if you are all of the same gender then expect to go naked. If you decline this friendly and honorary invitation, it can result in a lost business opportunity.
You want the bacon? Take it off and strip. If you’re self-conscious then use reverse psychology. Adopt the eagle spread and flaunt it, the more you show, the less curious eyes you will attract.
India, land of the holy, cow. The cow is seen as sacred and an animal to be worshipped, so much that you must refrain from ordering any beef. Sometimes half the fun in a business meeting is indulging in a nice big juicy steak or mouth-watering beef burger and fries, not this time buddy. The Indian’s take this so seriously that even wearing leather is a huge faux pas when you go to your business meeting.
While avoiding beef on the menu is pretty straight forward, avoiding wearing leather is much harder. Check and double-check all items: shoes, wallet, belt and don’t forget phone case. Because the cow is seen as sacred, killing or harming a cow is punishable by jail in India, so the last thing you want to do is wear one, no matter how it died or who was responsible.
Are you familiar with the song ‘Holiday’ by Madonna? Well I’m pretty sure it was secretly written by a Spaniard. Spain has the highest number of public holidays in Europe; fourteen which are national, plus regional and local ones too.
If you have lived in Spain then you would definitely be aware that the Spanish do not share the same concept of time as other western European colleagues. Theirs is very different and exists in a distant and far away galaxy. Punctuality and deadlines are considered to be flexible matters.
Before travelling, check, double check and triple check just before you get there that the meeting will go ahead as planned. Otherwise you may be in for a surprise holiday yourself. And when it comes to Pedro casually rocking up to your meeting, an hour late with the documents he promised four weeks ago; don’t fret. Just smile and forget.
So all in all, when it comes to travelling abroad; do you research and honour the cross-cultural business formalities that come with the territory. It’s just like that old grammar rule when it comes to using a comma; the difference between ‘’Knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit’’.