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It's sometimes the little things that are crucial in international business.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the September 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

When you're dealing with international colleagues, chances are your mind is focused on the language of business: fees, contracts, sales, agreements and so on. But in global business, it can be those things you don't focus on--like how close to stand to someone or when to smile-that can make or break a deal.

"Researching body language and business customs is an important part of [doing business overseas]," says Jeanne Gerritsen, a consultant for the Michigan Small Business Development Center and principal of Farmington, Michigan-based consulting firm Business and Economic Development International.

One of the key differences between Americans and others is our relative informality--we're quick to use first names, adopt relaxed postures and get down to business. Yet we still require personal space, says Gerritsen. "Witness the arms' length handshakes."

Different countries offer different challenges. For example:

In German-speaking countries, address people by "Herr" or by title and last name during business hours. "Use first names only after you've been invited to do so," says Gerritsen. "Don't use nicknames, such as Bill for Wilhelm or Judy for Judith."

In Latin countries, "expect less personal space, more touching," says Gerritsen. In Mexico, for example, "the man-to-man abrazo [embrace] is typical," adds Gerritsen.

Be careful using U.S. gestures, such as the "V" sign, "OK" sign or "thumbs up." All of these often have different meanings abroad.

In Asian countries, "greet with a bow--the deeper the bow, the greater the show of respect," Gerritsen says. Take the middle ground--if you bow too deeply, you'll convey the impression that you have little self-respect. Be careful not to raise your voice or lose your temper; in Japan, this causes you to "lose face." Don't be disturbed by silences in a meeting; this simply signifies someone is processing information.

No matter where you do business overseas, certain general rules of conduct can help you make a good impression:

Maintain good posture. Don't be stiff, but don't slouch or hang your arms over the back of the chair, either. Keep your feet on the floor. Expect firm, brief handshakes. "Offer your greeting first to the person with the highest rank, even though others may be closer to you," says Gerritsen. She adds that eye contact in many countries is a symbol of sincerity, although in Japan it can sometimes be seen as an invasion of privacy.

"Consider your business card an extension of yourself," says Gerritsen. "In Asia, cards are exchanged after the bow, with two hands and the wording facing the recipient. It's left out on the table during the meeting. You should have cards printed in English on one side and in the languages and styles of the countries you're visiting on the other."

Avoid gifts or symbols that may be misinterpreted. "Chrysanthemums are associated with death in many countries, while red roses are associated with romance," says Gerritsen. "A clock may symbolize time running out. A knife can mean severing a relationship."

For further research, Gerritsen recommends Roger Axtell's book series, including Do's and Taboos Around the World and Do's and Taboos of International Trade (Wiley, John & Sons Inc.). Also, check with consulates in the United States. Search the Internet. Call the U.S. Department of Commerce's Trade Information Center (or visit its Web site) at (800) USA-TRADE and ask for the country desks for the countries you are planning to visit. Most important, says Gerritsen, "Be yourself, but always be observant and respectful of others."

Moira Allen is a freelance writer in Mountain View, California, and editor of Global Writers' Ink, an electronic newsletter for international writers

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