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Trade Routes: Courtesy is Not Obsolete

Michael Wynne
Back to the February issue.

During a World War I joint forces strategy meeting between French and American senior officers—long before the concept of globalization as we know it in business—a French officer commented: “We’d better inform our British colleagues of the outcome of our meeting.”

His American counterpart asked, “Why? Nothing we discussed involves them.”

“It is a matter of diplomatic courtesy,” replied the Frenchman.

“Diplomatic courtesy is nothing but hot air,” replied the American.

“Yes,” answered the Frenchman. “And so is the air in the tires of your motor vehicle, but it makes the ride so much smoother!”
In global business, courtesy definitely makes the ride smoother.

Today, business people are traveling to new, exciting and sometimes even strange places with very different approaches to business. As the president of a major U.S. company recently said, “Today, we’re doing business in places that before we only read about in National Geographic.”

As you travel and conduct business in other countries with people from other nations and cultures, you experience cultures, values and customs that are very different from your own. It pays to do a little homework about the right ways to approach them. Business protocol varies. In some places, it is customary to show up with a small gift; in others, people bow to one another; in yet others, they may hug or even exchange a kiss.

While business protocol is not usually quite as formal as a typical dictionary definition of the word “protocol” might lead one to believe, it is important to realize that people everywhere have their preferred ways of doing things. That does not mean you have to bow, hug or kiss to conduct business; you should, however, be aware of local DOs and DON’Ts.

One of the first things to remember, even though modern communication technologies have made connecting across distances much easier, is that there is still no substitute for personal contact when it comes to building business relationships. This is especially true of those cultures where relationships come before business—which, happens to be most of the world.
Business is about relationships. Care, consideration and courtesy are the building blocks of relationships. The following are some helpful tactics for demonstrating these attributes while building face-to-face relationships:

1. Notify people in advance of your desire to visit with them.
The best approach would be to obtain an introduction from someone who knows the person you wish to visit. Barring that, try a phone call—followed by letters, e-mails or faxes—requesting an appointment on a certain date and time. Do all this far in advance of your trip.

2. Adjust your schedule as best as possible to that of the person you’re calling on.
The best time of the day for appointments in other countries depends upon the nature of local workday habits and what’s convenient to the individual, as well as other circumstances. Although it may not always be possible, try for a morning meeting. This allows you and your host some flexibility to schedule the rest of the day.

3. Be punctual and respect the other person’s time.
Even if local customs are lax regarding punctuality, it is still a courtesy in most places to arrive on time. Be prepared, however, to wait if your host is not yet ready.

4. Allow time to get to know one another before discussing business.
In some countries, it is considered bad form to discuss business in the first meeting. Nevertheless, it is acceptable, in most cases, to state the purpose of your visit, as it is not social at its root.

5. Provide an interpreter when there is a language barrier.
If the person you are meeting does not speak your language, it is your responsibility to bring an interpreter. It is also to your advantage to have your own interpreter rather than rely on the other party’s. In addition, when you hire interpreters, find out if they have worked for the other person before. There could be an existing relationship between the interpreter and the person you are visiting, which might not favor you.

6. Look directly at the other person when speaking through an interpreter.
This may seem awkward, but is vital to establishing trust. Do not place the interpreter in the middle.

7. Devote time at the beginning of every meeting to build rapport.
Your best opening remark could be a sincere compliment regarding the host’s country, company, facilities or business. Again, it’s about building relationships.

8. Address the senior person present when meeting with several people.
When responding to a question from others in the room, you should obviously look at them, but still shift your gaze to the senior person.

9. Be flexible with your departure date.
When negotiating and building relationships, do not establish your departure date as a deadline for concluding an agreement. You do not want time to interfere in this process, nor do you want time leveraged against you. It is also important that a departure date not be leveraged for more and better concessions from you. Allow yourself enough time to negotiate without undue pressure. That is a courtesy to yourself.

10. Follow-up as quickly as possible upon your return home.
Plan your follow-up before you start on your trip. Then follow up with letters, e-mails or phone calls thanking your hosts for their courtesies and reaffirming commitments.

Remember, being courteous does not mean being naive. Naiveté borders on foolishness and is usually the result of a lack of preparation. One can be gracious without being a fool.

The key is to make others comfortable, and courtesy is the best way to do that. As someone once said, “The best way to be a good visitor is to try to be more gracious than your host.” So, be at your best, let your courtesy make others feel comfortable; it will make your global business ride much smoother.

Back to the February issue.

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