So you've heard that in Japan it's a no-no to hand over your business card with just one hand, but do you know what gift in China tells the receiver that you’re eagerly anticipating their funeral?
Spending some time learning cultural etiquette and taboos will help you avoid the kind of slip-ups that could put the kibosh on that important business deal, says Lionel Laroche, who has been preparing professionals for their business trips overseas for the past 14 years.
The Globe spoke to Mr. Laroche, the president of MultiCultural Business Solutions Inc., a cross-cultural training and consulting firm based in Markham, Ont., to find out some of the do's and don'ts of doing business abroad.
Taiwan: Shark fin soup, anyone?
“People will serve you the equivalent of steak and lobster,” Mr. Laroche says. “But their idea of steak and lobster might be really different from yours. One surprise for North Americans might be abalone, a sea creature with a mild flavour and dense, rubbery texture. “I know one woman who said she took abalone in her mouth and the first thing she did was run to the washroom,” Mr. Laroche says. “That usually has a fairly negative impact on their business partner.” So be adventurous and swallow with a smile.
Jordan: Shut up? Clifford Shirley
Jordan: Just shut up
A Canadian businessman was negotiating a deal with colleagues in Jordan, when they heard the call for prayer from outside the window, Mr. Laroche recalls. The businessman blurted out: “Can this guy just shut up?” Big mistake. The call for prayer happen five times a day in many Muslim countries, and the visitor thought that a local man was just yelling on the street. “That does not go over well with your hosts, obviously, because for them this is something sacred,” Mr. Laroche says. “That will definitely be considered very offensive by the locals.”
France: Watch the cheese
France: Talking turkey with cheese
Sometimes there are certain courses in a meal designated for serious conversations. In France, Mr. Laroche says, “you might be chatting about life and the universe,” but then you’re suddenly hit with a serious question. Mr. Laroche has seen visitors to France be taken by surprise with the abrupt transition. What visitors don’t know is that the difficult questions come between cheese and dessert, he says. “It’s almost like when you see the cheese, you’ve got to brace yourself.”
China: Omens of death
China: Omens of death
If you come bearing a gift on your trip to China, it could send the message that you want the receiver to die. “There are things that can connect with death that [Canadians] wouldn’t expect,” Mr. Laroche says. So what are the taboos? For starters, don’t give people a set of four things. “The word for four sounds similar to the word for death,” Mr. Laroche says. Another terrible gift idea is a clock. The phrase “give a clock as a gift” has the same pronunciation as “make funeral arrangements for burial,” expressing your wish for the other person’s prompt death. “If I send a clock as a gift to my grandmother who is already 85 years old, she would surely be very mad at both me and the gift,” says Angela Chang, who was born in Taiwan. “I am 200 per cent sure that my grandmother would think that I wish her dead.”
Germany: Fork in your left, knife in your right Simone van den Berg
Germany: The fork faux pas
Globe reader Todd Farrell was stumped when he felt all eyes on him in the middle of dinner with a family in Germany. “I casually touched my face, thinking perhaps I had food stuck on it,” he said. He learned that the offensive gesture was using utensils in the North American manner (switching hands with the fork and knife when cutting food then eating it) rather than the European way of keeping the fork fixed in the left hand and the knife in the right). “I'll never forget the feeling of being somehow uncultured and boorish,” Mr. Farrell said.
Ethiopia: Right hands only Jupiter
Ethiopia: Keep right
Initially everything was going well during a shopping trip for Globe reader Frederick Edwards in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Then the merchant got really upset and I had no idea why," he said. "Luckily, his daughter spoke some English and told me to never use the left hand for transactions or business in the region."
Brazil: Don’t give locals “the finger” Igor Dutina
Brazil: Don’t give locals “the finger”
Don’t make the “okay” symbol with your hand, Mr. Laroche says. In Brazil this is an obscene gesture, especially when tilted horizontally. Mr. Laroche would only offer a sanitized translation, saying, “the real meaning is much worse and I can’t tell you what it is.”
Latin America: Don’t start talking about business right away
Latin America: Don’t rush
This is one of the biggest mistakes Canadians make, Mr. Laroche says. Locals will want to chat with you about life, the universe or world affairs. “The average Canadian wants to get right down to business because they didn’t come to Brazil to discuss the Greek crisis,” says Mr. Laroche, who warns against rushing into serious business discussions. “What they do is they shoot themselves in the foot.” If you cut out the small talk you might send the message that you’re a narrow-minded person with a limited scope, which has disastrous consequences for business.” And don’t bother bringing up sports because it's often a conversation topic associated with lower classes. Safer bets? World affairs. “That’s what the important people talk about,” Mr. Laroche says.
Japan: Business card basics
Japan: Business card basics
It’s all about how you present your business card, and how much you study the business cards you receive. “In Canada we typically look at the first name, say ‘Oh, Bill,’and that’s good enough,” Mr. Laroche says. Make sure you remember the person’s title, and definitely do not slide the card across the table. Use two hands when you give or receive a business card, he says.
Mexico: The meeting isn't over when you think it is
Mexico: I'm outta here
“There’s another thing I’ve seen Canadians do that irritates lots of people,” Mr. Laroche says. “A Canadian business person goes overseas and the meetings end on Friday and they take the first flight out. “That, for a Mexican, feels like a slap in the face,” he says. Stay an extra night or two, and you will be rewarded, he adds. “During that visit you will get information that you will not able to get any other way.”